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July 8, 2010

One on One: Patricia Beeson


Pitt’s provost-elect will be the highest-ranking woman administrator in the University’s history

Patricia E. Beeson, vice provost for undergraduate and graduate studies, will become Pitt’s next provost and senior vice chancellor — and the highest-ranking woman in the University’s 223-year history — on Aug. 15, succeeding James V. Maher. Pitt’s Board of Trustees elected Beeson, 54, to the position at its June 25 meeting. (See related stories in this issue.)

This week, Beeson talked with staff writer Peter Hart about some of her expectations for her role as Pitt provost.

UNIVERSITY TIMES: Do you have an agenda or a set of priorities that you would like to accomplish as provost?

BEESON: My first and highest priority is going to be to continue to sustain the momentum that’s been established in the last 15 years. I want to continue to advance the University’s core academic mission in terms of providing outstanding academic programs at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels; continue to be leaders in research and scholarship, and to make our expertise available to the broader community.

For the undergraduate programs, what that means for us is to continue to develop undergraduate experiences that prepare students to be successful in life. We need to continue to build the strong academic programs that are the core of that education, that challenge our students and provide the foundation for a successful life. We need to continue to move to integrate the out-of-the-classroom experience with the in-the-classroom experience, so that the students leave the institution well-prepared for life. And we need to recruit to our campuses those students who are best able to take advantage of those programs we have.

We’re fortunate in that we have people and processes in place that will allow us to continue to make significant progress in this area.

I think the professional schools are a little different in their mission and focus. Their focus is on developing strong professional degree programs that will prepare students to be leaders in their chosen profession. Here the faculty have been very engaged in examining that curriculum, making certain that the course of study and the experiences that they’re offering are going to prepare the students for those leadership positions. And that’s the direction we have to continue to move.

Another goal is to see our faculty increasingly recognized through national awards, through grants and contracts, for their expertise and their research endeavors and scholarly activities. We need to do that by providing a strong infrastructure for the faculty to support them in their work. That means the labs, the facilities, the libraries, the computing, the Office of Research. It also means we need to continue to support the faculty in some key interdisciplinary initiatives, including international and global studies, the Humanities Center and our interdisciplinary efforts in the sciences and engineering, like nano-science and technology, energy, computational science.

There are many ways in which we support efforts to bring the expertise of the University to bear on issues for the broader community, including the Office of Technology Management and outreach efforts supported by individual programs and schools.

Finally, underlying our success in advancing each of these goals is a commitment to diversity. Through the efforts of many individuals across campus we have made steady progress toward creating an environment in which all students, faculty and staff can succeed. We have closed the achievement gap between minority and majority students and been successful in recruiting a more diverse faculty. But we need to do more: We continue to struggle to recruit and, even more, to retain an ethnically and racially diverse faculty. And we also need to look beyond the numbers and continue to find ways to use the diversity of backgrounds, cultures and ideas within our community to further enrich the academic experience.

What would you say are Pitt’s biggest academic strengths and weaknesses?

I think one of our greatest strengths, of course, is our faculty and our students and the strong staff we have in support of our academic effort.

Another incredible strength we have that’s developed over the last 15 years has been the way in which the whole University has become focused on our core academic mission. Without that focus and without having everyone recognizing that this is what we do and this is what we’re going to do well, we could not have made anywhere near the progress that we’ve made.

That together with a structured sense of planning, saying: “Here are our priorities, and we’re going to focus our energies on advancing those priorities.” That process is ongoing. Every year, the schools and campuses and units submit plans on how they’re going to advance goals. We think about those plans, we talk about how we can support them, moving in that direction and having them support our institutional goals.

How much will your recent administrative experience as a vice provost help in your adjustment to the provost position?

It clearly will be a benefit to have worked in the Provost’s office for the last six years. I’ve learned a lot about the institution, I’ve learned about the people, I understand the individual schools and campuses, I know what their goals are, their strategies. I’ve developed working relationships with the deans, the campus presidents, the directors of the administrative units. So, in that way, I’m very well positioned to start into the new position. Also, I’ve worked closely with the deans and the campus presidents in my role regarding undergraduate and graduate education, which touches all the units.

Within this office we’re very collaborative, so, for example, I know a lot about what happens on the research front from (Vice Provost for Research) George Klinzing; I know a lot of how we handle different things on the business side of the house from (Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Resources Management) Bob Pack. Dr. Pack has agreed to stay on until the end of the fall term to ease the transition. I really do feel like that’s a strong foundation from which to start.

That said, there’s an awful lot to learn. This is a very big job. It’s a very complex institution. Even knowing what I know, there’s a lot more that I know that I have to learn. In this regard, I’m fortunate that we have a group of deans and campus presidents who have been in place for some time.

Similarly, we have very strong directors of the key units, like the libraries, the Registrar, Admissions and Financial Aid, computing services. These deans and presidents and directors aren’t only good in these individual positions, they work very well together and that will be a great support moving forward.

There’s a lot to learn, but I think I’m up to the challenge.

Your taking the provost’s position leaves a vacuum in those duties you were performing as vice provost. Do you see yourself taking some of your current duties with you?

One of the things I have to move quickly on is to get more vice provosts in this office. I’ll be naming what we call screening committees, led by one or two of the vice provosts with membership of deans. We’ll be soliciting names and nominations, and we’ll take out ads in the University Times. These, likely, will be internal searches. I stress likely, because I can’t commit to that at this time.

In terms of what they’ll do, I’m working right now on trying to sort out the different job responsibilities, because, as I’ve mentioned, we work very collaboratively, although each of us has our own areas of responsibility.

During the transition, I will certainly be mentoring and coaching the new vice provost to understand the responsibilities in my current position, but I don’t plan to take any of those with me. I looked at Jim’s job, and there’s plenty to do as it is.

What is your style of leadership?

I have to say I’ve learned a tremendous amount working with Provost Maher about how to manage and lead a large complex institution like the University of Pittsburgh and its academic areas.

The first thing I’ve learned is that it’s important to keep everybody on the same page. The provost’s main job probably is to make sure that everyone understands the goals of the academic units, and to consistently reinforce those, because it’s easy for people to get caught up in the day-to-day. The most important role of the provost is really to bring everyone back to those core values, to the core mission.

The second thing I learned is that it is very important to identify a strong group of individuals who share your goals and the mission of the institution, to find people who are extraordinarily capable, put them in charge of specific areas and then let them do what they do best.

Another thing I’ve learned is you have to be willing to allocate scarce resources in support of those goals.

How will your background as a professor of economics serve you in your new position?

Perhaps not surprisingly, my background has shaped the ways in which I approach my administrative responsibilities. The problem we face as an institution is that we do not have the resources to do everything that we would like to do, and focusing on the academic mission helps us set priorities and guides our decisions. This is exactly the sort of problem economists study: We study how resources are allocated to competing uses. So having a structured approach to planning and budgeting is quite natural to me, as is using data to judge progress and success.

I have written several papers on the role of universities in local economic development. That research really helped me to appreciate the many ways in which the work we do at universities has a lasting impact on the broader community: through our educational programs; our research and scholarly activities, and the ways in which these activities are transferred to the broader community, through our students and things like tech transfer.

What do you see as the effect of the economy on the University?

Of course I’m concerned about the economic situation and how it impacts on the University. It impacts on us in many ways. The “funding cliff” is one of those. The federal government has provided the state with supplemental funding for education for the last fiscal year and the coming one, but it will run out after that. The question is what the states will do with their budgets for higher education once the supplemental funding from the federal government dries up. We obviously have planned for various scenarios, and I don’t want to go into any of those hypotheticals right now, but it’s clear we’re an institution that’s very well managed, we’re very efficient in our operations, we do not have a lot of “fat” in the budget. If the commonwealth cuts us, we will have to find the money somewhere and there are no easy alternatives. It will hurt our programs and our students.

The chancellor has been making a very strong case for funding Pitt, including our direct contribution to the workforce as a large employer. Our undergraduate programs have produced highly skilled and competent individuals, and our graduate and professional programs have graduated individuals who go on to be leaders in their professions and disciplines. In addition, our research contributes to the rate of innovation and technology transfer.

We certainly hope that future governors and legislators will recognize the value that the University brings to the commonwealth, including the importance of having nationally recognized academic programs available at a public institution, and also recognize that over the past decade we have seen significant cuts in the real value of the commonwealth allocation and that it is time for them to look elsewhere to balance the budget.

In addition to the funding cliff, there’s the impact of the economy on the families that send the students to this institution. They’re struggling as we are. So we can’t turn to them readily for tuition or fees to make up the difference.

So it’s a difficult situation that we face moving forward, and we have to be cautious. We always have been cautious, so it’s not a radical change in our approach. But we certainly do have to keep in mind that next year could be very different from this coming year.

We’ll continue to pursue voluntary support from friends of the institution in support of our mission, but we’re not going to radically change our core business as a way to bring in extra money.

In the past, faculty have expressed concerns about salary compression. Your thoughts?

The question of compression of salaries is one in which new assistant professors are coming in at relatively high salaries because of market pressures, bringing their salaries closer, or squeezing the gap, if you will, between assistant and full professors. That question is one that we have to watch very carefully, because we don’t want to recruit people here and then have them leave because we can’t maintain their salaries. People who have been dedicated to the institution for a long time and made notable contributions need to be recognized for that.

The whole question of salaries is something we’re very aware of. It’s very important if we’re going to continue to build our institution and continue to be one of the leading public research institutions that we be able to offer competitive salaries to our faculty.

Given the so-called “crisis in the humanities” in higher education,  what are your ideas for supporting and promoting the humanities departments and programs at Pitt?

I’ve certainly read a lot about the crisis in the humanities, in The Chronicle of Higher Education and in articles like David Brooks’s column.

I think part of the concern there, from those articles as well as conversations with individual faculty, is that students today tend to be more career-oriented and that that’s being reinforced bythe current recession. There’s a concern that this will lead them to forgo a liberal education, one that is rich in the humanities, in favor of an education in one of the professional schools.

I haven’t seen that here at Pitt. When I look at the bachelor’s degrees awarded, the share of them that are from the humanities departments has not changed in the last 10 years. I’d like to think the reason that hasn’t happened is that students understand the importance of things like strong writing skills, strong critical thinking skills, of all the value that you can develop from studying the humanities, of knowing and understanding history and art and literature and philosophy. They see that these skills prepare you not just for a career but for a rich and rewarding life.

Part of the reason that our students see that, maybe more than at some other institutions, is because we’ve got a very strong faculty in the humanities and one that’s dedicated to the study of the humanities, but also dedicated to helping students see the value of the humanities.

We continue to support the faculty in these endeavors. The new Humanities Center, for example, is certainly becoming more of a focal point for the research and scholarly interests of the humanities faculty, along with the Center for Philosophy of Science and the many interdisciplinary programs like women’s studies, film studies, Medieval and Renaissance studies and cultural studies.

In terms of the University’s service mission, what will you do as provost to strengthen academic programs that connect to social issues and problems in the city, the financial sector and other areas?

Certainly the life of the University of Pittsburgh is forever intertwined with the life of the City of Pittsburgh, just in the same ways that the life of each of our regional campuses is intertwined with the communities in which they live and work. I think the University of Pittsburgh has been an extraordinarily good citizen in each one of these communities. We have faculty and staff who are very engaged in the operation of the communities; we have students who donate incredible amounts of time, both through service-learning and through straight service to those communities.

Last year I requested information on outreach programs that work with K-12 schools. We identified over 200 individual programs, some big, some small, that involved our faculty, staff and students reaching out to assist K-12.

In terms of service-learning, it’s a way of integrating service into the teaching and research missions, and that’s a very valuable way of teaching and doing research in some of the professional areas, maybe less so in some of the other disciplines. It isn’t something for everybody.

But I think providing the expertise of our faculty to the broader community will always be part of our mission.

What effect does a provost have on the work of an individual faculty member?

The provost sets the tone, makes clear what our academic goals are and relays those to the faculty directly and to the deans and campus presidents. The provost also recognizes excellence in the faculty through awards. Also, the provost supports individual faculty, in the area of teaching through CIDDE; research, through the Office of Research, the Office of Technology Management, et cetera.

So there are lots of ways the provost affects the faculty, maybe not by meeting with individual faculty members but by setting an atmosphere that supports the faculty in achieving goals.

What is the role you see the regional campuses playing in the larger mission of the University and what directions do you see them going?

We’ve touched on their role as part of their respective communities. But they also play a very important role in helping the University achieve one of its other core missions, which is to provide high-quality educational programs to the citizens of Pennsylvania.

The regional campuses have been doing very well in recent years, despite the decline in the number of high school graduates in western Pennsylvania. The regionals collectively in the last decade have increased their overall enrollments by about 10-11 percent. Even more than that, their full-time enrollments have been increased almost twice as much as that.

Despite the demographic trends, the regional campuses have done very well by focusing on what they do best. They’ve been defining what their academic programs are, how those programs are going to help the students who come there be successful graduates of the institution, and they’ve been recruiting students who are looking for exactly what they’re offering. That has allowed them to succeed in a market where others are struggling.

Pitt has been in somewhat of an expanding mode in the past decade, with new residence halls and other construction. Can we sustain the current number of students?

We’ve been very cautious and careful in our planning of new buildings. If you go out and look nationally at what’s happened in the last 10 or 15 years at other institutions and how they’ve made long-term commitments, you’ll see how conservative we have been. We’ve only built new residence halls when we knew for sure we’d be able to fill them, not just the next year, but in the long term. And we’ve kept a conscious eye on the demographic trends.

That said, we’ve been dreaming that some day we’ll be able to offer a four-year guarantee of housing to freshmen when they come in. Every time we build a new residence hall we have that in mind. But every time it’s been filled up with students who are in on the three-year guarantee. Even if we don’t increase the size of our student population base, we have a ready market for housing on campus, a healthy waiting list for students who would like to live on campus.

It’s become an integral part of the undergraduate experience. What happens in your undergraduate days is not just what you do in the classroom, it’s the whole experience. We’ve worked very hard to make sure that the undergraduate experience is a rewarding one and that includes where they live and the activities they do as part of that residence.

I am comfortable with the size of the student body on this campus and on the regional campuses. On this campus, for example, we have fewer than 20,000 undergraduates, compared with almost twice that number at Penn State. Our relatively small size, research focus and urban location allows us to offer a distinctly unique undergraduate experience. I would not want to become so large that we could not continue to offer that experience.

Both as vice provost and as chair of the Provost’s Advisory Council on Women’s Concerns (PACWC), you’ve been an advocate for women in leadership and addressing issues of inclusion/exclusion, especially for women faculty. What are your continuing goals in that area?

We’ve made considerable progress in this area, certainly in the 27 years that I’ve been associated with the University. We’ve seen just in the last decade a real dramatic increase in the number of women in leadership positions, including distinguished professors, department chairs, deans, campus presidents, members of the Board of Trustees. I think my appointment is just a reflection of the progress we’ve been making in this area for some time.

I have found that almost without exception, the issues that have been brought to the table by PACWC and other groups are usually issues of concern to broad cross-sections of the institution, and the outcomes of our discussions of those issues have made us a stronger institution.

We need to continue to be watchful of issues of economic equity — the impact of salary compression mentioned earlier, for example — and also need to think hard about how we can support individual faculty to be successful in the tenure process and, beyond that, the promotion from associate professors to full professors.

Because of the high position you’ll be under the microscope. Do you feel pressure as a woman to succeed?

Let’s just say I feel a lot of pressure just as an individual taking on a very important role in an institution I care very much about.

Some universities use electronic communication more than Pitt has done traditionally. Your thoughts?

That’s a difficult question because one person’s valued communication is another person’s junk mail. We’re very concerned that we not reach the point where individual members of the University community stop reading important communications that we send to them. If we were to move forward in this direction, it would have to be cautiously. There’s a difficult balancing act. Even with the Audix system, as you know people were complaining that they were getting too many junk solicitations.

It will be interesting to see what people can come up with. It may be a better use of the [Pitt] portal, rather than email, so that people can opt into a community and look at the communications through that community. This is one of those things that’s so complicated that without specific proposals I can’t really comment.

How students are communicating and how they’re learning is changing with the increasing use of such recent innovations as social networks, texting, blackboard discussion groups and email. What do you see 10 years from now in terms of technology’s effects on the classroom environment?

If I were able to predict what’s going to happen with technology even five years from now, I’d be a genius. Technology is quite something, and it’s changing everything we do and how we do it.

We certainly try to make current technology available to our faculty in a timely manner. CIDDE and CSSD have both been very aggressive in not only identifying technologies on the cutting edge, but also in helping faculty understand how to use them effectively in their courses and working with students.

Something very interesting, though: Students don’t really like it when the faculty or the University invades their social space — or they don’t always like it. I think again we have to be cautious there.

We certainly don’t want to throw out our successful, traditional methods of relating to students and helping them learn, and we don’t want to jump into some areas where we may not be wanted and may not be received well.

There seem to be more distance learning opportunities and online courses recently. Is that a trend you want to foster?

We’ve worked very hard to develop a residential full undergraduate experience here on this campus and on the regional campuses. That involves a fair amount of face-to-face interaction between the faculty and the student. So I don’t really see a lot of distance education in the future for our undergraduates.

However, we have been expanding our online offerings in terms of professional programs. There are a number of professional programs aimed at working adults who have a difficult time making it to campus to take courses and who can benefit quite a bit from a strong online program. That’s what we’ve been developing and we’re having some success in that area now.

Another area is using the regionals in distance learning, and we do do that. We are continuing to think about ways in which we can use those campuses and have our professional programs reach out beyond the commuting distance of this campus. Social work has a master’s program up on Bradford’s campus, and the nursing school is increasing its relationship with the regional campuses.

I think for more of the online professional programs in areas like education and some of the other professional schools, we have been talking about how we can best use the facilities of the regional campuses.

Sometimes the best online programs are the ones where the cohorts get together physically and meet periodically during the term. Our regional campuses potentially offer a venue for that gathering.

At some point in the future what do you hope people will say was the mark of Patricia Beeson’s time as provost?

When I step down as provost I’d like people to say, “Wow, I thought when Jim Maher retired there was no way we could continue to achieve such greatness, that we had achieved most of what we could do and just maintaining it would be the challenge.”

Then I’d like people to look back and say, “Boy, was I wrong. We really came equally far under Patty Beeson as provost.”

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