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January 23, 2014

UCIS job: Too much for 1 person?

The tone was set early on at the open forum before the provost’s search committee to find the next head of international studies, when veteran University Center for International Studies (UCIS) faculty member Jonathan Harris stood first to suggest the committee re-think the job description.

Harris and others expressed surprise and disappointment that the committee was searching for one person to be both the senior director of international programs and director of UCIS, even though UCIS head Lawrence Feick, who is resigning his post as of Aug. 1, holds both titles currently.

Harris, a faculty member in political science who recalled attending the first University meeting to create UCIS in 1968, said his time combining administrative and academic roles as the former director of Russian and East European studies “drove me slightly bats. The position is very hard. I’m very nervous about combining in one person a vision/conceptual person with the head of UCIS … You’ve got to reconsider the concept of one person doing both those jobs.”

Several faculty members also expressed the fear that whoever was hired would have too much responsibility without enough power to turn UCIS in new directions or to hire desirable faculty.

Chair of the search committee Alberta Sbragia, vice provost for graduate studies, assured the audience of 30 that “this is a very important position as the international dimension is a very important thrust for the provost.” Provost Patricia E. Beeson wants “the further internationalization of the University with a significant degree of emphasis on creating collaborations across the University,” Sbragia added, “along with managing and directing the University Center for International Studies.” The committee thus would be looking for both a visionary and someone who could handle the daily administration of UCIS, which works with other Pitt units’ own international programs.

However, Sbragia added, the funding picture for university centers over the next five-eight years “is unclear.” She hoped the forum would pinpoint “what we should be looking for, what we should be emphasizing and what should make us nervous,” adding later: “Some people would call it uncertainty. I would call it excitement.

Because of these uncertainties, she concluded, the provost may consider candidates whose current jobs are not in academia, such as a former professor who now works for the World Bank.

James Cook, associate director of UCIS’s Asian Studies Center, countered that “someone who has a background in international education would be necessary to fill the visionary aspect of this position,” due to UCIS’s extensive work with other Pitt schools.

Dan Balderston, chair of the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literatures, pressed “for the person to have a high degree of international experience him- or herself and fluency in a variety of languages. This may seem obvious but it is possible … for people to rise to leadership … without having spent a lot of time in another context, in another linguistic environment.” Nor should the new UCIS head favor one particular region, he said. “It is extremely important in the long run to have someone who has a long professional commitment to this kind of work … and a network of contacts around the world, so they can come into the job already thinking globally.”

Yet he suggested that the committee hire from outside the University because, politically, it is “too much of a hothouse here.”

Added Harris later: “I think the committee has got to go back to the provost” and ask for an adjustment in the job description. “We know administrative detail has a way of sucking the wind out of everything we do. I think the provost is flexible enough” to rethink the duties for this post, he said.

Committee member Nancy Condee, Slavic department faculty member and director of the Global Studies Center, allowed that perhaps the University might benefit from having someone else perform the purely administrative functions of aiding with school programs’ travel plans, such as securing visas. But, she said later: “We also entertain the idea, because it is comforting, that if X person had unadulterated, raw power, Y could get done.” But the UCIS head works best when he or she gathers people across campus to “orchestrate self-interest,” she maintained, so the committee would be “looking for somebody who has that skill set.”

John Keeler, dean of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) and another of the seven committee members in attendance, noted that “people are sounding very pessimistic” about the dual role. He acknowledged that, together, both jobs are difficult, but said, “I don’t think there is any structural change we can come up with that will make it less difficult.”

He pointed out that even assistant professors are hired to be scholars and instructors yet simultaneously contribute to running their departments. “We find people and many of them are pretty skillful in those areas,” Keeler said.

“We had our charge meeting with the provost,” he added. “The provost’s decision is that we’re going forward with this structure that pretty much characterizes what Larry did.”

“The position is what it is, in the sense that those are all the titles,” concluded Sbragia.


Forum attendees also had many other suggestions for talents they would like to see in the next head of UCIS. Committee member Joanne Russell, director of the Center for Global Health and assistant dean of global health programs at the Graduate School of Public Health, said whoever holds the new post should coordinate “how the provost area schools and the health science schools might be able to collaborate.” Drew Armstrong, director of architectural studies in the history of art and architecture department, believed “there is a huge potential for UCIS and arts and humanities programs to work together to develop unique aspects of Pitt’s strengths.”

Macrina Lelei, interim director of UCIS’s African studies program and faculty member in the School of Education, hoped whoever was chosen would right what she saw as an imbalance at UCIS that has favored other regional centers over African studies. UCIS’s assistant director of outreach, Veronica Dristas, wants the new hire to make sure UCIS is “a pipeline for our K-16 [students] in our region … to strengthen Pennsylvania and western Pennsylvania in particular.”

Added political science faculty member Michael Goodhart: “The real question confronting international studies [is] what are we going to do if Title VI goes away?”

Title VI of the federal Higher Education Act of 1968 funds many types of centers and fellowships focused on international education, including four at UCIS. It was first instituted during the Cold War as the National Defense Education Act of 1958, when the need for a new crop of experts in international relations was recognized.

If funding changes or falls away, Goodhart said, the new head of UCIS may lose direction. Will regional centers be kept? he asked. Will UCIS reorganize faculty and strategically reposition itself to stay ahead of the trends?

Having worked closely with Feick, GSPIA Dean Keeler said, he knew that “the [responsibility] of the position is just vast, it’s limitless, it’s global.” However, “the budget is not limitless, the power is not limitless. We’ve got to look at candidates who have a human touch, who put people together carefully.”


Sbragia assured forum attendees that the committee would be looking both internally and externally for candidates, employing John K. Thornburgh of Pittsburgh-based search firm  Witt/Kiefer.

Thornburgh said his firm specialized in higher education searches and had experience working for Pitt, having brought in law school Dean William M. “Chip” Carter Jr. as a candidate during that recent search.

Following the forum, the committee will finalize its profile of their most desirable candidate qualities, said Sbragia — ideally very quickly, she added.

Then, Thornburgh said, “We’ll be very aggressively reaching out nationally to some of the people who fit the attributes you’ve heard about this morning.” He encouraged those in attendance to submit candidate names. “A lot of our high-potential prospects come from people who know you and know the discipline you’re working in.”

He and Sbragia also both called the timeframe for hiring the new UCIS head “aggressive.”

—Marty Levine