By SUSAN JONES
Lu-in Wang has been in her job as vice provost of Faculty Affairs for about 10 months and has yet to meet most of her colleagues in the provost’s office in person, but that hasn’t stopped her from making connections.
Wang and John Wallace, vice provost for Faculty Diversity and Development, joined the provost’s office in July 2020 to fill the positions left when Laurie Kirsch stepped down last year. Both are working part-time on their provost-related duties. Wang also is a professor in the law school.
“But it’s kind of amazing how well we’ve been able to connect just meeting through Zoom,” she said. “The other vice provosts who have been in the office for a while were really great from day one, reaching out to us and helping us learn things.”
One of her top priorities in the coming year is getting the University-wide promotion and tenure committees, which were approved last year, up and running.
The University Times recently interviewed Wang about her first year in the provost’s office. The conversation has been edited for conciseness.
Why did you want to do this job?
I guess I hadn’t for a long time thought about myself as a university-level administrator, but I was in the administration in the law school for five years as associate dean for academic affairs. I really enjoyed that. I love being a faculty member, but it’s kind of solitary in a lot of ways, except when you’re teaching. Even planning for teaching, you’re pretty much doing it all yourself, and during the time when I was in the associate dean’s office, I just really liked working with a team and working on things that would make life better for other people in different ways.
I actually enjoy some of the operational challenges, which I think a lot of academics really shy away from. And I also am more extroverted, in some ways, than the typical faculty member, and so I just really liked talking to people and even working on difficult issues with people. I think that it was a combination of, I just thought it was really rewarding and enjoyable to do that in the school, and also, I think that there aren’t a lot of academics who want to do this kind of work. If I enjoy it and I think I have some of the skills that are needed, then this would be a good way to contribute.
What’s been the biggest surprise in moving into University-wide administration?
I don’t know if this is a surprise, but this is a new experience for me. The School of Law is very small, relative to the others. I knew intellectually that it would be different at the university level. I guess one aspect that has been surprising is just how very large and very diverse the units are. They are different in size, they’re different in structure, they’re different in culture. And, of course, the regional campuses are different from one another, and very different from the Pittsburgh campus. It’s just getting to know all the different perspectives and the different kinds of issues that can come up in those settings.
We know the numbers and the content differences and technical differences among the different schools and disciplines, but a lot of those translate into cultural differences, differences of perspective and priorities and so that has been a real education.
Other than the pandemic, what has been the biggest challenge this year?
It’s a little hard for me to separate the pandemic from what would ordinarily happen, so if it’s OK, I’ll combine them. I think that one of the big challenges is related to what I said before, getting to know people, and it’s been made really hard by the fact that people just aren’t really on campus so much. Some are, but most aren’t. And I think that if this were a normal year, I would have been to visit all the schools. And I would have been able to have one on one or small group discussions with faculty and faculty administrators. A combination of the physical situation and also the time that is being devoted to pandemic related issues, that is taking the place of what I think would, in an ideal world, be a time of learning about what people’s priorities are and just getting to know them.
How do you think the faculty are doing?
I think that it’s so different. Generally speaking, the faculty are under a lot of pressure and under a lot of stress. The other thing is I’ve realized everybody is — the students really are, the staff work incredibly hard and harder this year. There was a letter to the editor in the University Times a couple of weeks ago about job creep. I see that. My team is working so hard and working so much overtime. Everybody has really stepped up.
The faculty have really been heroic in the efforts that they’re making to support the students, to innovate with their teaching. I went through this myself and it was just a whole lot more work to support what I’ve taught for many, many years. It was a whole different experience this year, and I think a lot of our faculty are facing those challenges. For a lot of faculty, their research has just become impossible to do this year and there’s a lot of worry about that. But I think for other faculty, opportunities have been presented because COVID presents them with really pressing and new issues that they can research. I think the experience has been varied for faculty, but I would say that on the whole, people have faced really unprecedented challenges, and everybody’s been really great about sorting them out and stepping up.
Assuming we return to something sort of normal in the fall, what kind of goals are you looking at post pandemic?
One big priority that we are piloting this year — it is definitely a work in progress — is this University-wide promotion and tenure committee. Under Laurie Kirsch there was an ad hoc committee that recommended that and then it was approved by the Faculty Assembly, so this year is a pilot year. We’re just handling really the smallest set of cases, which are promotions from tenured associate to tenured full professor at the Pittsburgh campus, and we hope to learn a lot from that pilot experience. We’re going to ask the committee for input on the process moving forward, but starting next year we’re phasing in the implementation of that committee. I think is going to be one of the top priorities — figuring that out and doing that in an orderly way that’s very transparent and understandable to faculty and deans and department chairs.
Is that one committee or are there multiple committees?
It’s four subcommittees, and they will be phased in basically one subcommittee at a time. That’s a little bit of an oversimplification because there’s a regional campus subcommittee and a Pittsburgh campus subcommittee, and those are kind of running on parallel tracks but phasing in the types of cases. And then there is a Pittsburgh campus subcommittee totally focused on appointment-stream faculty, and then there’s a School of Medicine subcommittee that focuses on all of their cases. We’re sort of doing them in reverse order of complexity, because we hope to learn and revise each year.
Are there other priorities that you’re looking at in the coming year?
Another one that is really just getting underway — I’ve been asking for input from people — is how to develop University-wide expectations and guidelines for taking into account (for promotion and tenure) a couple of things — diversity and Inclusion-related service and community-engaged research and scholarship. This has been the year of engagement, so there’s been a lot of work done by Lina Distilio (associate vice chancellor for community engagement) and the chancellor’s office that I think will really inform the efforts moving forward.
One of the big issues this year, particularly with the pandemic, has been the use of OMETs in reviewing faculty performance. Have faculty been expressing concerns about that to you?
I am one of the liaisons to the Faculty Affairs Committee, and they’ve been having some really good discussions about that. The Provost’s Advisory Council on Instructional Excellence came out with recommendations that really call for OMETs to be de-emphasized and to have multiple methods used in evaluating teaching. It’s really the units that are responsible with their faculty governance processes, for coming up with their new assessment of teaching plans. The whole faculty team, and that includes faculty affairs and faculty diversity and development, are involved in helping to support that effort, but it’s really supposed to be happening at the school and campus level.
What other issues do you think you’re going to be confronting in the year ahead?
This is a new thing to me being at the central administration. A lot of the faculty affairs functions that faculty really feel happen in their schools and their campuses. What I really want to do is support the people who do those things, give them the resources they need, help to make the guidelines really clear and transparent to everybody. That’s a large part of what
I’ll be doing, and that all connects back of course to the things we’ve just been talking about with promotion and tenure and taking into account community-engaged research and service, and also the evaluation of teaching and the annual reviews
How has working in the provost office been? It must be challenging because you’re not there? Have you been able to sort of make connections with the other vice provosts?
John Wallace and Amanda Godley and I all started at the same time, and we’ve all pretty much never met anybody else in person except Amanda and I knew what each other before. But it’s kind of amazing how well we’ve been able to connect just meeting through Zoom. The other vice provosts who have been in the office for a while were really great from day one, reaching out to us and helping us learn things. We do have regular meetings with our own teams of course, but across the office, we meet regularly. It’s really been comfortable, and we can call upon one another with questions. We collaborate on a lot of different initiatives. I don’t know what it’s going to be like we are in the same place. I think this is a good sign that we’ll get along really well, but I guess you never know. I think it’ll be really great to actually be with people.
I’ve just been really impressed by everybody who works in our office, across the board and, in particular my team. John Wallace has been a great partner, we share the same goals, but I think we’re very complimentary. We’re very different people, but I’m very excited about our partnership.
Do you think there are some things from the pandemic that faculty might want to keep, like the option of maybe I’m having a bad day I’ll teach from home today?
I don’t know about that. I do think that from my own experience, being sort of required to be creative and nimble, and to try things that I would maybe not have thought about trying before, I think has really improved my teaching. I think that the students reacted well in the fall when I taught contracts to some of the things that I was doing to make the classroom kind of more flipped. And so, I personally will be carrying some of those things that I learned forward.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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