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Student Success

A Conversation with the UNC System’s Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

How does the academic affairs work at the System Office differ from what happens on the curriculum committees and at academic affairs offices at the 17 constituent institutions?

We operate from a much bigger, System-wide picture. Take curricular change, for example. Our role is to look at the broad view to ensure that there’s not unnecessary duplication across the System and that proposed programs are responding to student and market demand.

In general, we tackle the larger projects that involve all the institutions. For example, the credit for military experience project we are currently working on would ensure that all military personnel and veterans receive uniform credit for their military training and experiences. Such a policy requires consistency across all 16 of our universities, so naturally this needs to be ironed out at the System level.

The System Office seems to keep itself busy hosting conferences throughout the year. What’s the focus of these convenings?

Academic Affairs hosts three very important conferences here: the Student Success Conference, the Behavioral Health Conference, and the TIDE [Technological Innovation in Digital Education] Conference. All are designed to promote best practice and offer a space for the exchange of ideas, new innovations, and ways of dealing with different issues.

The Student Success Conference, for example, features presentations on course design, advising, new technologies, and different ways to intervene from a financial perspective … all of the things that can help our students stay on track toward graduation. We typically try to involve presenters from all of our institutions and to feature outside speakers as well.

The Behavioral Health Convening also gathers together representatives from all our institutions to focus on the health of our students. It’s an exciting event, which illustrates how our work touches on every aspect of student life both in and outside the classroom.

The TIDE Conference helps us brainstorm what our classrooms will look like in the future as digital learning technologies expand how, where, and what we teach.

All of our conferences are externally funded, either through grants, corporate donations, or modest participant fees.

Academic Affairs co-hosts the Student Success Conference with the Strategy and Policy division. How does this collaboration illuminate the ways in which the two divisions complement one another in terms of their work for the UNC System?

Much of our work overlaps in important ways. For example, the Student Success Innovation Lab is an umbrella organization that the divisions of Academic Affairs and Strategy and Policy collaborate on. We want to create this space where we can launch new initiatives, host convenings, and provide support, training, and development to faculty – all the things that work toward improving student success.

Helping our students means tackling challenges from many different angles. So, when we collaborate, the folks from Strategy and Policy are mostly concerned with looking at current policy, be it academic, financial, or capital projects. They research its effectiveness and make recommendations to the Board of Governors about policies that should be changed or added. Academic Affairs focuses more specifically on investigating ways to support students and faculty.

But we work extremely closely. There’s hardly a project that doesn’t involve some collaboration between Academic Affairs and Strategy and Policy.

What is one experience you’d like to see every UNC System student carry out before they graduate?

I really think each student should have an external or engaged experience, working in a community outside one’s comfort zone. My first choice would be study abroad. But there are lots of other ways you can replicate that experience. Basically, anything that gets students engaged with “difference,” whether that’s cultural difference or socio-economic difference, and which calls upon students to utilize all the skills they’ve developed at the University.

Sometimes there’s a disconnect between the skills they are developing and how students are taught to apply them. Engaged learning experiences provide opportunities to help student learn how to use what they’ve learned—they can be a “magic moment” when everything comes together.

Do you have a top priority as senior vice president of Academic Affairs?

The late David Belcher, Western Carolina University’s much-beloved chancellor, often said, “We’re in the business of changing lives.” And I think that is the essence of the higher education enterprise. Everybody involved—from the groundskeeper, to the food service provider, to the advisor to the faculty, to the president of the System—we are all in this business.

And so, my mantra is to keep that in mind. We are in a business that the people in North Carolina have entrusted to us, and we need to take it very, very seriously.

Your area of research specialization is French literature. What is the one French novel you think every UNC System student should read before graduation?

On one level, it doesn’t matter. Just read something in a foreign language. It forces you to engage with meaning through a veil or a distance that you have to bridge. It forces you to develop highly acute critical thinking skills and communication skills as you try to understand, convey, and analyze meaning.

On another level, I’ll just mention an old favorite: The Stranger by Albert Camus. It’s an exploration of what it means to be a stranger to others and to one’s self. This is a topic that needs a lot of thought these days.

Pets seem to be a favorite topic of conversation around the System Office water cooler. Interim President Roper talked about his dog, Buddy, when he sat down to chat with the communications team. Do you have any four legged assistants on hand to provide counsel?

I actually have fourteen of them. They all contribute in different ways, and each is attuned to a different part of my psyche.

I have chickens, cats, a dog, and four goats.

Oh, so you have some help chewing through the paperwork then?

(laughs) Yes