Provost Talks New Admins, Grad Union

Courtesy of Northwestern University

Provost and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs Dwight McBride said he hopes to remedy Laney graduate students’ concerns without unionization and discussed new administrative roles within the Provost’s office in his first interview with the Wheel.

“I don’t think unions, for graduate students and at universities in general, are a good thing,” McBride said. “I think that there are other ways of remedying concerns. If we have … adequate lines of communication, I don’t think an outside third party that doesn’t understand higher education is what I would want involved in making decisions about doctoral education.”

As graduate school dean and associate provost for graduate education at Northwestern University (Ill.), McBride dealt with graduate students who wanted to unionize and said that he plans to approach Emory students’ push for unionization with an open ear. Northwestern’s graduate students have not unionized as of Sept. 26.

“I will certainly sit down here and want to hear from the students what their concerns are and want to make sure if there are ways that we can address those concerns,” McBride said. His office is currently trying to set up a meeting with graduate school unionization advocates.

McBride’s appointment was announced May 3 in a University press release. McBride succeeds Stuart Zola, who was appointed interim provost when former Provost Claire E. Sterk became University president in September 2016.

The Office of the Provost plans to make two new hires for the positions of vice provost for faculty affairs and vice provost for undergraduate education. The positions will be held by tenured faculty members at Emory. The search for the vice provost for undergraduate education has already begun, and McBride said he hopes to announce the selected candidate by January 2018. The search for a vice provost for faculty affairs will begin after the finalists for the vice provost for undergraduate education have been selected. The vice provosts will work half time in the Office of the Provost and continue to research and teach. The two new positions will replace the senior vice provost of academic affairs spot, which is currently occupied by J. Lynn Zimmerman.

The provost also hopes to use his office to bolster the faculty hiring process to attract more people who are underrepresented in their field, such as minorities or women who study the sciences. McBride is considering “a kind of faculty diversity program that would have resources attached to it to really encourage cluster hires, for example, which are one mechanism that people use to bring underrepresented minority faculty to an institution.”

To ensure faculty retention, McBride said he plans to institute direct outreach from his office to underrepresented faculty members or groups who could feel marginalized. He hopes to “meet with them in small settings” and discuss their work and any challenges they may be facing “so that [Emory] can be responsive before [a faculty member receives] an outside offer and is being poached away.”

One of the roles of the provost is to oversee Emory’s nine divisional schools. If he could accomplish one goal in his tenure, McBride said he hopes to make Emory’s various divisions more unified, “as opposed to being a loose federation of schools.” That would include more cross-divisional programming or making it easier for students who are, for example, studying in the Goizueta Business School but want to minor in a subject in the College.

In regard to national politics, McBride said he is proud that Emory is sticking to its core values by supporting undocumented scholars as they pursue their studies. That includes the University’s repeated commitments to helping its undocumented students following U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Sept. 5 announcement that Trump’s administration will “rescind” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provided a temporary immigration benefit to people who were brought to the United States illegally as minors.

“Whoever’s in Washington or in office is irrelevant to me on [the DACA] issue,” McBride said. “No one should dictate to a university who they will admit, who they will support.”

McBride added that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ recent announcements on the roll back of Obama-era Title IX guidelines will not impact the University’s efforts in protecting its students from harm.

The provost’s job also includes developing University policy and academic priorities, managing the promotion and tenure process and chairing the Ways and Means Committee, according to the Provost Office’s website.

McBride earned his bachelor’s degree in English and African American Studies from Princeton University (N.J.). He then went on to earn his master’s and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Read the Wheel’s on-record interview with the provost below. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

The Emory Wheel: How have you been settling in to Emory?

Dwight McBride: The settling-in process for a job of this magnitude is a big one and a long one. I visited campus several times [over the summer]. During those visits, in addition to house hunting, I also set up meetings with all of the direct reports to the Provost Office, many of the indirect reports to Provost Office [and] the leadership of the University’s Faculty Council.

Learning the uniqueness of this place is really job one for me right now. I have had a chance to meet with tons of folks — both in large groups, small groups — and we’ll be doing a lot more of that over the course this first semester, especially. I had my first meeting with the Faculty Council last week, and I’ll meet with the University Senate next week. Then you add to that trustees that you have to get to know and the head of all the trustee committees, the leadership of the board, lunch coming up with the soon to be new chair of the board. It’s a lot to get your arms around.

I’ve had a chance to visit, in addition to visiting different programs here on the Clifton campus, I’ve also been to the Oxford campus twice. I hope to return there again to be able to visit more because that was in this summer, and so I saw a sampling of the faculty, but I hope to be able to go back and do an event there where I can meet more of the faculty and students there, too.

EW: Have you been meeting with students also?

DM: Not a lot yet. That’s in part because you guys have been away during the transition time. But that is really starting. There’s a meeting coming up with the leadership of SGA and also with [GSGA]. In fact, we’re planning a meeting soon with some graduate students at Laney in particular to really hear some of the concerns the students have around unionization, which is a topic of course that’s of interest to me as well. If there’s concerns that students have, I want to know what those are and want to figure out ways that we might be working to address them, if we aren’t already. And I’m going to working with [Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Ajay] Nair to figure out what makes sense in terms of what are the groups and the forms that are already in existence, and I can visit, come talk with, as a way of engaging students as well. So I’m going to let him be my guide on that, because he knows everything here better than I do at this point.

EW: What are your thoughts on the push for unionization by some graduate students at Emory?

DM: I don’t really know a whole lot about it here yet. We were working with similar issues when I was at Northwestern. I haven’t really had the chance to sit and meet with students yet. But that’s something I know that the Laney Graduate School is trying to set up for us, which I look forward to. In the same way as we did at Northwestern, I will certainly sit down here and want to hear from the students what their concerns are, and want to make sure if there are ways that we can address those concerns.

EW: Would you want unionization or would you want to remedy their concerns without unionization?

DM: I don’t think unions, for graduate students and at universities in general, are a good thing. That’s my own position. And I think that there are other ways of remedying concerns. If we have good lines and adequate lines of communication, I don’t think an outside third party that doesn’t understand higher education is what I would want involved in making decisions about doctoral education. I think that’s something that should be between the institution and the faculty and students who are involved in that enterprise, and who know that enterprise, and who know it well.

EW: If you could accomplish one thing in your tenure, what would it be?

DM: I hope that I will accomplish more than one in my tenure, but the big idea for me and this really started to come up quite strongly about Emory during the interview process and during my transition meetings, and I’ve continued to hear, even as recently as the day before yesterday when I met with the [University] Faculty Council. Everyone at Emory loves this place, but everyone also talks about how siloed and decentralized Emory can feel. And if there’s one thing I want to make sure we are being thoughtful about is to be sure that we’re making decisions at every turn that help us to be more aligned, more collaborative and more engaged with the idea of the university that is Emory, as opposed to being a loose federation of schools. And for me, that affects everything. It affects the student experience, one of the reasons we’re working so hard right now on the undergraduate experience initiative is to really figure out how you create a more holistic and seamless experience at Emory for undergraduates. When you come in here it shouldn’t matter whether you want out of studying something at Goizueta, if you want to do a minor at another school. All of that from your perspective ought to be seamless, because it’s all Emory. And any of the barriers that get in the way, and I understand there are quite a few of them. Those are kinds of things we want to get out of the way. Some of it is a matter of just systems. There’s a system in this school that’s different than a system in this school, and the systems don’t talk to each other, so it creates a lot of extra work and bureaucratic nonsense really for the students. That’s something I don’t want our students spending their time on. I want our students to be here exploring their intellectual bliss in what is an extraordinarily important time in their lives of growth and development.

Also creating an experience on campus where people feel that they find places to belong [is] really important. Whether you’re an international student, whether you are coming from a diverse racial background, whatever background you’re coming from, it’s important to me that this be a place of inclusion. A place where you feel supported and can find the kind of community that makes it possible for you to do the work that you came here to do, the very important work that you came here to do. Whether we are talking about students, whether we’re talking about faculty, we want to get rid of the barriers that get in the way of them, collaborating on research projects across schools. I want to see more collaboration; I want to enable more collaboration between folks in the health sciences and the basic sciences and the College. We need to get rid of the barriers that are in place that make it difficult for folks in the medical school who want to teach undergraduates. Right now it’s really hard to make that happen. And that seems to me, smart people of good will, who know this is the right thing to do, we can figure that out. So sometimes it’s a matter of, as the old expression goes, the tail wagging the dog because we have a budgeting system that really, almost encourages each of the units to think about their own selves as silos. We’ve got to be way more creative about how we approach some of these opportunities to really create better collaboration across units.

EW: What are your thoughts on Emory’s actions to protect undocumented students?

DM: I am very proud of what I understand to be the work Emory has done to support undocumented students. I am also very proud of the recent statements that [University] President [Claire E.] Sterk has made in terms of recommitting the institution to that support. I am also very proud of the statements that [Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences] Michael Elliott has made in the College, and I have tweeted about this as well and on Facebook. As an institution of learning, this is a place that is committed to sourcing talent [from] all over the world and to making it possible for people who have the talent to be here and do work that those people have access to this place, that they’re support financially but also in all of the other ways that are really important to make sure that people can be here and fully participate as members in this community.

EW: Is Emory taking a political stance when it says it will support undocumented students?

DM: I don’t think it’s political. I think that goes to the very core values of what an academic institution has to do and should be. Whoever’s in Washington or in office is irrelevant to me on this issue. We have to live our own values when it comes to that. And as an institution, no one should dictate to a university who they will admit, who they will support.

EW: What is the role of universities in politics?

DM: When politics comes up against [our] values, a university is bound to defend its values. But I don’t think a university is a place that ought to be involved in trying to take a stance on every political issue. But I do think we’re a place that ought to quite liberally allow for the civil engagement of young people, of faculty, of our community on issues that are of importance of the day. That is a free speech issue that I think is really important. I think facilitating opportunities for folks to have those meaningful conversations is important, and, as an outsider before I came in, Emory seems to do that well as a community. I hope that’s something that we’ll continue to do.

EW: How is Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ recent statements announcing a roll back on Obama-era Title IX policies going to affect Emory?

DM: We are bound to make sure that all members of our community are included and that they are protected. I don’t think that the statements that Secretary DeVos has made or any rollback of guidelines that might ensue from [the U.S. Department of Education] will have an impact on the work that Emory is committed to doing around Title IX and the prevention of sexual assault. The secretary is free to say what she’d like, but I don’t think for Emory that will affect how we do our work in terms of protecting members of our community.

EW: How are you going to attract talented, underrepresented faculty members and students?

DM: There’s proactive steps that we can and will take to ensure that we are both recruiting and retaining our very strong, diverse faculty, our underrepresented minority faculty. Some of the things that we’ll be rolling out this year will be that there will be direct outreach from the Provost Office.

EW: Has that not happened before?

DM: I don’t think so, at least not to the extent that we plan to do so. There will be direct outreach from this office to underrepresented faculty members in small groups where I will have a chance to meet with them in small settings and talk with them about not only their work but any challenges that they may be having here and to get ahead of some of the things that sometimes will frustrate a faculty member about the institution so that we can be responsive before someone has an outside offer and is being poached away. We have to be thoughtful in an ongoing way and making sure that at least on an annual basis that someone from my office — in many cases, me — is meeting with members of underrepresented groups or faculty. We also want to encourage the deans to be involved in making sure that we’re partnering in that very important outreach to this very important sector in our faculty.

Same with women in science — that’s an area we want to encourage more of our undergraduates and our graduate students who are women to pursue careers in science and to study the sciences. And it’s important to do that, to also have mentors and models that demonstrate and show that possibility. There’s a group called WISE (Women in Science at Emory). I couldn’t go to their first meeting this year, but I offered to host their next meeting as an opportunity for me to get to know some of their faculty, women who are working in the sciences, and ways that we can support their work.

The deans are more in charge of recruitment. We’ve supported that work. I think we can do more in terms of organizing that support in a more programmatic way as opposed to a more ad hoc way, so we’re actually thinking really hard right now about that — what a program would look like, a kind of faculty diversity program that would have resources attached to it to really encourage cluster hires, for example, which are one mechanism that people use to bring underrepresented minority faculty to an institution. Part of the challenge is that, in many cases, you’re often the only person in a program or a department. And so a cluster hire let’s you get out of that trap. So if we’re hiring not just one person but two or three people in an area that’s critically important to the institution, it’s a win for everybody. So we’re getting great strengths in an area that’s strategically important to Emory, and we’re also diversifying our faculty in those areas, too.

We’re doing actually quite well in [attracting underrepresented minority students], so what I’m trying to understand currently is, what are the things that we’re doing right now that are resulting in some of our success? How do we continue to do that, and how do we build on that?

It’s not that we have a huge retention problem, but for an institution of Emory’s caliber, we should be losing fewer of our undergraduate students [who are] transferring out or people dropping out. And that is something that’s been going on with the undergraduate experience initiative.

We’ve learned a lot listening to students’ surveys. I know students may get tired of them, but it’s really important for students to get the surveys because that data really does inform the kinds of decisions that people like me make about where we put our resources. So we listen a lot to what students tell us about their dissatisfaction, what are the things that are causing folks to want to or to consider leaving Emory. We’ve also done some focus groups. We’ll be doing more of those with students, because this is something I’m committed to: making sure that that retention number goes down and making sure that we continue to compete quite strongly for the very best students and, particularly, for the very best diverse students as well. And some of that is going to take thinking differently about the way we support students financially, especially students in the broad middle class. We have some real work to do there, too.

EW: Can you discuss the new positions your office is creating?

DM: The announcement, the call for nominations or applications, [for the vice provost of undergraduate education] went out to all of the faculty, and so any faculty member can nominate colleagues. It’s an internal search. They can come from any of the schools — probably will come from one of the undergraduate schools. Once we start to get applications, there will be a small group at the Provost’s Office who will screen the first round of applicants. And then once we get down to two or three finalists, each of them will have an interview process, and a part of that process will be to meet with the deans. They will certainly meet with faculty members who have been specifically involved in the undergraduate experience initiative. And we will look for some kind of opportunity for them to also engage with some representatives, some student government, student groups. So after that, I’ll take that feedback and we’ll make a decision about who we move forward with.

These positions typically have been appointed, and there hasn’t been a kind of search for them. But I think for me, one, I don’t yet know the faculty very well, so I wanted an opportunity to see what talent is out there, see what interests there are, and even people who may not be chosen for this position, it’ll be good to know people who are interested in undergraduate education [experience] because those folks can become really important partners in some of the work that lies ahead for us, too. And then the faculty affairs one, we’re probably going to wait until we have identified the finalists [for the vice provost of undergraduate education] before we announce this search. I’m hoping that we might be able to get someone in place [for the vice provost of undergraduate education position] even as early as Jan. 1. That way that individual can spend that next semester transitioning with Lynn Zimmerman, who is currently the senior vice provost for academic affairs. That role will go away at the end of the year and is really being replaced by the two new vice provosts, both of whom will be from the faculty and will be half time in the Office of the Provost. They’ll continue their research and teaching outside of that in their departments and programs.

EW: Are you continuing your research?

DM: It’s really hard. I’m trying to. I have a research associate who I brought with me to Emory. My home department is the Department of African American Studies, so he helps me run a journal that we co-founded four years ago now, the “James Baldwin Review.” In addition, I finished a book manuscript just before I came to Emory on Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to ever publish a book. I knew that once I got here I probably wasn’t going to have very much time in the next year to think about writing and research. I’m glad now that that book is out of my hands. It’s with the editors. Hopefully a year from now that book will actually come out, and we’ll certainly do an event here on campus. I’d love to do a reading and share some of my work, too, in the spirit of being a good colleague.

Alex Klugerman contributed reporting. Christina Jordan and Seungeun Cho helped transcribe the interview.

UPDATE (10/12/17 at 4:24 p.m.): The article was updated with the transcript.

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