Q & A with Provost Peter Stearns

Posted: October 23, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Editor’s note: This weekly question-and-answer column with George Mason administrators appears every Thursday in the Daily Gazette.

By Fran Rensbarger

For those not sure of what your role is at the university, can you tell me the purpose of the Provost’s Office?

The functions revolve mainly around maintaining and enhancing the standards of academic operation in the university, both in teaching and research, and also in academically relevant aspects of service and outreach.

Peter Stearns
Peter Stearns

I think of my main duties as falling in three categories: overseeing the process of hiring and evaluating and promoting faculty; overseeing decisions about the academic side of the budget and making choices from among possible allocations; and overseeing the deans and directors in terms of the operations of the major academic units. We are also looking for the issues and opportunities that involve more than one unit, so we don’t miss something because of the particular way we’re organized. For example, we have many units that are interested in international endeavors, but we don’t have an international unit, so any time we do anything internationally, it involves some effort to negotiate among units.

What are the most important issues your office is facing today?

The principal issues are decisions about possible new programs. Mostly we react to initiatives from faculty and administrators, but sometimes we think of programs that we want to encourage. We try to help recruit and retain talented faculty at all levels; we are dealing with the obvious budget constraints while trying to maintain academic quality and a sense of excitement; and we are participating in decisions about the appropriate size of the institution.

How are you addressing these issues?

The most important development is mainly on the new programs end, but it has some relationship to faculty and budget. We’ve had a major flowering of new programs over the past three years, which, to some extent, runs counter to our budget situation.

It can mean we’re stretching ourselves thin, but it can also mean that we’re finding a way to maintain a sense of dynamism, and in some cases, to develop new sources of funding. Within that category, the most striking change over the past four years, and it builds on efforts of all sorts of people over many different units, is growth in our strength in sciences and computational science. But I think we also have to acknowledge a major expansion in arts, and significant development on the international front.

Has the growth despite tight budgets had an affect on academic integrity?

We have not been able to control class size as well as we would have if the budget situation was better. I do think we’ve made the faculty not only more aware of academic integrity issues but also given them some sense of what can be done to minimize problems. The number of cases has gone up, but it’s not clear whether that’s partly greater awareness, or just an increase in problems, and you’d expect some of those because our student population is growing so much. We can’t say, ‘Boy, have we made major inroads on this,’ but it’s fair to say we’re not feeling overwhelmed by trouble.

What improvements would you like to make, and how will you address them?

Most of the trends that are within our power I think are pretty favorable. Our research is growing, it’s gaining increasing visibility, and not only the number but the quality of students is improving, so let’s keep working in those directions.

But I think we are clearly deficient in two areas–these are frankly mostly budget issues–that directly affect the quality of our operations on the academic side. One is the amount of funding we have for graduate students, and two is the sheer ratio of full-time faculty to students. If we can get better control of our budget, I would like to see us gradually address both of those issues. Another area where I would love to see us improve–again reduced, perhaps, too much to budget–is that we are a university of opportunity for many students who are the first in their family to go to college. We need to work awfully hard to maintain that in the current budget climate, which means prudent tuition decisions, but also lots of efforts on the scholarship side.

Also, we barely held our own over the last couple of years in the diversity of our faculty. I’m hopeful that we’ve done a few things that have begun to show up in modest gains, but this surely is an area where we need to figure out how to do better. And that’s partly a budget problem, but partly just plain commitment from my office and all down the line.

What are some of your plans for the future for the Provost’s Office?

For the office itself, I don’t have clear plans so much as some questions. We certainly wonder if we need to add some staffing on the research side. Also, we don’t have a graduate dean. I have no desire to set up a graduate school, which we used to have, but we do wonder whether we might benefit from a designated official to oversee the graduate side of the operation. And we have generated a whole batch of international programs that I’m very excited about, but as we see how these develop over the next couple of years, we probably need to rationalize them a little bit–make it clear who reports to whom, or how these various initiatives relate. I’m very happy to have a bit of messiness right now, but over time we want to make sure it sorts out properly.

What is the status of George Mason’s proposed campus in Dubai? What are some of the advantages of having a presence in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)?

We recently had a Board of Visitors (BOV) committee meeting that blessed the project. I must give great credit to Yehuda Lukacs, who has spearheaded this. We’re currently in negotiations both with a potential business partner and a government unit in the UAE, and we are pressing these negotiations forward. We don’t have an agreement, and we may not get one, but we’ll sure try. It’s a very, very interesting project. I think it’s fair to say, now with the BOV approving the effort–although they haven’t signed off on the deal, because we don’t have a deal–I think we’d really like to move forward. It would be an exciting thing for the university to do.

The business partner is ETA/NET. ETA is a big corporation in the region that does banking, shipping, all sorts of things. NET is their educational division. They already administer programs for a couple of universities, and they’re offering basically the same kind of service to us.

Why Dubai?

It’s a tremendously interesting location because it draws on potential students from various parts of the Middle East, but also from South Asia, such as India and Pakistan. It’s a very dynamic region which has a very favorable relationship with the United States. Dubai aspires to be the world’s next Hong Kong, and they’re well on their way. So, this is a dynamic, exciting place to be, particularly at a time when, like all institutions, we’re having trouble maintaining the kind of international student flow that we would like.

But, there’s also an element of chance. They approached us and have offered us a deal that, while not yet quite good enough, is very attractive.

Why George Mason?

I think there are two reasons: one is that we have worked with this company before in specific ways, and we have worked in the region. Several faculty members have connections to other universities in the region, so we were a known quantity to them, and they to us. Secondly, I do think they recognize, as the current fashionable phrase says, we are entrepreneurial. So, more than some universities, we were in a position to be able to respond reasonably quickly, as we have to this point, and with a sense of openness and interest.

Could this campus compensate for the current difficulty students in that part of the world have in coming to the United States?

Absolutely. That is one of the short-term goals. We have a very good record with recruiting students from South Asia and the Middle East. It’s now getting a little harder, and this campus will allow us to compensate and indeed improve our capacities with these student groups. The hope is that we see students from that campus come here for part of their education, and frankly, hope that some students from here will go there for part of their education.

How is the university addressing the Phi Beta Kappa application issues?

I think we missed by a whisker last time. The committee that visited us recommended our membership. This is a somewhat conservative organization, and it’s not unusual to fail your first time around. So we certainly want to put a good foot forward, but I don’t think we have to do so with a sense that we had huge sins to atone for. There are several things that have changed since the prior application.

I think the faculty-BOV relationship is much less troubled than was the case at the previous application point. We’ve had simply no major confrontations for three years. I think the Phi Beta Kappa committee’s judgment last time was borderline. I think they’d be hard-pressed to point to cases where the faculty has not been able to maintain adequate voice in academic matters. I think that’s a big change.

The adjunct issue is still with us, so that one will remain a vulnerability. We emphasized that we have all sorts of adjuncts–some clearly enhance our educational strength, so we need to make that clear, while recognizing that we’ve certainly taken budget hits that have complicated our effort to introduce more full-time faculty into certain kinds of classes, particularly at the freshman and sophomore levels.

The third thing that changed is clearly to our benefit. The committee recognized when they were here before that we had lots of good students. Well, we’ve got even more good students now, and the gap between the quality of students and lack of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter is even more distressing than it was three years ago. These are the types of students in liberal arts fields that they should want to welcome into its membership.

[As far as the centrality of the College of Arts and Sciences,] certainly developments over the past three years have raised no new issues. The college remains vigorous and is far and away our largest unit. The centrality, not only in regard to the size of the college but the centrality of our liberal arts focus in the general education program and all of our undergraduate operations, is clearer now than it was three years ago when the program was just being launched.

Are you still teaching at Mason?

Teaching was part of the job description, and I like that part. I teach an undergraduate course in the fall–freshman world history–and a graduate course in the spring. The graduate course has shifted on me, but is usually something in cultural history or world history.

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