The Daily Beacon sat down with Provost Susan Martin on Wednesday, Aug. 8 for questions regarding student life, the new 4x15 plan and how classrooms are drastically changing to improve the enhancement of the learning experience. These are selected questions and responses from the entirety of the interview.
Will there be any changes in the curriculum that will come from the 4x15 plan?
"If this is going to work, we have to have the courses in place and we have to know where those courses are. In the last two years, we have taken most of the discretionary money that we've had available through the chancellor's budgeting process and invested that in academics. The first year we had some money to invest, we invested mostly in faculty, both tenure line and non-tenure line and advising. This last year we actually had more to invest and so we invested in tenure line faculty and we created what we are calling the strategic instructural fund. The strategic instructural fund is targeted towards freeing up bottlenecks. So we've spent all summer working with associate's deans and deans, especially in Arts and Sciences college, because that's where most of the first and second year programming is done, to identify the bottleneck areas and then target that money towards instruction to free up those bottlenecks. This has been a priority of several years now. We've also invested in advisors as well. We've added 19 new professional advisors on campus — both through funding through Chancellor Cheek that he has allocated to us for that purpose, but also some of the differential tuitions have been used for those purposes, so we've really beefed up advising and that will help students plan correctly and get what they need. But this instructural fund also is allowing us to target funding where we believe it is needed to free up bottlenecks."
"But I don't think there will be necessarily any curricular changes. I think it's more of a question of analyzing where the shortfalls are in instruction and targeting investment towards that. Only faculty can really change the curriculum."
With the new 4x15 plan, there seems to be more growing emphasis on summer classes, how have attendance levels looked so far at this stage?
"We're up this summer. We've tried to target our summer offering to areas where students will be materially assisted to either catching up to or staying on track to graduation. It's a work in progress, but I think we have seen some improvement there."
What are your thoughts on the admissions standards at UT?
"Out of all our top 25 metrics, the one area where we are already at the average of our top 25 peers is in profile of the freshman class every year. It has gone up dramatically over the last 10 years. We do continue to see marginal increases in the profile. Quite frankly, I think we've done really well. We are really pleased with the quality of the students that we have admitted to the university. And we've worked really hard to maintain access to the university for people who economically can't foot the bill through the pledge and the promise scholarships, through institutional merit scholarships as well. I'm not sure we're looking toward strategies that move those numbers really sharply higher. We are pretty happy with the classes that we have. You always want to improve, but certainly as a long-time faculty member here and talking with other faculty members, I think we all are very appreciative of the quality of students that we have and enjoy working with them."
Is there a certain level that you want to cap the Honors Program, and what is your vision for that program?
"I don't see us targeting a big increase in numbers in the future. I think what we would like to see the next director do is work on ways to make sure we are providing the quality of honors experience that our students want, and that satisfies our students. That's where I see this going. We will be starting that search momentarily. I'm very pleased with the honors program at this point, and I look forward to talking with honors students about the future direction as we move through the search process and into a new directorship."
What are some of the effects that construction will have on campus in regards to student life, specifically at Humanities and Social Sciences?
"I'm personally happy to undergo some short-term pain because we are going to have some long-term gain. But in fact, some of these things are coming to fruition right now. For example, the renovation on the second floor of the library to accommodate the new phase of the commons. I think everyone will be pleased with that project when it's completed, and I believe it will be completed in September so that should be a real enhancement. I also think you will like the Humanities project a lot. The point there is to renovate a certain number of classrooms to accommodate more flexible teaching style. All those rooms will be very capable of being flexibly adapted to group work, or not to group work, or a whole variety of different styles. I think you will see tremendous benefit from that. A group of students from the College of Architecture and Design were involved in designing those phases and that was a great learning opportunity for them and they did excellent work."
The technology is upgraded, but how do you think the construction of HSS will enhance the learning experience in the classroom?
"I think that a lot of faculty now are making much greater use of technology, but also the classroom style is much more interactive than it used to be. I do think this will allow the faculty to mix up what happens. It probably won't be so much the faculty member standing in front of you and lecturing, although I think there is a place for that. Even in the kind of teaching I've done in my career, having that more flexible classroom allows you to interact with students as a group, but also for you to work. You are more apt to sit in groups and brainstorm, and then you can come back together. It just allows for much more flexibility in how you want to mix up the delivery of instruction for the given hour."
In creating a more engaged student body in the classes, is that something that you hope will carry over into things like second year retention?
"Absolutely. Anything we can do to enhance engagement and particularly as students come in the door, is something we will pursue. We've had any number of people working on the issue of student retention and starting to see the improvement that we have seen over the last ten years. How have those things manifested themselves? We've completely redone orientation. This was an initiative that actually came from the Provost Student Advisory Council. I asked them, 'What can we do to help students make a successful entry into the university?' They said that orientation doesn't really get us where we need to be in terms of feeling comfortable and secure that we can actually perform the functions that we need to to get into our classes and to be successful. We actually had completely reconfigured how time was spent at orientation to focus on preparation for academic planning. I think that has yielded a lot of really positive results. The whole Welcome Week has also been completely reformulated to emphasize engagement, the Life of the Mind program with the welcome leaders, grouping students by majors and then connecting them with older students who can be a friendly face and a good connection in those small groups. All those things help students feel welcome on the way in. The universal tracking system that we are putting in place that will guide students into majors, and flag them if they are not making good progress, that will help us ensure that students don't just get lost somehow."