Extended Q&A With Provost Abraham

IMG_6626By Liam Bouquet

With the recent announcement that Jim Tressel, president of Youngstown State University, would look into making Martin Abraham’s position as interim provost permanent, The Jambar had a chance to sit down with Abraham to discuss his vision for YSU’s future.

After faculty complaints that you were appointed by Tressel unilaterally, do you know what the process will be now that he has expressed an interest in making your appointment permanent?

“I know the first step in the process, which is a meeting with the Senate Executive Committee, which is scheduled for this week. I believe we absolutely have to have some sort of an open forum where I can be present and people can ask questions, much like you guys are doing. … Faculty and again staff have to be on board with this because I can’t do this job without their support. If we bypass the faculty, I can’t expect their support. I have told the president several times that we need an open forum, and he understands that. But the first step is this meeting with the Senate, and I believe we will do something before the end of the semester. Then it is the president’s recommendation, Board [of Trustees’] decision.”

What is your response to the controversy your brief tenure as provost has garnered?

“So the biggest controversy, I think, was the potential reorganization of CLASS. … To be quite honest, I am not sure why that raised controversy. I had an idea; we considered it; we brought faculty together to have a conversation about it; we brought chairs together to have a conversation about it; we did what universities do, which is evaluate, very publicly, very openly about whether or not it was the right thing for us to do as a university. We determined that it was not the right thing for us to do. We moved on. What do we do next? There were some very good things that came out of that and there was some good discussion still going on in CLASS about collaboration across the different departments. Is there a better cohesive mission for the college beyond teaching gen ed that creates some good nucleus. … There was a good conversation started between our communications department and our English department about the proper home for journalism, that is an ongoing conversation, and some new interaction between our college of education, school psychology particularly, social work and our psychology department within CLASS. … I understand that there were some controversy, some people that got upset, but it was a healthy conversation. … We never move forward with doing specific activities before the appropriate individuals or committees were consulted. We did have conversations internally without consulting the proper committees first, but we did work with the right groups at the time we needed to do that. So again, people got upset but more because our timing was off I think than because we did anything that was fundamentally disenfranchising. And I have learned that I need to either be a little more careful about those internal conversations so that they don’t spill out into an open and general conversation or you need to bring them out into the open and have those conversations with the other committees more quickly. Part of what I have learned, in the six months I have been in this position, is how to work better with faculty that have a mindset that is different than the faculty I am familiar with in the STEM college. Everybody is a little different; I knew that from dealing with STEM. Our engineers and our math folks are not the same, but if I take our engineers and our math folks and compare them against philosophy or music or social work, they are all different as well. They come from different backgrounds and they have different expectations and they have different needs in terms of their level of involvement in terms of conversation and discussion and so on. I am learning, I am not there yet, but I am learning what those needs are and how better to work with those people.”

Will you be able to quell faculty fears concerning the loss of shared governance between the administration and faculty?

“I hope so. I don’t want to minimize the challenges, we have some fairly substantial challenges, but the biggest accomplishment we’ve had during my time as provost was settling the faculty negotiations and coming to an agreement. There is a lot of uncertainty when you are working without a contract. … I think having that resolved will really help us as a university move forward. I also need to learn better who properly represents the faculty. We have really two organizations that want to lay claim to that, the Academic Senate and [YSU-OEA]. They both represent the faculty, but they do it in different ways. What I have to learn, and I am getting better at it but it will take more time, is which group needs to be engaged at which point in time. I am confident we can get there. I have spent a fair bit of time recently working with OEA about some implementation things that come up with a new contract, especially one that was approved six months after it was supposed to have started. … It is also important that the administration work with the Academic Senate and make sure they are engaged effectively. We are working more diligently to incorporate them into the conversation as well. The challenge, I think, in some respects has been one of communications not one of actions per se. … We are expected to communicate effectively and make people aware. … The Academic Senate was somewhat upset that we didn’t consult them about a possible reorganization. Yet we had two committees going, with roughly 5 percent of the faculty plus half of the chairs, looking at the issue as well. Of course the faculty that were looking at it specifically on a committee, my expectation was that they would also be talking to other faculty within their department so that the individuals on the committee were not single lowly voices but somewhat representative of the departments from which they came. In fact, we had a group of faculty looking at it, but it wasn’t the Academic Senate. So there were some people in the Academic Senate who didn’t know, weren’t aware, that we had faculty engaged, and they felt that that the Senate should have been engaged, felt that should have helped us identify some people to participate on the committee. Perhaps that would have been a better way to do it. We have to figure out, to evaluate, how to do the best job we can communicating, get everyone involved. … We have to work together, or we aren’t going anywhere.”

What is your response to fears that YSU will become STEM-centric and de-emphasizing CLASS?

“One of the things that particularly the faculty in CLASS have told me is that even at a quality technical institution, my own undergraduate institution, … the faculty in humanities and social science programs were also top notch and excellent. … A university has to have excellence in everything it does. We are not going to have a successful STEM program, we are not going to have a successful business college if we don’t have a strong base across the university — general education, social sciences. … If we don’t have a strong core, none of our programs can grow and be successful. Even if we emphasize specific, career-oriented degrees, there is a big difference between four-year and graduate education in those areas … and what we think of as workforce training that people are I think afraid of. … We are going to continue to emphasize four-year degrees, graduate programs.”

What is your vision for YSU’s future?

“Better days. There are a number of things that we need to do, and you can talk vision from a lot of different perspectives in terms of academic programs, in terms of where we are going from an enrollment standpoint — any number of places. From an academic programs perspective, I can’t tell you at this point where I think we need to go because we don’t have the information we need in order to do those proper evaluations. The first thing we need to do there is engage our faculty — figure out where we are, where we are headed, where we need to grow, where we are doing things we shouldn’t be doing. We need to do that, that has to happen. From an enrollment standpoint, to answer that question we need to identify how many people we can afford to have on campus and what that mix looks like. Is 13,000 the right number for us? Maybe. We need to do some analysis to understand that better. From a quality perspective, we have already started down the path at looking at better students, getting better ourselves at extending our footprint beyond the Mahoning Valley — that clearly has to happen. From a perspective of being more engaged with the community; I would like to see us more involved off-campus, more research and scholarship opportunities. We have kind of started heading down some of those paths already. … We continue to grow our reputation as a quality institution, a place where students want to come to get an education — not a place where we are the default backup plan that people make, but rather they aspire to come to YSU. Those are the things that we are working towards, that we need to continue to move towards and figuring out how we get there is a big challenge.”

What does the process of involving faculty in deciding YSU’s future look like?

“[I recently received] the program improvement plans that all of our faculty and our programs have been working on. I have received all of those at this point and I am committed to reading them. … That will help me to formulate where I think we can go, but that is only the very first step. The next step is what we call a much more full program review. We are in the process right now of putting together a group of faculty to try to figure out what a program review looks like for Youngstown State University. We haven’t done program review in a long time. We require program review … the state requires it as well. We have not done it properly in a longtime. We need to figure out what it looks like for Youngstown State, hoping that our group of faculty I am trying to put together now will be able to get an answer for us before the end of the semester. Then next year, we go forward with program review and that is where we get our data when we start to figure out where we are doing good things that we could do better, where we are doing some things that just aren’t right for us, where are we not doing things that we should be doing; those are the questions that we have to answer, and really those are a next year thing. We don’t have a lot of time to do it, but we can’t rush it. We have to do it right. The experts on that are our faculty; they know their profession; they know their field.”

What is the YSU faculty’s vision for the future?

“Whatever faculty you talk to, you will get one view. If you talk to two faculty, you will get two perspectives — you might get three. And the more faculty you talk to, the higher the number of perspectives of what the future looks like. It would premature for me to say where that is going to go. Clearly because of my background, I have my own bias and I am going to do the best I can to make sure that doesn’t impact and rather we look at the data, we look at the facts, we look at the evaluations and we make the best determination we can — collectively.”

How has your time as dean of STEM influenced your time as provost?

“One of the things that it did is it connected me with our community. As the dean of STEM college, I spent a lot of time working outside of the college. I met with a lot of businesses, a lot of companies; I met with a lot of people in the political sphere, so I know a lot of the players. When I moved to the provost position, a lot of those personal connections still remained. I have been able to take advantage of those to help me do the job as provost. Those are the biggest elements that really have been portable. What I can also tell you is I have learned, in the six months I have been here, as the dean of the STEM college, there was a heck of a lot I did not know about Youngstown State University, and I am learning. I am probably a slow learner — it has taken me awhile — but I am learning about how different programs operate and their challenges and their specific needs and where the opportunities are for growth in their specific areas. I am starting to be able to understand those. I am not in a spot where I can tell you, even preliminarily where I see great opportunity because I don’t know about the five colleges very well. I can’t compare the one college I think I know pretty well with the five colleges I don’t know very well. That is why I need to rely on the faculty for all six of my colleges, seven if you include the graduate college which is a critical component of it, in order to get a better understanding of where the future of Youngstown State University lies.”

Is it the responsibility of the university to direct students to career-oriented degrees such as STEM?

“So we have at Youngstown State, I would say — largely speaking and this is a little bit of a generalization that may not entirely hold up if you get into the details and look at it in more specific terms — that you actually have five colleges that are career-oriented. Not only STEM, but also the business college is very much career oriented; Health and Human Services is educating nurses and physical therapists and those types who are very much career-oriented. BCOE is educating teachers; they expect to go out and teach. Creative Arts and Communications is also largely career-oriented. Now it is different than a standard STEM career, but I have a niece who is a musician and she is making a career making the violin. The people who are coming to the Dana School of Music are studying music because they want to make a career playing their music. CLASS also has people who are very much career-oriented. I think if you think about psychology and so on, … they are psychology majors because they want to be a psychologist. The difference in CLASS is we also have a lot of programs, a lot of courses, that serve the needs of the other colleges. … There is that mission beyond the individual missions beyond the needs of educating people for their career. It is pre-mature to say that Youngstown State University should be focused on career-oriented pathways. It may not be incorrect, and if you go back five years, six years when Chancellor Fingerhut designated us as an urban research university, that was the direction he suggested. And over the past [five years] we have moved kind of in that direction. We have to evaluate if we need to move further, if we have moved too far. We need to evaluate what is the right balance for Youngstown State University. I was at a program yesterday, a National Academy workshop up in Cleveland, looking at meeting the STEM workforce needs in Ohio, one of the things that comes out of that panel, … our employers very much want graduates who have a broader educational background. Those elements are critical to the success of a university. That has always been the strength of an American university — that broader education — giving our graduates the ability to learn, to apply what they have learned to a new situation, to be able to think critically on how to solve a problem. That has been the hallmark of a quality U.S. university, and we are going to be a quality university at Youngstown State; we are going to be better, and we need to make sure we hold on to that principle and that ideal as well.”

Why do you think you are a good choice to be provost permanently?

“I think I have the leadership skills, and I demonstrated the leadership skills from my time as the dean of the STEM college. … I think, in the sixth months or so that I have done this job, I have demonstrated similarly that I have the skills, from a leadership perspective, to get the support that I need in order to move things forward, the administrative skills to actually do the work that is involved in actually moving things through the system. I still have a lot to learn, but you are going to run into that with anybody you would bring into this position. An advantage I have is that I have been at Youngstown State for almost eight years. I kind of know the university, and I know most of the players. … The things that I was able to achieve in the STEM college — creating programs, increasing the enrollment, developing the research activity — demonstrate the ability to be successful making us better. The question remains, and I think this is the big question and I think faculty are right to ask this question, can I translate what I was able to do in STEM for the better of the university as a whole? I think I can; I am confident that I can, but the faculty also have to have that confidence. If they give me a chance, I think we can do good things here.”

Additional reporting by Justin Wier