Q&A: Provost Elliot Hirschman
On July 1, Elliot Hirshman became the new Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at UMBC. Hirshman has a strong cross-disciplinary background (undergraduate degrees in economics and mathematics from Yale University, and a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from UCLA) and brings with him notable successes as a research and administrator – including a position as Chief Research Officer at George Washington University. UMBC Magazine asked Hirshman a few questions about his first few months on the job and how he traveled a path from a career as a researcher to the position of chief academic officer at UMBC.
Q: What attracted you to UMBC?
A: UMBC is an extraordinarily exciting university. The university has a strong focus on student’s personal, professional, and intellectual development, faculty members who are leading their fields in research and creative activity, and dedicated, hard working staff. Together, students, faculty and staff combine to create a supportive community that is focused on academic excellence. This combination of academic excellence and communal spirit is why UMBC was recently rated one of the top 5 up-and-coming national Universities by U.S. News & World Report.
Q: Why transition from a successful career as a researcher into academic leadership?
A: My primary motivation for becoming an educator and researcher was recognition of the transforming power of the university. For students, the university creates possibilities for personal, professional and intellectual development that dramatically enhance and alter the trajectory and purpose of students’ lives. Similarly, as one of our society’s central institutions for the creation and dissemination of knowledge and creative work, the University plays a critical role in enhancing economic development, cultural experiences, and the functioning of our democratic political system.
As with many academic leaders, my transition from a faculty role, emphasizing my personal role as an educator and research, to a leadership role, encompassing a broader purview, was spurred by personal mentoring. Dr. Michael Hooker, former President of UMBC and, at the time, Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, encouraged me to pursue an academic leadership role. Observing Michael’s dynamism and innovative perspectives helped me understand the role that academic leadership can play in advancing our educational and research missions. His example, and those of other mentors and friends, continues to provide motivation and encouragement on a daily basis.
Q: Most people know the provost is a very high-ranking job at UMBC, but might be at some loss to describe it specifically. How do you view the job of the provost?
A: The provost is responsible for the academic program, including instruction, research and academic services. In this context, the Provost plays a critical role in facilitating academic planning and budget development. I view the position as a highly collaborative one in which the provost works closely with the president, vice-presidents, vice-provosts, deans, chairs, directors, faculty, staff and students to coordinate the development and advancement of the academic program and other important University initiatives.
Q: Undergraduate research is increasingly important to students – as a selling point for prospective students and a key element in educating current students. What role does it play at UMBC?
A: I am very excited about the many opportunities UMBC offers for undergraduate research and creative activity. In addition to formal programs such as the Undergraduate Research Awards and the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Day, undergraduate students participate as research assistants on externally-funded faculty projects, in theatrical, dance, musical, and visual arts performances and exhibitions, and as leading authors on scholarly and creative works that are published in the UMBC Review and Bartleby. In addition, our location in the Baltimore-Washington corridor provides many opportunities to conduct research in collaboration with federal government agencies and USM partners such as the downtown medical campus. Participating in research and creative opportunities as an undergraduate provides critical preparation for graduate and professional studies, as well as participation in economic development that is increasingly focused on information and bio-medical technology. We began a pilot project to expand our undergraduate research and creative activity programs this year and I look forward to the further development of these programs.
Behind the Rankings
The August release of U.S. News & World Report’s annual Best Colleges Guide is one of the most-eagerly awaited dates in higher education. So when UMBC found itself at number five in a new category in the guide – “Up-and-Coming National Universities” – the sense of pride at the university was palpable.
The lofty ranking even spawned a promotional slogan: “You Knew It All Along!” What you might not know, however, is just how and why U.S. News created the category in the first place.
To find out, UMBC Magazine went straight to the source: Robert Morse, the director of data research for U.S. News. Put simply, Morse is the guru of college rankings and the other educational rankings that U.S. News creates. He also writes a blog called “Morse Code” that demystifies the methodologies behind the numbers.
Morse says that the “Up-and-Coming” list has its roots in the critiques of the overall rankings in the Best Colleges Guide. He says that some observers believe “that the peer survey doesn’t capture rapid movements or changes at a school, and that it doesn’t change much on the upside or the downside. So we wanted to come up with another way of recognizing schools that are changing rapidly and making improvements that the regular rankings don’t pick up.”
The “Up and Coming” category was created from nominations made by administrators and academics in an annual survey that U.S. News sends to universities. Morse says that the magazine is considering making the list “more granular” by breaking it down further into categories such as “academic innovations” or “facilities.”
Morse says that achieving a high place in the new category does give the primary consumers of Best Colleges Guide – high-school students and their parents – an important message. “It tells them that the school isn’t sitting still,” he says.
“And, assuming they understand how we did it, that other top academics think that [school] is innovative and that they are coming up with new ways of education.” It’s especially useful, he says, “if people are interested in schools that are trying new things and being innovative in programs and not just sticking with the tried and true.”
Diversity & Dollars
Diversity and value are hallmark qualities of the UMBC experience. But ranking them can be difficult.
The Princeton Review is one organization that tries to do just that. And the nation’s preeminent education services and test preparation company has ranked UMBC in the upper tiers of its recent rankings of diversity and “bang for the buck” in higher education.
In The Princeton Review’s annual guide to The Best 368 Colleges: 2009 Edition, UMBC was ranked second on the list of schools with the “Most Diverse Student Body.” Only Baruch College – part of the City University of New York system – ranked higher than UMBC. At present, the minority population of the student body at UMBC stands at 37 percent: 18 percent Asian, 15 percent African American and 4 percent Hispanic and Native American.
“UMBC has met with tremendous success in attracting a diverse student body,” says Yvette Mozie-Ross ’88, assistant provost for enrollment management.
And in January, UMBC figured highly in another Princeton Review project: its annual examination of the “100 Best Value Colleges,” published in collaboration with USA Today. The university was among the 50 public universities listed as a great value.
In writing about UMBC, the Princeton Review noted that “Seventy-three percent of UMBC students receive some form of financial aid in the form of scholarships, loans, and grants.”
The Review’s conclusion was succinct: UMBC is a great value for the price.
The annual University System of Maryland’s Regents Awards are the most important benchmark of excellence for employees at the state’s higher education institutions. So the news that UMBC staffers took five of the six 2007-08 Regents Awards on offer this year is a big deal on campus.
The recipients include:
• Catherine Bielawski ’77, director of undergraduate student services for the College of Engineering and Information and Technology – “Outstanding Service to Students in an Academic or Residential Environment.”
• Patricia Martin, program management specialist, Student Support Services, and Dennis Cuddy, manager of administration and facilities, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry – “Exceptional Contribution to the Institution and/or Unit to Which a Person Belongs.”
• Earnestine Baker, executive director, Meyerhoff Scholars Program, and Karen Sweeney-Jett, executive administrative assistant, Office of Institutional Advancement – “Extraordinary Public Service to the University or to the Greater Community.”
“UMBC has a system-wide reputation for doing well,” says Beth Wells ’74, assistant vice provost and chairperson of the university’s nomination board. “That can be accounted for in two ways: we have some awfully good staff, and we have made a commitment as an institution to put resources into promoting these awards, making it as convenient as possible to pause and recognize staff members.”
All five UMBC Regents Awards winners will be honored at a ceremony in the University Center Ballroom on April 1.