UI provost finalist has mind for budgets

UI provost finalist has mind for budgets

Joan Ferrini-Mundy admits it: She finds budgets fascinating.

She's a math person, after all, a specialist in math education who has been an administrator at two universities, headed national research committees and is currently chief operating officer of the National Science Foundation.

The University of Illinois's budget challenges and reforms don't intimidate Ferrini-Mundy, one of four finalists for the provost's job, the top academic post on campus.

"I would truly relish being involved in the budget work," she said at a campus forum Wednesday. "It would be fascinating. It would bring out the best of collaboration across the place."

Ferrini-Mundy said she doesn't really "know" the UI but knows a lot about it through her work at other universities and national academic organizations. And she believes her experience has prepared her well for the job.

She earned her doctorate in math education at the University of New Hampshire, and after a brief faculty stint at Mount Holyoke College returned to New Hampshire as a professor and later assistant director of its Center for Science. From 1999 to 2011, she joined Michigan State University as a professor of math education and associate dean for science and mathematics education in the College of Natural Science.

She was hired at NSF in 2011 as assistant director for education and human resources and later became chief operating officer, which she likened to a provost's role. She also co-chairs the Strategic Plan workgroup of the National Science and Technology Council Committee on STEM Education and served on the President's National Mathematics Advisory Panel in 2007-08.

Ferrini-Mundy said she has always admired the "can-do spirit" of land-grant universities like Illinois and Michigan State, and their sense of responsibility to public service.

"Here, I'm struck by the boldness of vision I'm hearing from people, the willingness to forge ahead even with hard challenges, and a willingness to be quite candid about challenges," she said after a day of meetings on campus.

"I'm very impressed by the candor, the openness. Clearly, that's a big part of what makes this university what it is."

She said she draws energy from working with others, bringing their ideas to the table.

"That would be a part of how I work here as provost," she said. "I always find that thinking gets better when there is collaborative discussion ... and a diversity of perspective to push everyone to think harder.

"A provost also needs to listen and learn to understand the campus" and to set priorities, she said.

But she added, "From everything I can tell, this campus is ready for its next provost now, or soon. She or he needs to jump into issues right away."

A big piece of the job, she said, is "getting out of the way," creating mechanisms that allow people to do their best work, aligned with the UI's mission.

She outlined three priorities she would set as provost:

— Ensuring that Illinois is a model for effective learning in the 21st century and the "university of choice" for diverse students throughout the state, a place of growth for students, faculty and staff.

— Guaranteeing that the university can recruit, hire, enable and retain world-class faculty in all fields. That involves providing a vibrant intellectual environment where outstanding research and discovery thrive, she said.

— Implementing the new budget framework that is already under development, to ensure stability and flexibility for the campus in a challenging fiscal environment. The other goals aren't possible without a stable, regular budget, she said.

Ferrini-Mundy said she first heard about the UI as a student at New Hampshire in a class on the history of new math in the 1950s and '60s, in which the UI played a prominent role. Educators, psychologists, engineers and mathematicians worked together to tackle the challenge of preparing the next generation of scientists and engineers after World War II. She was captivated by the notion that "math learning could be much more accessible if we knew something about how people learn math," which inspired her own research.

"For me, it illustrates much about this university" and its tradition of interdisciplinary work, which has helped reshape education in many fields, she said.

The provost can provide incentives for those collaborations and play "a matchmaker role" to bring different parts of campus together, she said. He or she can also encourage departments to focus on student success by measuring outcomes of new approaches to teaching, and rewarding faculty for those contributions.

"What's really key is that they make a difference, that students leave on the other end having been enriched," she said.

To encourage diversity, she said the provost could ask that any proposal for new courses or programs address how it will promote inclusion, build on the experiences of diverse students and ensure strong outcomes for all groups.

The provost of any pre-eminent public research university also must find tools to recruit outstanding faculty — or invent new ones, she said.

"To draw promising early-career faculty here, help them imagine great collaborations they can have, the outstanding students they will attract, or the new programs they can build to collaborate with folks across the university," she said. "Help them visualize how the university will support them to build a rich career here" by making funding available to start their research or supporting their graduate students or postdoctoral researchers, she said.

She also suggested "stay interviews," as opposed to exit interviews, to find out what keeps top faculty here and what problems they see.

The provost can create programs to further research and eliminate barriers to interdisciplinary research, she said. Projects like the engineering-based Carle Illinois College of Medicine show that "conditions are very much in place here for innovation and partnership," she said.

"If we make excellence central, excellent faculty will stay," she said.

On the budget front, she would place a high priority on affordability for students and reward efforts to expand financial aid. She cited data showing that hundreds of admitted students each year end up at other Big Ten institutions.

Ferrini-Mundy said she firmly believes that a comprehensive university needs strong programs in the humanities and social sciences as much as scientific fields. She emphasized that her own background is in both education and math, two fields with different academic traditions.

"A feature of my career thus far has been one of working across boundaries, trying to build bridges and find connections," she said.

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