October 9, 2001
When Lester Lefton was interviewing for the job of senior vice president for academic affairs, he wanted everyone in the hiring process to know that he was at heart a member of the faculty. I may be an administrator and have to make some tough decisions, but I am always going to do it considering the impact on faculty and students, he said in an interview that took place during his first week in office in July.
He was hired as senior vice president of academic affairs and provost in March. Lefton, who earlier in his career was chair of a psychology department for nine years, said he still likes to remain active as a teacher and a researcher. His last post was as dean of the Columbian School of Arts and Sciences at The George Washington University, and he expects to use the breadth of his career experiences as he tackles the challenges of undergraduate and graduate education at Tulane.
"I am especially concerned about undergraduate retention and improving the undergraduate experience," he said, adding that it is important to keep Tulane's students academically challenged. "This can be done by increasing the intellectual rigor of everything we do at Tulane," he said.
"You engage the faculty in a dialogue and work with deans and faculty members to ensure that every component of the Tulane experience is intellectually focused," said Lefton. For example, he would like to see an increased academic component to living-learning communities and service-learning activities. Other ways to enhance the curriculum might be to have students read more theoretical articles and original works--not English translations or summaries--and have them write more.
"This is a cultural shift," said Lefton. "I'm not suggesting we assign one more book or make tests harder. In fact, it is not about making things harder, but about challenging and engaging students more and asking them to go beyond their current limits and take a step further."
Lefton's other No. 1 priority is to enhance the graduate school. "It is time to reassert graduate education here at Tulane," he said. Among his first tasks will be to search for a dean for the graduate school. The function of dean has been rolled into the office of provost and chief academic officer for several years. One way to reassert the primacy of graduate education is to have a dean of the graduate school who will make graduate education a priority.
Lefton also has appointed two associate provosts. They are Ana Lopez, associate professor of communication, and James Maclaren, professor of physics. "We are building a team here in the office, trying to reassert academics and build a relationship with the deans as an alliance that moves academics ahead," said Lefton. Among the team's first tasks will be to work with deans and faculty to determine which graduate programs have the greatest chance of achieving national success.
"If you have $5 to spend, you don't want to give 50 programs each 10 cents. It just doesn't work." While he is not willing to concede that some graduate programs will be lost, he does suggest that some may be de-emphasized. Combining programs with a common intellectual base may be another option, he said. "We probably need to develop some clusters and some cross-fertilization between departments."
Lefton said there are several ways to measure potential for national excellence: grant dollars, publication in peer-referred journals, the number of books per faculty member. "Because we are a multidisciplinary university we are going to have to use different kinds of indices for different disciplines," he said. Lefton is optimistic about the future.
"Tulane has a rich, long tradition of academic excellence and I hope to enhance that tradition. Among the greatest challenges will be to effect change with the resources that are available to him. We need more money, but the truth is Tulane could probably spend the national debt if given the opportunity. In my first few days I have talked to so many faculty and deans who are presenting me with ideas, and one is better than the next."
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