Interview with Provost Aimée Dorr
The Senate Source recently sat down with Provost Aimée Dorr to get her take on some of the most significant issues facing the University—including quality, enrollment management, online education, graduate education, and shared governance. Provost Dorr joined UCOP in July 2012 after a 30-year career as a UCLA faculty member and dean, including 13 years at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. She also served in several prominent Academic Senate roles, including UCLA Senate division chair in 1996-97 and systemwide Senate chair in 1998-99.
Senate Source: How did your previous experiences prepare you for the job of Provost? How will your service as a former Senate chair inform your approach to the job?
Provost Dorr: I have had a wide variety of experiences at UC—as a faculty member and dean, Graduate Council chair, CCGA vice chair and chair, UCLA Senate vice chair and chair, and Academic Senate vice chair and chair—that helped prepare me for the job. During my time in the systemwide Senate, I learned a lot about the Board of Regents, the differences and similarities between the campuses, and the value of major systemwide functions not shared by the campuses such as governmental relations, systemwide policy, and convening functions. I saw how shared governance in action can be a good thing for the University. I also saw some of its challenges in terms of finding appropriate boundaries between consultation and decision-making power. Senate work involves a great deal of consultation, collaboration, and feedback, which helped prepare me for that part of the Provost’s job. I had to think about what it means to consult and to be taken seriously when you are consulted; how to represent a group; and how to address the communication challenges inherent in a complex organization like UC. I can draw on these experiences to help the University during a difficult time.
What are your goals and what do you view as the main challenges for you in the next year?
My main goal is to promote and sustain UC as a world class public research university that meets the needs of California, the nation, and world. I aim to be a strong advocate for the academic side of the University and will work with the business and communications functions at UCOP to make sure that their work supports the academic mission of the University. I want to ensure that the academic perspective is front and center in the University’s decision-making. A focus on maintaining excellence, quality, and UC’s identity as a top-tier, public, multi-campus Research One enterprise must be central. This includes not only undergraduate education, but also graduate and professional education and research, as well as public service. My biggest challenges are to make decisions in the context of the limited set of choices we now have due to a loss of state funding that UC is unlikely to recoup through tuition or any other means, and to ensure that we are doing the most we possibly can to sustain the University’s quality.
UC faculty are concerned about quality. How can we identify quantitative metrics that can accurately measure quality (or loss thereof), to determine the level of investment necessary to maintain quality and to deliver the Master Plan promise of access to a high quality education?
At my first Regents meeting as Provost in July, the Regents engaged in a discussion about quality. I had been asked to consider what we mean by quality and what data we have indicating whether quality is at risk. For the November meeting, I used the data and indicators in the UC Accountability Report as a basis for assessing quality. We identified several areas for investments to improve quality—reducing the student-faculty ratio, improving support for faculty, reducing the salary gap, increasing graduate student support, and enhancing undergraduate instructional support. The Quality Initiative is an effort to define the things UC needs in the next decade to remain a first-class public research university. It is easy to say “we need to improve undergraduate education,” or “we need to increase funding for graduate education,” but we also need to be precise about what that means, how to achieve it, and, how to track improvements or shortcomings over time. One “solution” that is regularly raised is to spend more money, but we need to show how more money will help attract and retain top students and faculty, and help students graduate and secure jobs. Some of these elements were already embedded in the budget, but were not labeled as quality indicators. We have asked the Senate to help identify appropriate indicators, and we have asked campus administrators to define their highest funding priorities that will sustain and improve quality on their campus. On some campuses, the top priority may be classroom and lab infrastructure; on others, it may be something else. We will also expect campuses to provide data showing that the quality improvement funding they get is making a difference.
How do you envision the role of the Provost in academic planning vis-à-vis the campuses?
Academic planning is one of the areas the systemwide administration and Academic Senate can, and should, have responsibility for—not in the sense of central planning, but in terms of conducting analyses and facilitating discussion and collaboration. It makes sense in a time when money is scarce for campuses to benefit from each other’s ideas and experiences, rather than duplicating everything. The Quality Initiatives are one form of academic planning. Everyone is happy about the passage of Proposition 30, but its implications for the academic enterprise are less clear than people expected. It is difficult to talk about academic planning without knowing what resources are likely to be available.
Can you comment on Rebenching and enrollment management? What is the timeline for developing an enrollment management plan?
Enrollment planning and the issues underlying Rebenching were important topics when I was active in the systemwide Senate. Enrollment is easy to plan, but difficult to manage. You can’t always grow—even if you want to—and sometimes you grow too large when you don’t want to. UCOP is updating UC’s long-range enrollment plan for the first time since 2008 to use with Rebenching and to reflect new funding circumstances and campus academic goals. I want the process to account for campus interests, goals, and plans, be guided by clearly defined principles, and be flexible enough to allow for reconsideration or adjustment as circumstances change. Enrollment planning is important for addressing campus growth trajectories.
To me, Rebenching is a reasonable and fair goal, at least conceptually. Campuses agree with the principle that we should create funding equity for students of the same type across the campuses. We now need to make arrangements to reach this goal without destabilizing the budgets of campuses that have benefited from the prior allocation formula. I know that some campuses are concerned that implementing the Rebenching plan very rapidly may cause them to lose money. But I also know that UCOP has been careful to find a path forward that does not create a sudden, significant drop in funding for any campus. I am sympathetic to concerns about penalizing campuses that fail to meet or that exceed a baseline enrollment level in an uncertain funding environment. In order to increase the percentage of graduate and professional students, you need extra money in the graduate area, but I believe the campuses that received extra money for graduate growth in the past are having trouble with growth now, too. I think that we can work together to resolve these issues while moving forward to create a more equitable funding system.
In the current era of Funding Streams and increased transparency, which has translated into greater pressure for campus autonomy and flexibility, how can there be any direction from the center?
It is a very challenging time for people both at UCOP and on the campuses who are used to a strong center. I think it can be a challenge to exercise leadership and authority from the center in low-power organizations like UC, but I also think that to the extent UC campuses share the same general set of goals, we should be able to work out arrangements.
Is the Master Plan still relevant? Can the University continue to fulfill its commitment to the Master Plan in the face of severe budget cuts? If not, can the University make a principled choice to fulfill some parts of its commitment while letting others go?
Certainly the Master Plan has greatly benefited California as a whole, and in many ways has supported UC in becoming a great research university. And while it is not as passionately embraced as it once was, I think we should approach it as a document that is still relevant, and not open it up again or argue it is dead. The Master Plan idea of access is a central part of the UC identity, and we are right to hold onto it, even if it is not defined as it was when the Master Plan was written. One of UC’s biggest challenges is to maintain undergraduate enrollment levels that meet our commitment to the state as high school populations grow while state investment per student has declined and we lack resources to build another campus. I am not at all ready to give up on any part of the Master Plan, but UC may find it increasingly challenging to meet its commitment to all parts of the Master Plan in the context of the state’s disinvestment and the continued increase in the number of graduates from California public high schools.
Can UC manage nonresident enrollment in a way that facilitates its ability to offer a quality education to all students?
Many people think about nonresident undergraduate enrollment in terms of its potential to generate revenue to benefit other students. To the extent that quality requires funding, nonresident enrollment does have the potential to help everyone. The only qualifier I would add to that analysis is the potential for incurring additional costs if we enroll a significant population of nonresident students whose life experience and college preparation differ significantly from our resident population and who therefore need more support and student services. This is a particular concern for international students. However, the data I have seen indicate that persistence rates for international students are every bit as good as for domestic students. Of course, nonresidents benefit our campuses in many other ways beyond revenue. College is an opportunity to expand one’s social learning and sense of the world, and one of the ways this comes about is by being part of an educational community that includes people from different backgrounds. It is difficult to measure this, but it is an essential part of a quality education in today’s multicultural world.
Can you comment on ideas being circulated in the media for “reinventing higher education,” such as operating year round and on weekends, charging differential tuition by major, and increasing online education?
I am trying to be as open as possible to all ideas. This does not necessarily mean embracing them in the end, but it does mean not automatically rejecting them. I don’t automatically say no to anything anymore. We have no other choice. If we simply maintain the models we have always used, it is unlikely that we will be able to remain a premiere university.
What is your view of the appropriate role of online education at UC? Is the University doing enough? If not, what do you see as the best strategy?
I don’t see UC’s basic educational model changing, but do see value in the use of educational technologies. Online education offers the opportunity to maximize expertise that is distributed around the campuses, to increase the opportunity students have to take and pass gateway courses and requirements, and to allow students to complete courses at more convenient times. I was the Director of Educational Technology for what was then the UCLA Graduate School of Education when I was a professor there. I know that technology has benefits and downsides and that technological turnover is expensive and fast. UC is a primarily residential-based experience, and derives much of its educational value from that face-to-face experience. I do not see that kind of experience threatened by using weekend or evening classes, or online education as part of the mix. Quality education can be enhanced by technology, but technology will not entirely replace in-person education at UC.
How can UC ensure that it continues to attract top graduate students when it cannot match funding offers from its competitors?
A little over a year ago, the Regents asked UCOP to convene a Task Force on Graduate Education Competitiveness and report to them about the competitiveness of UC’s support for graduate students. We intend to make a presentation to the Regents with the Senate on this topic this year. We hope to provide a consensus view to the greatest extent possible.
However, I want to challenge assumptions built into the question —first, that we cannot attract top graduate students, and second, that we cannot match competing financial aid offers. UC does need to do more to attract the best graduate students in the world, but the data are not clear about how much more funding is needed. The data I have seen suggest that at the graduate level, students do not choose a school or program based on cost alone, but rather on the quality of the faculty and their areas of expertise. The problem also depends on the field of study and the extent to which the quality of a program depends on international graduate students or on funding from research grants.
Departments seeking to increase revenues are becoming increasingly entrepreneurial in developing self-supporting programs. How can the University ensure that these programs are truly self-supporting and that they meet the University’s standards of quality?
Faculty already have the tools they need to ensure that a self-supporting program is good quality and remains good quality. The Senate, through the local graduate councils and CCGA, approves nearly every graduate and professional degree program, and is responsible for performing periodic program reviews. If a program is having trouble in between its review cycle, the graduate council can evaluate it and is ultimately responsible for the quality of the program. Moreover, self-supporting programs must be led by ladder rank faculty. No UC faculty member is interested in offering a mediocre program. Students also enter these programs because they want an excellent quality education and they will receive an excellent education at UC.
The pay equity study performed under the auspices of the University Committee on Affirmative Action and Diversity identified apparent salary inequities between male and female faculty with similar qualifications and experience in many areas. How do you intend to ensure that these inequities are rectified?
I think it is important to monitor salaries continually and compare them between various groups to detect biases that could lead to differential salaries. I also believe that it is important for the system to take responsibility for monitoring equity and not leave it to the individual to fight for a raise. That said, some faculty have challenged the methodology used in that particular study, and I am wary of basing conclusions on it. However, the study did prompt President Yudof to ask campuses to develop a plan by February 1 to examine whether equity problems exist, and then, if disparities do exist, to look at the individual circumstances. I think it is important to take disparities seriously, but also not to assume without investigating that any inequity is the result of gender or racial bias. One might conclude that on average, salaries should be raised for some identifiable subgroup, but this should be done based on an evaluation of individual merit and performance, and not be done with a simple across the board increase.
How can the University improve faculty recruitment and retention?
Salary matters. Help with housing and adequate schooling for their children matters. The quality of your colleagues, the stature of your department, support for your research, and the general culture and climate all matter. We have to work to strengthen all of these, with the help of faculty in the departments.
How can the Senate help you to achieve your goals as Provost?
We should begin with the premise that the Senate and administration generally share the same goals and vision for the University. We can then think about how we can work collaboratively to achieve our goals and find consensus points that will let us move forward. The process of timely consultation and feedback is crucial, and maintaining collegiality is key. If we lose collegiality, we have a hard time because we do not have mechanisms for functioning without a sense of give and take. This is the essence of shared governance. I look forward to engaging with the Senate as a partner in sustaining UC as the world’s premier public university.