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University to improve advising, invest $30 million in research

Committee members approved eleven new professorships and approved the cancellation of Slavic doctoral program

<p>Provost Ian Baucom presented the University's research priorities to the board, including investments of $15 million to neurology and environmental sustainability research.</p>

Provost Ian Baucom presented the University's research priorities to the board, including investments of $15 million to neurology and environmental sustainability research.

The Board of Visitors’ Academic and Student Life Committee heard presentations from Robyn Hadley, vice president and student affairs officer, on student success at the University and Provost Ian Baucom on research priorities, approved the closure of the Slavic department’s doctoral program and instated 11 new professorships during its meeting Friday. 

Brie Gertler, vice provost of academic affairs, Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and Hadley joined the meeting to present on student success. 

Baucom introduced the administrators and noted that recent conversations amongst administrators on how best to assist students at the University led to a discussion of the benefits that could accompany linking advising systems to an increasing number of University offices and departments. 

“[We came to a] recognition that infrastructure is strategic,” said Baucom. “[This] requires our investing in the deep and often complex parts of our infrastructure and bringing together the people and the sometimes siloed parts of our organization.”

Gertler said her view of a student’s experience at the University changed when she talked to Farmer and Hadley, shifting from viewing success as defined only in the classroom to something that is cultivated outside the classroom. Now, Gertler said she is aware of how a student’s interactions with other entities — such as Housing and Residence Life and Student Financial Services — impact a student’s performance and wellbeing.

Hadley echoed a similar message, adding that she has learned how interconnected the academic and social lives of students are. 

“Everything that happens in the classroom impacts everything that happens outside of the classroom,” Hadley said. 

All four administrators plan to work toward an enhanced comprehensive advising system that integrates other offices that touch student life, such as Housing and Residence Life and Student Financial Services. 

The system will include an advising software intended to facilitate communication related to advising for incoming and current students. Through the software, students will not only be able to directly connect with their academic advisor but also directly contact employees across departments, allowing for more immediate and streamlined aid. 

The push for a comprehensive and accessible advising system came after internal surveys revealed that students find the University’s advising system difficult to navigate, per Gertler. Hadley said she has received student feedback that the number of pathways for students to receive compartmentalized help at the University — by individually contacting Student Health and Wellness, the Career Center or other resource agencies — can be overwhelming.

“Students are overwhelmed with an abundance of opportunities,” Hadley said. “Collaboration allows us to keep up with our students, to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks.”

Farmer also broke down the incoming Class of 2026 for the Board, which is made up of roughly 9,522 students. Farmer and Gertler said the Class of 2026 marks an increase of one-third for Black students and one-fourth for Hispanic students, as compared to the Class of 2025. This year, the University issued 52 percent of offers to students of color — a record percentage and a 10 point increase over the previous year. 

Gertler added that while this class is in many ways reflective of previous classes insofar as the students enter the University wanting to jump into the University community, administrators must remember that most students in this class spent the last two years of highschool navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Learning virtually or in nontraditional ways throughout the pandemic could impact a student’s willingness to engage in academics upon arrival at the University, Gertler said. 

“We have to make sure that when students come here they’re willing and ready to engage in classes here,” Gertler said.

Baucom then discussed the University’s plan to make major investments up to $15 million in priority areas of research. The two central investment areas will be the brain and neurology and environmental resilience and sustainability. 

The goal of the investments in researching the brain and neurology is to develop a comprehensive approach and understanding of the brain across its lifespan. In developing mechanisms, researchers will work to establish a new paradigm for neuroscience along the model of a comprehensive cancer institute. 

Baucom also emphasized the University’s strength in understanding the conversion of liquid or light into energy and the potential establishment of a green technology entrepreneurship fund as part of establishing the potentially complementary nature of entrepreneurial investment and innovation.

To conclude the meeting, Joel Hockensmith, faculty representative to the Board of Visitors and associate professor of medicine, provided comment regarding his concern over the way the University treats post-doctoral fellows. Hockensmith remarked that the University has never tracked post-doctoral fellows and fails to provide post-doctoral fellows adequate student services, noting that the group is excluded from mental health services.

“We should not treat postdocs simply as underpaid glorified technicians,” Hockensmith said. “Postdocs historically are a part of the educational process. They’re part of our culture and we need to make sure we’re meeting their educational needs just as we meet the educational needs of our undergraduates.”

In response, Baucom said the University is modeling a new program for post-doctoral fellows on the existing Rising Scholars program, which offers fellows professional development mentoring and the chance to become a tenure-track professor at the University. According to Baucom, the University is putting forth a model whereby post-doctoral fellows are recruited as a cohort with specific mentoring plans in place to place them on the path to a professorship at the University or beyond. Baucom said the model has been in place for two years so far, with this fall’s class of post-doctoral students making up the third.

Approved professorships spanned departments and schools including the School of Engineering and Applied Science, School of Law and Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy as well as a directorship for Policy and Public Engagement through the Democracy Initiative.

Baucom credited the recent expansion of the Bicentennial Professors Fund as a large reason for the high volume of professorships approved at this meeting. The Bicentennial Professor’s Fund, approved by the Board of Visitors in 2017, is a system for incentivizing donors to endow professorships at the University. Through the fund, the University matches 50 percent of donations of $2 million or more and 100 percent of donations of $5 million or more to create endowed professorships. 

“The professorship matching fund has been absolutely transformative over the last few years,” Baucom said. 

The committee also voted to close the Slavic department’s PhD program following an evaluation from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia in spring 2020 that identified the program as not meeting productivity standards.

In light of the guidance, the dean of the Slavic department, along with the associate dean of graduate academic programs and associate dean for the arts and humanities, decided that increasing the program size to meet productivity standards — based on the national pool of applicants and available graduate faculty — was not feasible. 

“Following a lengthy review initiated by the state council of higher education of Virginia we felt ultimately that the right and ethical thing to do was to close the program,” Baucom said.

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