By Phillip Lentsch–
Where are you originally from, and what got you interested in teaching?
Well, I was born in Bombay, India, and grew up there. I went to the India Institute of Technology in New Delhi, and participated in a five-year program in engineering. After that, I enrolled at Penn State for a graduate degree and had a really good experience. It was at this point that I became a research engineer, and was assigned to be a teaching assistant in fluid mechanics. Penn State had a very large engineering program, so it was good for me to work as an undergraduate teaching assistant here. About three weeks into being a TA, however, the professor in charge of the class I was assisting had to go to a conference in Europe, and one day, told me that I’d be in charge of the class for the days he was gone. I remember how nervous I was at that time, how long I prepared for that class! Teaching in front of 80-90 students was an eye-opening experience to say the least. But after lecturing a few classes, the level of interaction I got from the students changed dramatically. When I was just a TA in the background, I’d get maybe one or two students a week to come to my office hours. After heading the class, there’d be lines of students outside my door to ask questions about the subject material, which told me that I’d made a genuine connection with these students. The experience suggested to me that I should invest in becoming a teacher, an shortly thereafter, I continued on to get my Ph.D, and spent 26 years teaching at the University of Cincinnati.
How does teaching apply to your job as Acting President?
It’s directly connected to it. Not so much in the teaching aspect as the fact that I understand that our university’s mission is about educating students at the undergraduate and graduate level. We use the “teacher-scholar model”, which allows faculty to engage in lectures and discussion with their students while also being on the creative frontier of their fields. As professors, we try to germinate that seed of curiosity in our students, because students really are the main product of a university. Whether you’re conducting research or actually teaching, it’s crucial to understand that we work at the grassroots level to motivate kids to learn.
You once mentioned that only about 67 percent of U of L students make it to their third year of college. How does this statistic connect to the impact that the 21st Century Initiative will have on student success?
Our role is to educate students, but we have to be realistic about the timeline of that education. The reality is that most students will leave a university after they’ve been educated in their way to be useful to society, so it’s important to ensure that they receive that credential in a rigorous but timely manner. First and foremost, we need to understand what gets in the way students graduating in four years. What we’ve found is that campus life matters just as much as student engagement in the classroom.
The role of the 21st Century Initiative is to create more of an interactive college experience for students at U of L. And it’s not just confined to the classroom. We want to increase classroom interaction with faculty, yes, but we’re also looking at other methods of experimenting with pedagogical techniques, such as through the opening of the Teaching Innovation Learning Lab. Our ability to improve the campus experience is important as well, which is why we’re still committed to continuing the renovations at the SAC and building up on residence halls. One of the things we’re really pushing aggressively is the Living Learning Community. We’ve gone in a few years from just under 10 percent of U of L students having access to that to over 25 percent of the freshmen coming in joining a LLC. We believe that if we create those environments for students to be engaged with each other, that has just as much, if not more, value than interaction with U of L faculty.
Other aspects that impact are financials. The fact that a student often has to work to pay the bills distracts from their main objective of getting a degree. That means we have to work to develop scholarship funds that allow us to support students in their work, so that finances don’t become a hindrance to their success. And then we’re also asking the question of whether we’re leveraging technology to ensure that we are actually providing tools to the students, advisors and faculty to ensure that students don’t get lost in the mechanics of the university. This distracts from students focusing on coursework, because there’s so much confusion in registering for classes or managing their things online.
The university is also facing the challenge of receiving more funding when it comes to performance-based funding. What is your opinion on the governor’s comments on finances for our university being more focused on business or engineering degrees instead of in the liberal arts?
That’s a great question. So, let me parse that out. Performance-based funding can mean many things to many people, depending on the major you’re in or the department you’re in. Many universities are moving to what they called performance-based budgeting, or PBB. When we talk about the metric that was just discussed, which is student graduation rates, the big question we ask is how do you motivate at the grassroots level to respond to an institutional goal of building student success? You start by building your budgeting and resource models to align with that. I’m in support of PBB, because previously in my role as provost, we were moving towards that model within the academic sphere of the university. Dr. Billingsley is continuing that.
To the second part of that question, that has to do more with issues at the state level. Now, I’m a firm believer that all disciplines and degrees exist because they’re important. Demands go up and down, but we have a tremendous track record of student success in every academic discipline that we have on campus. So while a student in my academic home in engineering may see a pathway to a profession that is very clear, as opposed to a political science or communication degree, where it’s not as clear, you have to look at where our graduates have ended up. And you’ll see that there may be some differences at the start, but the fact that you’re educated at the baccalauerete level lifts you to that standard right away. You’re useful to society and you have the potential to provide the same value to society when you graduate. Enrollments just vary depending on the particular demand of the time.
Let’s talk about campus crime. There were a string of robberies and sexual assaults around U of L’s campus recently. How is U of L responding and how do they plan on coordinating with the metro police in response to these incidents?
Harlan Sands, U of L’s CFO responded right away, and he’s working with our public safety department on this, and they always coordinate with LMPD. Clearly this is something that is horrific, whether it’s a student or a resident in the community is something that we have to prevent completely.
There is nothing more important than the safety of the students on our campus. Anything we can do with LMPD in collaboration with our public safety team to improve this situation is what we’re going to do. This is really tragic, it’s horrible, and we’ll have a plan moving forward on this. I have absolute confidence in our public safety department.
A few weeks ago, you expressed concern for any form of a payoff for former U of L President Ramsey from the U of L Foundation. Can you go into more specifics as to why you said these things?
Well I’ll start by saying that one should not forget the huge impact that President Ramsey has had on this university. I say this to everybody. His leadership has been truly transformational. I wasn’t here at the time, but from the start of his presidency we were a completely different university than we are now. It’s his leadership that got us there.
My current responsibility is to the University of Louisville and our mission. Right now, we are in an environment of limited resources, and we need to make sure that all of our available money is utilized for maximum impact. My statement – which was just a business communication between me and Chairman Hughes – was not meant for public consumption. I was communicating my position before I attended that meeting, and I though about it very carefully. If there’s a contract with Dr. Ramsey, we have fulfill the requirements of that contract. But anything beyond that I am not in support of. The way I was advised his contract would end was once his employment with U of L was over, that would require no additional benefits. It was my responsibility to ensure that the university protected its resources, and there was no need to provide him with an exit package other than what was contractually obligated.
The Foundation has actually gone through quite a lot of changes in recent weeks, with Ramsey, Kathleen Smith, and Bob Hughes all stepping down from their positions. How will this impact U of L?
I’d like to look forward, and in my view, I’m trying to make a judgment for what’s best for this university. One thing that is clear is that we need to change the way we’re doing things. We need fresh leadership, that leadership should be vetted, stakeholders should have a say in the process, it should be a process that’s transparent, and it should give our community confidence in the university’s trajectory.
No matter the circumstances, because of all that has gone on, there’s really no point in trying to unwind all that. And because of the fact that I was an outsider to all that happened, I have the privilege of looking at it objectively. With the change in presidential leadership, let’s prepare the campus for a new president and a new day, and let’s do it well. I’m looking to initiate a complete reorganization of the president’s staff as a whole, in combination with the provost’s office as well. Once there’s opportunities for us to actually provide better service in our desired positions, we can continue helping this university.
In regards to Kathleen Smith, she was the chief of staff for President Ramsey for many years and provided very loyal service to him. However, with Ramsey’s departure, for the good of the university, we collectively agreed that it was better for her to retire so I could start thinking about how to reorganize this office. It was a mutual decision.
Could you go into any detail about the progress of the search for a new university president?
That’s under the purview of the board of trustees, so I don’t get involved with that process. The board is specifically in charge of managing that process. But as you know, they can’t actually start up that process until we can resolve the issue of legally constituting a legitimate board in the courts.
What was your experience like when you were sitting on two separate boards of trustees?
Both boards have been uniformly supportive of me. You know, it’s fundamentally important that the university operates without interruption. They’ve been helpful in every aspect, and within the limitations of our current agreement, both chairs, Larry Benz and Junior Bridgeman have been very supportive of all that I’ve done so far as Acting President.
A few board members have talked about having more autonomy between the university and the foundation, and on who should be the president of both of these organizations. What are your thoughts?
Learning from what we’ve gone through here, clearly there is a change required in the way we’ve been structured relative to the foundation. I think we’ll learn from best practices from other universities, and we’ll adopt a set of organizational structures and bylaws fitting for it. What we need to remember is that the U of L Foundation’s sole purpose is to support the University of Louisville. We have to make sure that happens in a very transparent way while the decision-making process is preserved with respect to its integrity.
Did Kathleen Smith offer her retirement or was it a mutual decision?
She was very gracious, she acknowledged that I wanted to move to a different phase of the university, and she wanted to be helpful to me. We said it would be best for her to retire, and the conversation took only about five minutes. She’s put her heart into this place. I’ve only been here five years, she’s been here 45.
And According to Bob Hughes, she raised over $165 million for U of L…
I don’t have the exact number, but she’s definitely responsible for the transformation in our physical environment here. For example, the completion of University Pointe had a lot to do with her leadership.
Will her position be filled by an interim, or will you wait to find a new chief of staff?
I’m actually going to do this reorganization right now. Chief of staff is a very important position for a president. I will like to have someone in that role, but I haven’t decided who yet. It’s a little early for that right now, and the staff is doing a tremendous job of filling the gaps of people who have left.
What would you say as a final remark for the status of this university and to the students that are concerned?
This is a university that’s existed for a long time, and while this situation may appear alarming to students, we are always going to have our challenges. But the institution will endure, and the team of leadership that Dr. Billingsley and I have collected, as well as the faculty and the people that make this school operate, are working to ensure that the academics and the research continue on their trajectory.
We’re almost trying to build a firewall between what’s going on and the operational aspects of the university. It’s not perfect, but it’s working pretty well. And while the leadership team is important for coordination, it’s ultimately the deans and the department chairs that are at the frontlines, keeping this university going while all of this is happening, and I want to give them a lot of credit.