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September 17, 2013

New Provost David Rosowsky joins UVM after serving as dean of the nation’s oldest school of engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Prior to that, he chaired one of the nation’s largest civil engineering programs at Texas A&M University. Rosowsky began his academic career in 1990 after completing his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, distinguishing himself as a teacher and scholar of civil engineering focused on the reliability of structures, particularly the performance of wood structures subject to natural hazards and extreme environmental loads.

What you won’t find on David Rosowsky’s CV is that he’s the product of a Boston-area academic family. He jokes, “It took me a long time to realize there were jobs other than a college professor.” As an undergraduate at Tufts he considered a music major and thought physics might be his path until a professor took him aside and said, “Son, you’re not smart enough to be a physicist.” Civil engineering spoke to him with the attraction to “designing large, one-of-a-kind structures like buildings and bridges.” A “good student, not a great one,” Rosowsky says things changed, “the engine started to fire,” as a graduate student and research fellow at Johns Hopkins.

Away from work, Rosowsky is a longtime runner and amateur triathlete who says exercise is an important physical, mental and spiritual part of his days. While he describes himself as a “middle-of-the-packer,” his wife, Michelle, is anything but. An elite age-group triathlete, she traveled to London last week to represent the U.S. at the World Championships. The Rosowskys have two children — Melissa, fourth grade, and Leo, second grade — both students at South Burlington’s Central School. “We made the move relatively easily,” the new provost says. “Everybody is happy, healthy, and excited to be here.”

UVM Today sat down with Provost Rosowsky a month into the job to talk about first impressions and the road ahead.

UVM Today: Your past academic leadership has been within engineering. Was stepping into the broader scope of an entire university a particular attraction of the provost’s job at UVM?

Provost Rosowsky: Definitely. I have spent the last decade, in my academic leadership positions, creating programs and opportunities to prepare the next generation of engineers. My focus was on producing engineers who were able to think about and creatively solve complex problems, bring teams together from myriad disciplines, communicate their findings and influence public policy. I very much wanted the opportunity to engage a comprehensive university in this mission to prepare university graduates who can think critically and integratively in order to find solutions to the complex problems facing our nation and our planet.

Twenty of my 24 years in higher education were spent at land grant universities. I’m deeply committed to the land grant mission.

How are you going about getting to know the place?

I asked to get out in front of as many university groups as possible right away, and it’s been a busy but wonderful first month. There has been very little time spent at my desk. All of the reflection and early strategic thinking has been done after my kids go to bed. I’ve made it my top priority to meet people across the UVM campus and throughout the university community.

Do you enjoy that? Are you a gregarious person?

I love it. I love it. I have had many questions like, “Are you overwhelmed? Have we scared you off yet?” And I simply say, “I love the job.”  When I speak with groups around campus, the first thing I say is “I’m thrilled to be here.” I’m thrilled to be here; my family is thrilled to be here. In many ways I feel like the first 24 years of my career have prepared me to be provost of the University of Vermont right now.

Higher education — a place populated by highly analytical, independent minds — can be a difficult environment in which to lead.  Do you think it requires a different leadership approach than government or business?

Certainly. It requires strong integrative and critical thinking skills. It requires strong communication skills. It requires someone who is able and eager to listen and to accept thoughtful and constructive input from very talented and deeply committed people. Being in a complex organization that periodically has problems that must be addressed is not unusual, nor is it something I fear. Higher education leaders are fortunate to be surrounded by very intelligent people, and very intelligent people can add value to almost any discussion. The challenge is that we’re all busy, and one of the best things we can do for the institution is focus our time, talents and energies on the jobs we’re paid to do. Faculty must be focused on their students and their scholarship, both teaching and research. I want to develop a culture on campus in which faculty and staff trust that there will be authentic consultation in the areas in which they can add the most value. But that has to be balanced with my need to make timely decisions. I feel fortunate to be surrounded by so many people who care deeply about the university’s present and future, people who are fully invested in ensuring that the university not only continues into the future but flourishes.

Former UVM president Tom Salmon was fond of the phrase “permanent whitewater” in describing the challenges before higher education in his era, and we face many similar challenges these days. What reasons do you see to be optimistic for higher ed right now?

If there has been a whitewater churn historically — and I think that’s more hyperbole than anything else — then we are witnessing a sea change now. We are really going to see significant churn in the next decade. This will be driven by financial constraints, changes in pedagogical as well as institutional models and changes in students’ expectations. We’re going to have to think and act strategically, manage resources responsibly and sustainably, and make richly informed decisions and sometimes difficult choices. It will be an exciting but challenging period ahead.

What cause do I see for optimism? Never has there been a time that the mission of the land grant — the call to action of the land grant university — has been so important. We have a critical role to play in addressing society’s grand challenges in health, the environment, food systems and global quality of life. We’ll also be instrumental in creating jobs, helping build the state’s knowledge economy and contributing to sustainable economic growth in Vermont.

We’re going to need the state, we’re going to need industrial partnerships, corporate partnerships, individual philanthropy — all of these must come together to create the great public research universities of the future. And we will be one of those great universities. That’s exciting. It’s not wishy-washy; it’s not amorphous; it’s not hard to wrap your arms around. It’s right there in front of us. I’m very excited for the University of Vermont at this time, with these challenges, that we will come out leaner, stronger, more effective, a closer partner with the state, a more valuable partner with the established industries in the state and a real part of the start-up culture that we’re seeing blossom in Burlington.

If we sat down again a year from now, what are the top things you’d like to look back on as accomplishments or signs of significant progress in your first year at UVM?

I’m a social being. So the first thing I would like to be able to say is that I am known to the campus. I hope that I will be regarded as a compelling provost, one who has vision, capacity to lead the campus in an important transformation, and who is doing so with all the best intent, the best motivations and the best information coming forward. I’d hope to be regarded as somebody who is engaged, somebody who is engaging, and somebody who can create engagement — somebody who is not afraid to make a decision. Above all else, I would like to be somebody who is trusted by the faculty and staff to make the best decisions in the best interest of our university.

I have four key initiative sets that I’m working on. I will be rolling these out in my public remarks soon. One obviously has to do with the new budget model. If we can get traction on that this first year and meet my deadline for a report to the president by next June, that will be a huge, huge step forward for this university.

I see you’ve been an enthusiastic tweeter in your first weeks here. Is social media something you’re experienced with or a new direction?

No, I am brand new to Twitter. Maybe you can tell that from my tweets. I was one of the last people to adopt an ATM card, so let’s start with that. Why am I doing it? Two reasons. First, I’m a student of higher education, and it has become very clear to me that provosts in the future, presidents in the future, deans in the future are going to have to include social media in their communications strategies.

The second reason is that I’ve always been very student centered. I got into this business to teach at a university. That’s why I’m here. As provost, I don’t have a lot of organic touch-points with students. I want students to know why there is a provost and what the provost does. I want them to know that there’s somebody in the senior administration whose primary responsibility is to ensure a world class education and that their degree has both rigor and value.

I decided to take on tweeting as a vehicle to reach students where they live. An added benefit is that it provides an opportunity for faculty, staff, alumni, Burlington residents and Vermonters to get a sense of who I am and what I’m thinking. But it’s primarily aimed at connecting with students. We’ll see how that plays out.

Does your schedule allow you any space to just go to the Davis Center for lunch, bump into students informally?

One of my highest priorities is getting out and talking with students. Here’s my opener, “Tell me what’s on your mind, understand what my office is here for and let’s have a conversation about what’s working or what needs to be improved.” I view students as the reason we’re here, and I want to hear from them.

I’m going to be purposeful about bumping into students, starting with impromptu tweets with offers to buy coffee for any student who shows up at the Davis Center at 10 o’clock on a particular day. I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know if I’ll be sitting there having coffee by myself or if I’ll be buying a hundred coffees. Either way, I’m there. I like coffee.

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