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Lunch with Mimi: Penn State Provost Nick Jones Helps Cultivate ‘Knock-Your-Socks-Off’ Ideas

by on September 14, 2017 5:00 AM

As executive vice president and provost of Penn State University, Nicholas P. Jones reports directly to President Eric J. Barron, serves as chief executive officer in the president’s absence, and is involved in nearly all university operations. He is responsible for all academic units (colleges, schools, and campuses), as well as major academic support units, such as the University Libraries, Educational Equity, Affirmative Action, and Information Technology Services.

Born in Wellington, New Zealand, Jones earned an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He went on to earn both a master’s degree and a PhD in civil engineering from the California Institute of Technology.

Prior to assuming his role at Penn State in July 2013, he served as the Benjamin T. Rome Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. He also served two years as professor and head of the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Jones in The Dining Room at The Nittany Lion Inn to discuss how the university’s multiyear strategic plan will help transform how students pursue higher learning at Penn State, and how the public can benefit from the university’s vast research enterprise.

Mimi: How are things going at Penn State, overall and for you as provost?

Nick: I’m very excited about where the university is and the direction it’s headed. When I first arrived here about four years ago, one of my first jobs was to preside over the development of Penn State’s new strategic plan. It was challenging in a positive way because I was new and still had a lot to learn.

Mimi: When did the previous plan expire?

Nick: The last strategic plan took the university probably through 2012, and then there was a bit of a delay in developing the subsequent one as I came aboard. Ultimately, the strategic planning process enabled me to learn in a disciplined way about everything we do at Penn State, and identify our strengths and opportunities.

Mimi: What was Penn State’s status then, in your opinion? 

Nick: Penn State has a long history of being a large, impactful, land-grant institution. It also established a track record in recent years of being a place where collaborative work could be done well.

Mimi: And create new things.

Nick: Yes. The fact that we can bring people together across disciplines, through our institute structure, shows the positive culture we have. With that as a foundation, the strategic plan revealed that we had the opportunity to do so much more by unleashing collaborative approaches to problem-solving. What emerged from the process was a focus on five areas: health, stewarding resources, transforming education, digital innovation, and arts and humanities. All are areas where we are uniquely positioned to lead and have positive impacts on the communities we serve.

Mimi: And how do you think you’re doing?

Nick: It’s going great. We have an implementation structure in place, and we are moving forward with real purpose. Every day, someone — a dean, or a faculty or staff member — comes into my office with a great idea, one that really knocks your socks off.

Mimi: So, can you give an example of a possible “knock-your-socks-off” idea?

Nick: Certainly. Our Transforming Education group is driving home the idea that Penn State is unique among higher education institutions across the United States — and arguably the world — in terms of its structure. We are one university with 24 campus locations and a really effective World Campus that delivers courses via the internet. No other institution in the country is structured this way, with the scope we have.

Mimi: You can blame it on Eric Walker.

Nick: Right. One of the powerful attributes of that is our ability to really live the land-grant mission by being present in all of those communities and having Penn State campuses in those locations.

Mimi: And, I would argue that with the more recent emphasis on economic development, in many of those places Penn State’s role will become even more significant.

Nick: I agree. We’re seeing it already in some places where the Invent Penn State initiative is starting to have a transformational effect. The New Kensington campus got one of the seed grants provided through Invent Penn State, and leaders there have committed to build an entrepreneurial incubator downtown. Since that commitment was made, we’ve drawn in partners from the community and the region, all of whom have made investments. There are at least 14 new, small businesses that are planning to set up shop in the New Kensington downtown area in large part because Penn State has committed to put our facility there, and they want to be able to leverage that.

Mimi: So, the economic development piece has a lot of bells and whistles in the public’s mind. How are we doing overall? 

Nick: I think we’re doing well. We’ve come an extraordinarily long way. I’ve been here four years. President Barron has been here for about three years, and Neil Sharkey has been the vice president for research since about the time that I arrived. The three of us really share a passion and a vision for Penn State’s role in technology commercialization. Beyond that, we’re a top-tier research university. We have an obligation as part of our mission to make sure our discoveries find their way into policy, process, or products because, when they do, then the public will benefit. In the past, we often hoped that it would happen. We did good work, published it, and threw things over the transom. I think we pay much more attention now to ensuring that results are less random. We make sure opportunities are carried over the transom and placed in an optimal way to increase the likelihood that citizens can directly benefit.

Mimi: I do believe one has a feeling that’s going on. Can you point to any other specifics that would help define the progress we’re making in those efforts? I remember at the opening of the Happy Valley Launchbox, I heard the young woman from the Schreyer Honors College talk about the device she and others were working on to help people who were unable to speak — Mary Elizabeth McCulloch with Project Vive. Where does that stand?

Nick: I think she just won another national competition award for that. That is a good example of translating our work into impact. That is the title of the strategic plan, Our Commitment to Impact. We believe our job is to have a positive impact on the constituencies we serve.

Mimi: If my readers could see the determination in your eyes, they’d know you mean all that.

Nick: I do mean that, absolutely. We were talking about transforming education before. There is no other institution quite like us in terms of structure and scope. We really have a unique opportunity to unleash that structure in a much more coherent and coordinated way. The World Campus was a start-up venture that the university launched 18 years ago that has been remarkably successful. Our vision for Penn State 2025 is that all of these modalities will be much more seamlessly integrated for our students. So, students who want to earn a Penn State degree have multiple entry points, many options, and there will be transparency across all of these units. Students can be at University Park and seamlessly take courses from World Campus and other campus locations without having to physically go elsewhere. If there is a professor at Penn State Behrend who teaches a course that an engineering student at University Park would like to have in his or her curriculum, we will be able to make that happen.

Mimi: And this is all because of technology?

Nick: Technology is a big facilitator, but it’s not all about technology. We are seeing an extraordinary emerging and renewed commitment among our faculty and administration to serve critical roles in educating the next generation of learners. 

Mimi: And doing it better than anyone else.

Nick: Yes, by doing it better than anybody else and leveraging that uniqueness of our structure to do so. We are thinking about how we can be more effective in teaching our students to be effective learners. The days of standing in front of the chalkboard, like I used to do when I was a brand-new assistant professor and giving a lecture, are largely over. It’s all about “active learning,” with the professor serving less as a lecturer and more as a “learning facilitator.” Your role is to enable the students to learn in more effective ways. Flipped classrooms are a good example, where the students are provided typical lecture material in advance, along with complementary readings. The class, then, instead of being the place where information is thrown at you, is an opportunity for discussion, problem-solving, and pursuing the nuance. Technology is a piece of this, because it enables this to happen in ways it hasn’t happened before. Students can view a lecture online before class, and then discuss the lecture in class. But we also need to have learning spaces that are configured appropriately to make that happen. We also need faculty and others who are willing to engage with our students in new ways. It’s exciting to see that they are willing to reconsider and retool the way they do things to be more effective.

Mimi: Sounds like a challenge, but exciting. I sit here in utter amazement at the volume of work that’s in your job title. How do you get it all done?

Nick: The most important resource I have are the people I am privileged to work with. Whether it’s the deans, the vice provosts, vice presidents, the staff in my office, or my executive assistant, I’m just very fortunate to have committed, smart, and capable people around me. A big part of my job is making sure that this is the case. We’ve just gone through several dean searches, and I’m really excited that, even though we’ve transitioned out some people who have been great contributors to Penn State, we’ve brought in new people who are going to take us in exciting directions. So, making sure that we have the right people is probably the most important thing that I do. Then, a big part of my job is to get them the resources they need to be successful and to ensure they know they have my support. Then I empower them to do their best work.

Mimi: They’re part of the lifting. I observed in the period of time since you’ve been here, you’ve hired a lot of women in leadership. Was that on purpose?

Nick: My policy is to make sure we’re always hiring the best people for the job. One of the ways we do that is to ensure that the groups from which we select our leaders are broadly representative, and that we can see different perspectives, strengths, and points of view. If we don’t have a good pool of candidates from which to select, then I think we have one hand tied behind our back. I’m always committed to hiring the best person for the job, and we’ve been successful over the last few years with search committees that I have charged to help me in that process. We have worked very hard to make sure we have great candidates in the pools, and the outcome is what you described.

Mimi: How are we coming regarding diversity overall?

Nick: We’re making progress, but have a lot of work to do. My personal view is that, many times, a focus on diversity can end up looking more at the means rather than at the end. We need to build what I describe as a “powerfully inclusive environment.”

Mimi: And that’s difficult in a small community.

Nick: It can be, but that’s what we need to be focusing on — building an inclusive, embracing, and welcoming community. The All-In initiative is a great example — a very strong statement from our university that we are focused on inclusion and through that focus on true inclusion we are committed to building a more diverse community.

Mimi: Reflecting back on your four years, if you were to point your finger at the one thing you are really proud of, what is it? 

Nick: The strategic plan. I came at a really good time, and we were able to create an inclusive strategic planning process, reaching out and getting everybody to participate. Now that we’re moving to implement the plan, we’re keeping people engaged and excited. I see a lot of great ideas emerging to be acted upon. As the implementation plays out, it’s going to be tremendously impactful for the university.

Mimi: I would observe that all of the good that has come from your role and your planning has helped Penn State amid some adverse conditions, some of which have made negative news nationally. How do you keep your cool?

Nick: In a large, complex community like ours, sometimes tragedies and crises happen. Part of our job as administrators is to manage through these. If you’re a skipper on a boat and there’s a thunderstorm ahead, you can’t necessarily turn around and sail in the other direction.

Mimi: Not if you want to get to where you want to go.

Nick: You have to, with resolve, sail through. And, in the process of sailing through, you have to keep a steady hand on the tiller so that everybody on the boat knows that you’re going to get through this storm and emerge on the other side, still on course. I do think that, at times, when people get frustrated, disappointed, upset, or angry about some of the issues we’ve had to deal with, there is just a fundamental belief in the positive impacts that this remarkable institution can have. We will get through things, make the corrections, address the issues, but we are focused on being the impactful university that we can be that makes positive differences in people’s lives. That gives people something to come back to. A lot of that, from my perspective, is encapsulated in the strategic plan and related activities.

Mimi: The state budget is still an interesting puzzle from almost any point of view. I can’t help but wonder what might happen to our annual appropriation from the commonwealth. What happens if our appropriation doesn’t come through or eventually disappears?

Nick: We really have no choice but to think about that. When the legislature was in the middle of the budget impasse a couple years ago, it wasn’t clear Penn State would get an appropriation. During the impasse, it became increasingly worrisome that could happen, so we began the process of contingency planning for that outcome. The impact on the university would have been profound. It would have meant an overnight loss of education and general funding of more than $220 million. We’re a big institution, but $220 million is a lot of money. We had a plan. Realistically, it would have taken at least five years to recover. We would survive because we’re a strong institution, but we would emerge from that period looking quite different than we did going in. We essentially would become a private institution without public support. But I never found one person anywhere in the institution that thought we should walk away from the commitment of being Pennsylvania’s land-grant institution whose mission is to serve the citizens of the commonwealth. That was really powerful to me, that people are so committed to their mission, even if we fail to get support from Harrisburg. That the mission would continue to be embraced reveals how people at this university feel about their roles and their commitment to service.

Mimi: Many of us all around town are walking examples about what that meant to all of us individually.

Nick: Yes. It is s not just a concept, it’s not just words, and it’s real and powerful to be immersed in that.

Mimi: Well, I want to thank you for sharing your time and insights. We appreciate it and wish you continuing success as you carry a big load, academically and otherwise.

Nick: Thank you very much, Mimi, I appreciate it. My alarm goes off very early each morning! And while I don’t quite know what’s going to be in front of me in the day ahead, it’s pretty easy to jump out of bed and come in empowered every morning because I realize the awesome potential of Penn State to do extraordinary good, not only in Pennsylvania, but in the nation and even beyond. That is energizing. And I’m fortunate to have great colleagues.

Mimi: I guess that’s true of all of us, nobody gets there alone.

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