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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Making the case

October 10, 2011

Karen Hanson.

Public universities are fundamental for the nation, new U provost says 

By Bill Magdalene

"There is a new public skepticism about higher education," Karen Hanson says. "Skepticism about rising tuition. Skepticism about things like tenure and academic freedom and the value of the liberal arts. Even skepticism about the research enterprise itself, unless that research is obviously creating jobs."

Chosen by President Eric Kaler to be the University of Minnesota's new senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, pending approval by the Board of Regents at its Oct. 13-14 meeting, Hanson is acutely aware of the scope of the challenge she faces. Yet she's thrilled about the opportunity.

"These are exciting times for the U of M. I'm thrilled to be returning to Minnesota," she says, having earned a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy and mathematics from the U (1970) before going on to get a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard (1980). Hanson currently works at Indiana University, where since 2007 she has served as provost of the Bloomington campus and executive vice president of the university.

"In having liberal arts, engineering, agriculture, an academic health center, and more, all on one campus in an urban setting, as well as strong coordinate campuses throughout the state, the University of Minnesota is poised to be in the vanguard for repositioning the nation's public universities," she says.

Times are hard, and the public is focusing on the economy and jobs. "College is a time to prepare for a job," she acknowledges. "Yet public research universities also play the central role in creating society's new knowledge. Through their liberal arts mission they help sustain and advance culture. They help people have productive and meaningful lives. They help citizens learn to live with one another, express themselves civilly, and be analytic about directions of the nation."

Universities themselves must make the case that public higher education is a fundamental building block that the nation can't do without, Hanson says. As provost for the U of M, beginning in February 2012, she will play a big role in making the case, something she is well equipped to do. "Philosophers thrive on argumentation," she laughs.

What does a provost do?

A provost oversees a university's academic activities and budgeting, including matters related to academic programs, faculty promotion and tenure, research, outreach, and student recruitment and retention.

Universities are constantly changing, as disciplines develop and new things are discovered. "All faculty should think that what they're doing is the most important thing!" Hanson says. "Figuring out what to support, and what to help facilitate, is the work of the provost. And that work is done through constant consultation."

She's happy that her background in philosophy and the humanities complements President Kaler's background in science and chemical engineering. "This complementarity may help the administration as it works to support and advance a variety of disciplines and what's currently most important in all the fields represented on a campus," she says.

Efficiency and effectiveness

Hanson says the public is right to be concerned about things like tuition and graduation rates. "It's becoming harder and harder for some citizens—people with low or even modest incomes, first generation students, people of color—to see a university education as a viable option. Huge loans are frightening."

She says that cost-savings should be looked for on the administrative side. "Administration has to understand itself as not having any intrinsic value at all!" she laughs. "But it has an important instrumental value in supporting the faculty's work of research and educating our students."

For much of what goes on at a university, to speak of "inefficiency" is inappropriate, she says. "For example, there's value in intellectual exploration, where people are looking around and maybe not going from point A to point B in the shortest line. That's absolutely worth preserving."

Hanson believes that advances in academic effectiveness will be found through new partnerships with state and federal government, and with philanthropies and businesses. "Business partnerships will have to be carefully navigated," she says, "given the values that we can't sacrifice—academic freedom and open access to our research results."