12 Questions for Our New Provost

On January 1, 2016, Dr. Steven C. Currall will come to the Hilltop as our new provost, filling the vacancy left by Paul Ludden this June. Dr. Currall comes from UC Davis, where he was advisor to the chancellor. Upon his arrival, he will oversee academic affairs across the university.

Last week, I had the chance to ask Dr. Currall about his vision for SMU, his coming transition from UC Davis, and the experiences that shaped him as a leader and intellectual. 

What are your Christmas plans? Will you have moved to Texas by then?

I look forward to moving to Texas during the final week of December. My wife and I will celebrate Christmas at our existing home in California.

How has your academic training in psychology guided your behaviors and attitudes regarding your future at SMU? What about your personal history?

My commitment to collaborating with workplace colleagues stems, in part, from my psychology background. Although I began my undergraduate education as an architecture major, I later decided that I wanted to become a clinical psychologist. Retaining my passion about psychology, during graduate school I shifted my focus from clinical psychology to the psychology of the workplace. Therefore, my academic career during the past 25 years has emphasized organizational psychology. For example, a topic I’ve studied is the psychology of interpersonal trust and how it influences collaboration in the workplace. One of the many reasons I am excited about joining SMU is that its close–knit community helps to catalyze partnerships across disciplines.

What are some of the biggest growth points you see for SMU, and how will you address them?

The higher education landscape is very fluid, which provides for many growth opportunities.  When I arrive at SMU in January, I will join deliberations about how to further strengthen our commitment to liberal arts education for undergraduates and, at the same time, enhance SMU’s discovery and scholarly impact.  Those two elements of the University’s mission reinforce each other.  We’ll also be exploring opportunities for innovative use of technology for students as well as for adult learners who seek graduate degrees or non-degree professional education.

Many departments are fractions of the sizes they’d like to be. Computer Science and Engineering relies on adjuncts and narrowing its topical coverage. Biological Sciences and Physics each highly specialize. What are your plans for growing and supporting the faculty?

As Provost, the most important way I can contribute to the educational experience of our students is to support SMU deans in their efforts to continue recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining outstanding faculty members. World-class faculty members create world-class educational experiences for students.   Although SMU is a comprehensive university with a great diversity of disciplines and programs, we are also wise to focus our resources in strategic ways. Regarding the importance of both full-time and adjunct faculty members, during my career, I have seen students benefit greatly by classroom and co-curricular programs led by both types of faculty members.

The introduction of SMU’s new University Curriculum (UC) caused a deal of friction, leading to a series of revisions. These have been especially challenging for students who choose to double-major. How would you encourage interdisciplinary studies without extending students’ degrees beyond four years?

I am beginning to learn about the UC, which is vitally important to SMU because the UC provides the blueprint for the student experience.  Looking forward, the UC must both facilitate the breadth of a student’s academic exploration and ensure that they can finish their degree in four years.

You call yourself an “organizational architect”. Which systems at your previous universities will you implement here, and on what timelines?

As I learn about the unique culture and traditions of SMU, I will aim to ensure that policies are aligned with our special vision and mission.  While avoiding transplanting into SMU policies from other universities, it is possible to be informed by lessons learned from other universities in considering what fits with SMU.  I have been a faculty member and administrator at five other universities, including both private (e.g., at Rice University for 12 years) and public institutions, as well as those located in the United States and overseas.  I hope that the breadth of my experience will allow me to meaningfully contribute to deliberations about the future of SMU.   As I mentioned earlier, I began my undergraduate education as an architecture major.  I was drawn to architecture because of my inclination to be a “builder”.  That, combined with my organizational psychology background, will orient me toward fortifying the organizational pillars of academic excellence at SMU.

Your job is obviously very big; do you consider yourself to be more big–picture or detail–oriented?

What is so stimulating about serving as Provost is that the job requires one to simultaneously be a strategic thinker about the long-term interest of SMU and be an operational leader working to execute on our existing strategic plans.  I will strive to be both strategic and operational.

Could you take some time to give your general thoughts on minority student grievances, diversity, and freedom of speech?

I will aim to be a resource to President Turner, and other campus leaders, to ensure that SMU provides an outstanding educational and personal experience for each and every student.

How would you work with Dr. Doyle (Director of the University Honors Program) to improve retention and enrollment in the UHP?

I look forward to meeting Dr. Doyle and working to ensure a flourishing Honors Program that is second to none in the United States.  I have served as a faculty advisor in an honors program at another university, which I enjoyed a great deal.

Your book Organized Innovation: A Blueprint for Renewing America’s Prosperity lays out a framework for universities to maximize their technological and research output. Which specific structural changes would you bring to SMU? How can individual students apply the ideas from the book?

We will be exploring ways to ensure that the world-class discoveries by our faculty and students, whether they be in visual and performing arts, sciences, humanities, engineering, law, education, social sciences, or business, have an impact on vital global challenges.  My co-authors and I argued in Organized Innovation that it is possible for university leaders to work in concert with policy makers and industry leaders to orchestrate the conditions that foster innovation emanating from universities.  In my work at SMU, I will be seeking ways to create the conditions for even greater educational and scholarly innovation.  Students can begin to apply the ideas in the book by choosing interdisciplinary educational experiences that stretch their imaginations and existing skill sets.

Which Hogwarts house would you be sorted into?

From Harry Potter films, I recall that the magic Sorting Hat decides to which house at the Hogwarts School a student is assigned.  So, the Hat would choose the house for me (preferably not Slytherin!).  By the way, I understand that one area of speculation about the Hogwarts School is whether it was inspired more by the traditions of the University of Oxford or of the University of Cambridge. Apparently, several scenes in the movies were filmed at Christ Church College and other locations in the University of Oxford.  On the other hand, when I lived in London from 2005–2009, I visited the actual site of Platform 9 ¾ (yes, there is a real Platform 9 ¾), which Harry and others used to “travel” by train to Hogwarts.  The fact that Platform 9 ¾ is located at London King’s Cross train station, where real life trains depart for Cambridge (by contrast, trains to Oxford depart from London Paddington Station), suggests that part of the inspiration for Hogwarts was from Cambridge.  Perhaps Hogwarts was inspired by both Oxford and Cambridge?

Could you provide some of your thoughts on life, the universe, and everything?

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Mark Twain

“Great leaders have the ability to recognize and cultivate greatness in others.”  Paraphrased from Maya Angelou.

This interview was conducted by Arya McCarthy. Click here to see more of Arya’s work.

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