Though she wasn’t in the market for a new job, Susan Phillips, a finalist candidate for chancellor at the University of Massachusetts, said she couldn’t pass on the position.
She is currently the provost and vice president of academic affairs at the State University of New York Albany, and she traveled just over 100 miles to speak with students, faculty and staff yesterday.
“I was happily at Albany for many years, and then this position became open and it just beckoned to me,” said Phillips at a small roundtable meeting with students Tuesday afternoon.
She added, “This is an incredibly active, vibrant, creative community. It has the best students, best faculty, successful alumni and a history of student activism that’s been the defining way other campuses strive to be.”
Phillips is the second of four chancellor candidates to visit the Commonwealth this week.
The potential chancellor first visited the UMass campus when considering colleges as a student.
“I actually came here for the first time as a potential graduate student. I visited the campus a gazillion years ago, and there’s so much more here now, and so many more opportunities for students,” she said.
Though she chose to attend Columbia University for her master’s degree in psychology, Phillips said she considers the UMass campus to be a “legend.”
“I think of UMass, the world thinks of UMass, as this legend,” said Phillips, though one that has had “a lot of bumps and bruises.”
“There was a period of time when all of higher education was aghast at what financial trouble [UMass] was going to bear, and yet it has thrived,” she said. “It has done magnificently and grown.”
In between a meeting with faculty members and lunch on the 10th floor of the Murray D. Lincoln Campus Center, Phillips asked students what they wished to see changed at the University.
Jarred Rose, speaker of the Student Government Association, discussed relations between students and the administration.
Rose said, “This current administration is a PR person’s worst nightmare.”
Speaking specifically of the recent and controversial changes to Residential Life, Rose added, “they’re just very bad at communicating with students, and it’s an issue I’ve brought up to them many times.” He asked how Phillips would address this issue.
In response, Phillips said, “On any campus, communication is the hardest problem.”
To combat such an issue, Phillips said she would “create a team of people, various deans and other people who would report to me.”
Phillips stated that she was hesitant to go into the details of the matter, saying “I don’t know the climate of the campus.”
She added that her plans for the flagship campus would change as she becomes more familiar with the campus.
“I am a complete novice to the campus, the Commonwealth and the culture. I have a lot to learn. That said, I have my own way of leading, and some of that will work here and some of that I will probably need to change, but I don’t know what those variables are yet, but there will be a period of time of learning,” she said.
Zachary Broughton, a senator of the SGA and a member of the Board of Trustees Search Committee that chose Phillips as a finalist, asked the chancellor candidate what steps she would take to include students in changes to the University.
“Decisions are often made, and then the administration comes to ask afterwards what we think, and our thoughts at that point have little chance of changing such decisions. How would you change this?” asked Broughton.
After a brief pause, Phillips responded, “one of the difficulties that I imagine working at such a big campus is how you get enough of a student voice. I haven’t fully wrapped my mind around how you fully get the voice of the students, but I assume it’s through student government.”
She spoke of the difficulty of balancing the budget and the needs of students. She added, “If I’m mandated to say we’re going west, then we’re going west, but I’ll at least talk to you about it first.”
Rose followed up with a question addressing the University’s budget. “We’re having a serious funding issue with the state. I’m wondering what your thoughts are about effective strategizing to get legislators to give us money.”
The voice of the students, according to Phillips, is the most effective way of lobbying legislators. “You are their constituency. An institution, while in their district, is not their constituency, because it does not vote.”
She also cited her experience seeking state funds in New York.
“When I’ve gone to the legislators to lobby for changes in resources or to thank them for changes, I’ve brought with me students, particularly students from their districts,” she said. “The stories were just riveting, they’re way better than the stories I could have told as a professor or a provost. And the passion is the students.”
Following her day on campus, Phillips returned to her post as provost at SUNY Albany. Today and Thursday, the two finalists who have not yet addressed the campus will do so.
Kumble Subbaswamy will be speaking in Amherst today. He has been provost at the University of Kentucky for six years. Prior to this post, he was an associate dean of arts and sciences and the chair of the department of physics and astronomy. He has worked at the University of Kentucky since 1978.
Sona Andrews, vice chancellor for academic strategies for the Oregon University campuses will follow suit on Thursday.
After the remaining candidates speak on campus, UMass President Robert Caret will recommend one of them to the Board of Trustees Search Committee. The group who chose the four finalists will also make the final decision of who will be chancellor.
The recommendation could possibly be announced by the end of the month, according to a statement on the Board of Trustees’ website.
Michelle Williams can be reached at email@example.com.