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Meet the Provost: Marten denBoer settles in

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Provost Marten denBoer sits with a member of the board of trustees during his campus visit in February. He was named provost in March after beating out four other finalists. (Megan Deppen / The DePaulia)

Provost Marten denBoer sits with Richard Farkas, a professor of political science, during his campus visit in February. He was named provost in March after beating out four other finalists. (Megan Deppen / The DePaulia)

Last week, the DePaulia spoke with new Provost Marten denBoer. This discussion ranged from denBoer’s philosophy as a provost to the controversy surrounding Dean Gerald Koocher. 

The DePaulia: Now that it has been a few months, how has it been adjusting to first your position, and to DePaul and the city in general?

Marten denBoer: Well, you know DePaul is really a wonderful place and I’ve been really impressed with the both the quality and intelligence and the sense of mission and commitment that people here at DePaul have. It’s really wonderful to work with people who are so caring and concerned with what the university is doing. And their nice people too, which isn’t always the case at California. It’s really been a pleasure.

DP: What is your philosophy as provost?

MDB: I mentioned the mission of DePaul and that’s something that I take really very seriously. We are here to educate students and prepare them not only for the workforce but also to be engaged and committed citizens of the city and the state and have a sense of value, social justice and so on and that’s something that is one of the major reasons that I’m here. In the interview phase, I talked to students and really heard from them about what DePaul meant to them. And so my philosophy as provost is to ensure that we do as good a job at serving students in those ways, preparing for the workforce but also teaching them values about caring for others and making the world a better place. What I can do to help with that, and send that message to the professors and instructors who you have in your classes?

DP: When you came here back in February, you were quoted saying DePaul is a private university that really seeks its mission in a public way. What are some things you will look to do as provost to support DePaul’s mission even when in these challenging times of declining revenue streams and lack of support from external ways?

MDB: DePaul has an advantage and a disadvantage in the sense that it’s always been really tuition-driven, and so we’re less dependent on, say, the stock market and return on invest than some other universities. One of my primary goals is to ensure that enrollment remains high. That’s important in terms of having a stable budget environment. Even with a stable budget we have to focus on what we can do; how can we best serve students. So the priority should be on, if you have a choice between two things, do the thing that serves students best. That goes with the kinds of choices we would make: what’s best for the student in all cases.

DP: One of the challenges about DePaul is that there are several colleges that are doing really well, where the enrollment is going up, such as CDM. But then you also have some, like the College of Law, that are really struggling with enrollment. As provost, what do you think is the best method of supporting the colleges that need the support, that need the help to grow but also keeping support high for areas that are struggling at the moment?

MDB: I think we have to first of all recognize that historically it’s always been the case that some colleges did better than other colleges. You mentioned CDM. They did really well during the early ’00s during the dot com boom. But then there was the dot com crash, and they didn’t do so well, so then they were supported by other colleges in terms of overall revenue, and they learned from that. They expanded and found new programs that attract students and recovered from that.

You mentioned the College of Law. You’re right, there’s a natural trend to lower enrollment in specific JD degrees within law so one of the things that the college is doing is finding other opportunities for students like a master of law degree, degrees that go with our health initiative, to identify new ways that the College of Law can conserve students. The expectation isn’t that next year the College of Law wouldn’t be fully self-supporting but by making appropriate investments we can redirect some of the sources so that the College of Law over the long term can be a self-sustaining college.

And so, we are a single university. The areas that are “profit centers” sometimes have to support those that aren’t profit centers in order that the overall mission of the university is served. We wouldn’t be the university we are without, for example, the College of Law.

DP: One of the things that was brought up throughout last year was that there were some communication issues between administration and faculty and staff.

Now that you’ve been here a couple of months and have had the opportunity to interact with faculty and staff on a regular basis, what are some steps you take to improve that relation and what will you be doing going forward?

MDB: First of all, I would like to be here a long time, I’m really enjoying it here both in terms of the university and the city as a whole. I think having someone in place for a while…I’m also having a lot of conversations with a lot of people and I intend to continue those conversations. If you remember I mentioned in my convocation, I talked about last week that I’m planning to meet with a lot of departments, schools and colleges over the next year to learn about what they … sort of their dreams and hopes for the university and also their concerns. I want them also to learn about me and my values and my goals for the university. And I think by working together in those ways and talking together, we can build trust and help us make the easy decisions and the hard decisions that we need to make to keep the university moving forward.

DP: One of the issues that has come up the past few months has been the situation with one of our deans, the Dean of College of Health and Sciences Gerald Koocher. I just want to get your perspective on the Hoffman report, and your conclusions on the Hoffman report.

MDB: The Hoffman report concluded — and this was something the American Psychological Association took very seriously — that there was, you mentioned communication, there were very serious issues between the staff in the APA and the staff in the senior leadership and the board. The staff in particular did not fully reveal to the senior leadership, to the president and vice president, including Dean Koocher who was VP and president for a time in that organization and the extent in the involvement in the APA that was happening with military interrogation. Those people as you know, those staff members have all left the APA and I think that’s one of the most import things we need to keep in mind. As a dean himself, had he known then what he knew now, he would have made different decisions, but the staff intently kept important information from senior leadership

DP: Although, some have criticized the university’s response and Dean Koocher’s response to the findings, saying that it’s not enough that the university did not have first-hand knowledge of Dean Koocher’s role … and that Koocher wasn’t told certain things by senior staff. Do you understand where some of the people are coming from (and) does the university plan to investigate the findings any further if they haven’t already?

MDB: I can certainly understand that what was happening in Guantanamo was pretty awful and I can understand that people were really upset about that. And really upset about what the Hoffman report concluded, which is that the APA threw the machination of its staff and was more involved in that more than they ought to have been. I can understand that people are very upset about that. I do think also though that people should be very careful to look at what was known and what was not known at the time. It’s very easy in hindsight to look back and say ‘well, this should have happened and that should’ve happened’ … the dean himself says that had he known then what he knows now he would have done things differently.

DP: Some have criticized his actions on the PENS tasks force. He (self-admittedly) acted as an enforcer. Wouldn’t that cause alarm for someone who’s in an institutional role who has a lot of power?

MDB: I think you’re referring to the (section) of the Hoffman report that is discussed about the dean, then Vice President (of the APA), was trying to move the committee that developed the PENS report, asking them to move along with their work. And I think he’s given a fairly cogent answer as to why he did that. It had to do with the fact that the committee had a limited time to develop a report and he was only there for I think the first few hours of the meeting. I think he saw it as his responsibility to ensure that the committee knew that it had a pretty fixed timeline to which develop a report.

DP: In general, a lot of students are struggling to meet ends meet while also trying to get an education. What are some strategies you will utilize to give students more “bang for their buck,” if you will?

MDB: Education is an investment in your future, but it’s also very expensive and like you said becoming much more expensive. We have to be very cognizant here at DePaul, especially that almost every dollar that we spend comes from students. We just have to be very careful that everything that we do is thoroughly costed out and examined to make sure that its really bringing value to student. We have some buildings, but they’re not elaborate or fancy buildings and we have a lot of dedicated staff and faculty who work, frankly, pretty hard. Our teaching loads are high compared to many of our sister institutions because our faculty are so dedicated to the students. That helps us keep our costs low, but brings more burden onto faculty. Our staff work really hard as well. We simply have to look at all our costs and be as careful as we can, where we invest to insure that students do get the most bang for their buck.

DP: One of the things a lot of DePaul students appreciate is that they’re in Chicago, which gives them access to the experts that teach here and adds to their experience. However, some adjunct faculty have raised the issue, nationally, saying they don’t get enough from the institutions they teach from. So I want to gauge where you are at with contingent faculty, and if you can see some of the points they bring up and why they bring them up.

MDB: You put your finger on the issue. It’s a balance between affordability and support for our contingent faculty who are as you say a really important part of the education here…you’re also right that contingent faculty nationally are not really well compensated. Here at DePaul, our level of compensation is higher than most of our peer institutions here in the city, but they’re still not very high.

We are working on ways that we can provide security to our contingent faculty. Recognizing we can’t provide them with everything because our enrollment changed, and we need some flexibility. But we are looking at everything we can do to support our part time faculty so that we honor them as much as we can while recognize they’re an important part of our budgeting and cost equation as well 

DP:One of the reasons a lot of people chose to come to DePaul is because it’s in the middle of a world-class city. What’s your favorite part of Chicago and what do you like about living here?

MDB: First of all, we came here from (Los Angeles) and one of the things we liked is that we brought one of our cars with us and its mostly been sitting in the garage the whole time. We like that a lot because I hate driving and we almost never have to drive here. We can walk to a lot of things and if we don’t, we take the ‘L’ most the time. I bike a lot too, so that’s great. I haven’t talked about the weather yet because we’ve been very lucky so far, but ask me again about the weather in February when it’s cold here and nice and warm in LA. We like also just the urbanism of Chicago.

DP: Do you have a jacket yet?

MDB: We have some jackets that we brought. We lived in New York before we lived in LA. They’ve got some mothballs but hopefully they still work.

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Meet the Provost: Marten denBoer settles in