Interview with Outgoing Provost Tom Stephenson

The following is the edited transcript of my interview with Professor Tom Stephenson, outgoing Provost of the College. Stephenson has served as provost for seven years, and will return to teaching chemistry after a sabbatical. He will be succeeded by Professor of Sociology Sarah Willie-LeBreton. You can read my interview with her in The Gazette, here.

Keton Kakkar: Provost Stephenson, can you tell me what is it that your job entails, in a broad sense?

Tom Stephenson: The provost is the chief academic officer of the college, and so what that basically entails is the supervision of the faculty, the curriculum, faculty personnel decisions, hiring, evaluations, all the academic budgets, departmental budgets, along with some other administrative functions. So the provost oversees the libraries, Information Technology Services, the Lang Center, Off Campus Study, and Athletics.

KK: That’s a lot of things.

TS: Yeah. It’s a pretty big job.

KK: And you’ve had the position for how long?

TS: This is my seventh year.

KK: Is that length of term customary?

TS: So what’s specified in the faculty handbook is that it’s five years. It’s renewable once for up to five years, so when my five year term was approaching its conclusion, I asked for a renewal for two more.

KK: Before this, you were a chemistry professor; after this you will continue to be a chemistry professor?

TS: That’s right. I have a sabbatical next year to refamiliarize myself with the recent developments in chemistry to restart a research program, and then I’ll be back in the chemistry classroom in the fall of 2019.

KK: Can you talk a bit about some hot topic issues that have come up during your time as provost?

TS: Yeah, so most of the job is pretty day to day processing issues about as I said faculty hiring and budgetary work, but there’ve been a couple of long term strategic issues. We’ve been in a period of pretty rapid rejuvenation of the faculty. So during my time as provost, we have hired or made the decision to allocate something like 50 faculty positions. A lot of those are replacements, but some of those are growth positions as well. So by the time those positions are hired — these are searches that are underway now or have been completed during my time as provost — about a quarter of the faculty has turned over. So that’s been a pretty significant change in the composition of the faculty. So I’d say that’s the major, long term issue that’s been addressed during my time as provost.

There’ve been some other issues that have come up. The changes in the credit no credit policy, for example, is one that actually was worked on for a couple of years in sort of fits and starts. We’ve been engaged in a long term study of graduation requirements, for example, that hasn’t yet come to fruition, and I’m not quite sure when that might come to fruition. We’ve been looking at having the criteria for promotion and tenure become more transparent over the years. And so there’ve been a lot of faculty governance kind of issues that we’ve been working on over the past five, six, seven years.

KK: The changes in the faculty turnover: is that rate normal? Also are the new lines visiting lines or tenure track?

TS: I was just talking about tenure-track lines. There’s also been some growth in the visiting lines, but those were just the tenure-track lines. Some of the turnover rate was a small amount of expansion, that was anticipated as part of the strategic plan that was implemented starting in 2011. About 20 of those were expansion lines, but the rest had just been a little bit of uptick in retirements and so forth, so they’ve been replacements.

KK: Can you talk a little bit about the study you have underway about graduation requirements and what it’s looking for or measuring?

TS: Well our current set of graduation requirements were implemented back in the — well in terms of the distribution requirement, the 20 course rule — those were implemented decades ago, literally. And we haven’t really done a systematic look at those for decades. The writing requirement was implemented probably 15 years ago, we haven’t really done a systematic look at that, the foreign language requirement was implemented decades ago, and so the thought was perhaps naively, about three years ago, to start looking at that menu of graduation requirements a little more systematically, to see if they seemed like the right set of graduation requirements.

KK: Who’s doing that work?

TS: The Council on Educational Policy (CEP). That work has gone much slower than anybody imagined it would take. I think there’s some widespread concern that say the writing requirement may not be working as well as we had originally hoped. But it is not quite clear what to replace it with. I think there has been a lot of discussion around whether or not we should have what is loosely called a diversity requirement. CEP has continued to talk about that for the past couple of years, without reaching any firm conclusion, though we have talked with the faculty about various ideas that we’ve had. But we haven’t reached any firm conclusions about that.

KK: Are conclusions reached by the CEP, in general, then voted on by the faculty to be enacted. What’s the process there?

TS: Yeah, they would have to be voted on by the faculty.

KK: Could you talk a bit about what the conversation is at the present regarding the honors program?

TS: I think the conversations we’re having about honors is to reinforce what we see as the value of the honors program. To make it clear to students that some of the myths that we think have grown up around the honors program are just that: myths. And to make it clear to departments that there’s actually more flexibility in the way that they can structure their honors program than might be realized. When the latest reform was instituted in the mid 1990’s, the faculty at that time, actually provided to departments a fair amount of autonomy in terms of how they structured their honors programs. A number of departments chose to continue with a model for how student preparations are defined. That’s fine. It has worked for them for decades. A number of other departments chose to innovate and adopt alternative means of preparations. We’d just like to make sure all departments realize that they have that ability to innovate. It’s not that one way is necessarily better than the other. It’s just that everybody should realize that they are not necessarily bound to the traditional way of student preparations.

KK: On the topic of departments that have seen a small number of honors majors, what is the conversation been around the Computer Science Department, which I know has been growing at a really fast rate. Disclaimer, I am a major in the department. Did anyone anticipate such a large growth? Is that something that can be anticipated when you do this kind of work?

TS: No. I don’t think anybody anticipated that they’re going to have as many majors as they do today. I think we saw a trend developing probably about 10 years ago, we saw the curve starting to bend upwards, but I don’t think anybody anticipated it being quite as large today as it is. Part of that is a testament to the excellent job that the Computer Science faculty do, both in encouraging students to stay within the major, to take one course and then to remain engaged in the field. Part of it is a nationwide trend. Every computer science department in the country is seeing increasing enrollments, but I think our folks are doing a particularly great job of making computer science enticing. I think how to deal with their enrollment remains an issue, while maintaining our commitment to having a robust, well-balanced curriculum, across all the disciplines that we offer. And I think that’s the challenge. That’s the challenge that I’ve faced over the last five years, and that’s a challenge that provosts are going to face for a long time, into the future.

KK: Could you talk a little bit about the process by which programs and departments come into being at the College as entities? I understand that probably varies depending on who’s spearheading that charge.

TS: So it’s been a long time since we created from whole cloth a department. In fact, not since I’ve been here have we created a department from zero to something. The more typical path I would say is the one that was followed by Film and Media Studies. So Film and Media Studies started way back in the time machine as, we had, individual faculty who were teaching in various departments and had secondary interests in film. And so they may have been in French or in Art or in English, and as one of their courses, they would also teach a course in film. So there were individual faculty around the college who were teaching a course in film. At some point, they all recognized that they had this shared interest and they came together at some point to advocate for the creation of what we then called concentrations — now we call them interdisciplinary programs, but at that point in the College’s history we called them concentrations — and advocated for the hiring of a person who specialized in film. It happened to be a person in the English department, who specialized particularly in film, in order to be the focus of that concentration in film and media studies.

That position ultimately grew to two positions in Film and Media Studies, and evolved into an interdisciplinary program that offered a minor. The minor became very successful, increasingly students were interested in having special majors in Film and Media Studies. Special majors increased in numbers. It became apparent with two faculty who were almost entirely focused in teaching Film and Media Studies and a healthy cohort of special majors, it was time to take those faculty out of their existing department and create a department of Film and Media Studies. That was a proposal that was made jointly to the Curriculum Committee and to the CEP. After a lot of deliberation and worrying about what the structural ramifications of that transition were, that was eventually passed.

But it was actually from start to finish — so that happened in 2014 or 2015 — so from start to finish, from when there was the first set of those faculty teaching individual film courses, that was probably 20 years. And so it’s a long history of gradual evolution of faculty interest and student interest, that is coupled with changes in academia outside the college. And recognition that film and media studies at liberal arts colleges is a valued and valuable discipline to teach. And so it’s often a process that evolves on a time scale that seems sort of glacial on a student experience, because students turn over every four years, but actually in the lifetime of a faculty member, is actually kind of normal.

KK: At the point where it’s proposed to CEP and the Curriculum Committee, they vote on it and then it’s a faculty vote?

TS: To create a regular major, it has to be voted on by the faculty, and to create a new department, it also requires a faculty vote by majority.

KK: I’ve heard that Swarthmore has an attractive sabbatical policy, that allows for frequent leaves. What is the history of that?

TS: So are sabbatical policy is that faculty can go on sabbatical for a semester at full pay every fourth year or for a full year at half pay for every fourth year. So I’ve been at Swarthmore for 33 years. When I first came here, that was really unusual, even among our peer small liberal arts colleges. My sense is that it’s a little less unusual than it used to be. I think a lot of colleges our size and with our financial resources have adopted that kind of model, so the Pomonas, Amhersts, Williamses of the world have similar kind of programs, but that’s a pretty rarified group of schools. It’s still a pretty generous policy compared to the vast majority of higher education institutions, but our closest peers, our very closest peers, we don’t stand out as much as we used to. But it’s still a pretty generous policy.

KK: The average then is once every seven years?

TS: Yeah, seven. Or something like that is a more typical arrangement for higher education as a whole.

KK: What is the rationale for having it be once every four?

TS: The rationale is that compared to, say, an R1 institution, we have significantly higher teaching loads, but we also have expectations for faculty scholarship.

KK: What are you most proud of during your time as Provost?

TS: I think there are a couple things I would point to. I think I’m most proud of all the faculty hiring. I think that’s been the most enjoyable part of the job, is interacting with the young faculty and having a hand in supporting their development, and so seeing the transformation that all this faculty hiring has brought to the curriculum and all the individual departments has been the accomplishment I’m most proud of. It has also coincided with a significant uptick in the diversity of the faculty as this turnover has occurred. And so I’m pretty pleased with the way that has all turned out.

KK: Any final comments?

TS: It’s been a great experience. I have zero regrets about taking on this position. I’ve been at Swarthmore for 33 years, so I’m a lifer at Swarthmore. I took on the job because I wanted to contribute to the institution in a very different way for a period of time, probably the biggest regret that I have is that I’ve missed interacting with students, because I largely don’t have a whole lot of interaction with students except on committees and so forth. So I’m really looking forward to getting back to the classroom.

Featured image by Eleftherios Kostans, courtesy of the College Bulletin.


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Keton Kakkar

Keton is a junior from Sands Point, New York. Intrigued by theories of interpretation and communication, they have chosen to study computer science and English literature. Their hobbies include bouldering, hiking, and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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