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July, 2019

Provost Brennan Favors Community Building and Holistic Approach

By Carol Casey

James F. Brennan

Sometimes the most interesting challenges are the ones you weren’t looking for, the ones that find you. For instance, James F. Brennan was the provost of Towson University outside of Baltimore and not looking to move when his associate provost walked into his office in September of 2006 and said, “Don’t be angry, but I’ve nominated you for a job. It’s a provost job at Catholic University. It was made for you.”

He replied, “Great, except I’m already a provost.”

The wheels were in motion, however, and in due time Brennan’s résumé caught the attention of CUA’s search committee. Brennan had worked at six institutions of higher learning in positions ranging from faculty member to chair to dean to provost. That sort of experience, combined with a forward-looking approach to higher education and a commitment to liberal arts education, distinguished him as the best person for the position.

For his part, Brennan saw an opportunity to make a university with a proud legacy even better. He came on the job during the summer of 2007.

A Holistic Approach for Undergraduates
Anyone who reads the first sentence of the history of Catholic University knows that when it was founded in 1887, it was organized as a graduate institution. Graduate programs emphasize immersion in a particular discipline; strong schools within an overarching university are the logical model. Brennan agrees, saying, “CUA’s organization has served graduate students well.” He also finds that “the strengths of the graduate school offer undergraduates benefits, too — the quality of the professors and exposure to research and the life of the mind lead to a wonderful experience for undergraduates.

“But undergraduates — who now make up half of the CUA student population — benefit as well from a holistic academic experience, especially in a liberal arts-based university like this one. Through their eyes, though, the undergraduate experience here can look very disjointed, in part because of the historic emphasis on strong, autonomous schools versus an integrated central university structure.”
 

A Primer on the Center for Student Success

The Center for Student Success is more than just a glimmer in the eye of the provost, but it is just getting started. Jonathan Sawyer, associate vice president and dean of students, offers the following highlights:

The Center for Student Success will be responsible for two different but connected roles:

1. Coordinating academic advising, mentoring and engagement opportunities for exploratory students (i.e., students who are haven’t yet chosen a major)

2. Offering comprehensive learning-assistance programs for all students that enhance learning potential, promote academic success and positively impact student retention.

Through the provision of centralized services, support and resources, the center will assist undergraduates in their journey to become connected, self-motivated and independent learners.

The underlying mission of the center is characterized as holistic and supportive. That is, the center supports students from initial registration to the declaration of an academic major, arrived at through a thoughtful, intentional discernment. The center’s ultimate goal is to improve the academic and social integration necessary for students to fully engage as active participants in all aspects of campus life.

The Center for Student Success will build upon retention initiatives currently offered through the Office of the Dean of Students. Look for more details about the center in an upcoming issue of Inside CUA Online.

Creating a Center for Student Success

Establishing a more unified undergraduate experience is one of Brennan’s main goals. “Through Father Bob [Rev. Robert Schlageter, O.F.M. Conv.] and the active Campus Ministry he’s created, CUA has in place a strong spiritual program that links students,” observes Brennan. “What’s been harder to create is an academic experience that unifies undergraduates, beyond the required courses that every student takes. That’s the idea behind the Center for Student Success.”

The new center will bring broad support to first-year students — academic advising, administrative support, tutoring and experiences through residence life. A search is underway for a center coordinator (see sidebar for highlights of the center’s organization).

Beginning in the fall of 2008, the center will serve approximately 150 freshmen who Brennan calls “liberal arts poster children — they haven’t declared a major and so are open to a broad academic experience.”

Brennan has assembled a group to engage in an academic planning process that kicks off on May 6 with a Faculty and Staff Forum on Undergraduate Student Success. Out of this meeting, Brennan hopes a plan evolves for a common two-year academic experience for all freshmen entering in fall 2009. What will that experience be? “Some universities have all freshmen read a common series of books. Others extend the orientation process through a special course. CUA’s plan?” asks Brennan. “Stay tuned.”

A Community of Scholars and Stakeholders
Every new endeavor Brennan supports relies on an underlying but all-important foundation: “The university,” he says, “isn’t General Motors, but it is a business. There is an organizational psychology to give people incentive to participate, to become fully engaged — to feel that they are stakeholders. When that happens, it’s the students who benefit most.”

Vital to fostering faculty and staff morale, says Brennan, is an efficient infrastructure. In that regard, Brennan is working to make positive changes in three main areas — budgets, infrastructure support for faculty, and faculty and administration communication.

Brennan and Julie Englund, vice president for finance and administration/treasurer, are addressing some budgeting procedures, he says, “to establish clear priorities and make the process more transparent.”

Mustering infrastructure support for faculty is a more straightforward process that will strengthen offices that have a direct bearing on the university’s academic endeavors. “For instance, CUA has lofty goals as a research university,” says Brennan. “And the quality of the faculty here is such that we should be bringing in $50 million per year in extramural research funding. Yet, right now our research dollars total about $18 million.”

With many CUA faculty members seeking research grants, however, only one person on staff can support them in their efforts — Ralph Albano, associate provost for research and director of technology transfer. “Ralph is very good,” says Brennan, “but he’s just one person.” The provost has made it a priority to address this critical need by adding to Albano’s support staff. Brennan recognizes that increased research funding would provide a source of revenue on which the university could draw to offer graduate students more generous financial packages, an area in which CUA is not competitive with other institutions.

Brennan is also fostering communication among faculty. “Last August we took all the incoming tenure-track faculty and brought them together for a two-day orientation to the university that culminated in a welcome dinner,” he says. “Then we scheduled six more lunchtime events that covered different aspects of the university.” At the lunchtime session on March 28, Vice Provost for Graduate Studies George Garvey chaired a panel that brought together Associate Professor of Music Andrew Simpson, Associate Professor of Biology Ann Corsi and Ralph Albano to lead a roundtable discussion about research at CUA.

These sessions have created avenues of communication among faculty across disciplines. Having this common experience, Brennan says, gives them peers they can depend on through the years. “When professors learn from their experiences in organizing a conference, for example, they’ll now have a context to share that experience with other professors who face a similar situation," he says.

Brennan is bringing that spirit of open communication to the deans’ level as well. When he arrived at CUA last summer, he found that, although the deans here were talking to the provost, they weren’t talking enough to each other. “The deans should be part of an administrative team that is working together toward academic goals and student success.

“In fact,” says Provost Brennan, “that’s everyone’s job here at CUA.”




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