Vice Provost Beth Mitchneck, a Ph.D. in Geography, Navigates First Year at UML

Vice Provost for Faculty Success Beth Mitchneck talks to faculty Image by Ed Brennen
Vice Provost for Faculty Success Beth Mitchneck kicks off a communicating science workshop for faculty this semester at the iHub.

By Ed Brennen

After 26 years as an administrator and faculty member at the University of Arizona, what spurred Beth Mitchneck to become the new vice provost for faculty success at UMass Lowell?

“It was the challenge of the job,” says Mitchneck, who is responsible for helping nearly 800 full- and part-time faculty members succeed in scholarship and instructional activities. “I really like working with faculty to help them achieve their goals.”

Mitchneck oversees new faculty orientation, mentoring and professional development. She supports the libraries and enhancement of instructional technologies. She also selects University Professors and nominates faculty for systemwide and national awards.

Mitchneck, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Russian studies from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in geography from Columbia University, was intrigued by the challenges of joining a university undergoing rapid growth.

“Our faculty have been growing substantially over the last 10 years, and I think the institution realized it was time to apply more systematic approaches to faculty development,” she says. “While there’s been a lot of change, and there’s likely to be more change, there are so many things that are going really well here, from the quality of students and faculty to the level of engagement of every staff member. I’m just bowled over. It’s phenomenal.”

As her first academic year on the job winds down, Mitchneck looked back on the progress so far and discussed her goals for the future.

Q: You came into a newly created position at the university. How did you get started?

A: For the first few months, I was never in my office. I was all over campus, meeting with as many people as possible from every college. I’m a big believer in shared governance, so one of the first people I met was Michael Graves, president of the Faculty Senate. I wanted to see what was already happening with faculty development and where our most obvious opportunity areas were. I felt it was important to complement what we were already doing. So that took a lot of talking and listening. I also met with the research folks, Anne Maglia and Julie Chen, since our jobs overlap. We spent a lot of time thinking about who the provost’s office can partner with to achieve shared goals.

Beth Mitchneck poses with faculty members for a photo Image by Tory Wesnofske
Beth Mitchneck, second from right, poses with faculty members during the Faculty Symposium last semester.

Q: What are some of the research and instructional initiatives you’ve tackled so far?

A: Anne, Julie and I decided on a number of research-related topics for the EBites lunchtime seminars that we felt would be of interest for all faculty. Sometimes people think research development is just for science and engineering, and it’s not. It’s for the entire campus. We did a recent workshop on answering the “So what?” question that helps faculty in any kind of proposal they might write for funding. Why does anyone care? We did another workshop on how to write a project summary. We also did a series of workshops on proposal pitches, like an elevator pitch for your research.

Now, we’re doing a summer writing series — a proposal-revision bootcamp for faculty that will run for three weeks in June. We’re simultaneously planning to do research-proposal bootcamps for assistant professors starting this fall. It’s modeled on research bootcamps they’ve run for years now through the ADVANCE program at Montana State University, where I was also program officer.

On the instructional side, we’re running workshops on course redesign in collaboration with Vice Provost for Student Success Julie Nash. The workshops will cover topics such as reworking your syllabi, things that faculty have said they wanted.

Q: What are some of the ways you’re addressing professional development?

A: For all new faculty, we’re going to begin a yearlong program called “Launch@UML.” We’re in the process of hiring two faculty fellows, one from North Campus and one from South. There will be various streams of programming for faculty with different interests, but they’ll also have a Launch group that will help them become UML faculty members and continue to help them hopefully through multiple years.

We’re engaging with the department chairs about what kinds of professional development needs they have. Creating this sense of community among the chairs is really key, so that they’re supporting one another and don’t have to problem-solve as individuals.

We’ve also started on career-mapping workshops with our assistant professors to make sure they are very intentional about their time here and how they develop their own careers.

We just held our first mentoring awards, which we plan to do every year. From 30 nominees, we recognized 10 faculty members for their mentorship of junior faculty, undergraduate and graduate students.

Faculty members talk at the Communicating Science workshop Image by Ed Brennen
Nearly two dozen faculty members attended a workshop on communicating science this semester at the iHub.

Q: You recently hosted a communicating science workshop for faculty. Why is that important to you?

A: I believe that we, especially at public institutions, need the trust of the public. And to do that, we need to be able to communicate with them and be in a conversation and share what we know. We need to show that what we’re doing in our science is really applicable to the everyday life of those who live in this commonwealth and this country. One of the things we want to focus on more here is issues of public engagement.

Q: What’s been happening on the instructional technologies front?

A: We recently revealed a new faculty landing page on the library website. It has all the things faculty need on one page, from teaching and research resources to digital profiles and tools to engage with colleagues around the world. One of the research databases that’s been added is Dimensions, which is an incredibly powerful way to develop a research agenda and learn about funding opportunities.

We’re about to launch a new Faculty Success website. It will be one-stop shopping for faculty, where we’ll archive the materials we generate from the various workshops we do.

And the final thing to mention is making sure that faculty have access to easy-to-use professional websites. Some faculty wanted a webpage that could include their lab team or research group, while others wanted a webpage where they could express themselves and engage with colleagues around the country. We’ll be revealing that soon.

Q: What are some of your job’s biggest challenges?

A: One of the challenges, from my perspective as a geographer, is that we’re a distributed campus, which makes collaboration a little bit harder. And sometimes it’s really nice to be face to face. It also increases the cost of participation in activities on two campuses, meaning that if I’m a faculty member on South, it really is harder for me to get to North. That’s something we’re building into every conversation – for example, we’re trying to bridge the campus divide with the writing spaces that we’ve started and the events that we hold.

Another challenge is there’s been a very rapid pace of change on this campus, and having continuous change can be hard for people. The big challenge isn’t necessarily figuring out what needs to be done, but rather sequencing and thinking about what’s the most critical thing that most faculty can get behind right now, and what’s most important for faculty success on this campus.

Q: Finally, how do you measure faculty success?

A: Faculty are winning more awards and more proposals. Faculty will be more productive in the way they engage with the public and in the way they engage within their discipline. And that can be measured by awards and participation in professional societies. We will measure it with how satisfied faculty are with their jobs. Faculty satisfaction hopefully should go up when you’re really focusing on faculty success. We would also hope that measures of faculty success in classroom, including student learning outcomes, will go up.