A 2-Minute Interview with Dean Carolyn Thomas

January 6, 2015

Carolyn Thomas was confirmed as Vice Provost & Dean for Undergraduate Education in April 2014, after serving as interim Vice Provost from January 2012.  We took this opportunity to learn what’s happening in the Office of Undergraduate Education in 2015.

What exactly does a Vice Provost & Dean for Undergraduate Education do?

My job is to work with the Undergraduate Education team, as well as faculty, students, staff, and administrators, to enhance the experience of undergraduates and the quality of undergraduate education at UC Davis. This includes working alongside my talented colleagues in our UE units (the University Honors Program, the Undergraduate Research Center, the Center for Leadership Learning, the Washington Program, Entry Level Writing, International & Academic English, iAMSTEM and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) to further their specific missions.  It also includes coordinating with colleagues across campus, especially Student Affairs  and the deans’ offices, to ensure that our classroom planning efforts, course scheduling, undergraduate teaching, advising, and admissions practices—just to name a few—truly contribute to student success. My team and I think of ourselves as collaborators across campus communities, united by the goal of making sure our undergraduate students have the most dynamic learning experiences possible during their time on our campus.

What are some of the challenges facing undergraduate education at research universities?

It's challenging to grow our student population while ensuring that the quality of undergraduate teaching and learning remains high; it's challenging to prioritize undergraduate student learning while supporting campus research on the pressing concerns of our time; it's challenging to ensure all of our faculty and graduate students have the support they need to continue to grow as excellent instructors; it's challenging to undertake research into student learning and student success that provides the data we need to make the best resource decisions for the students who are here now, and those that will be here in years to come.

Fortunately we have a campus administration that is committed to undergraduate excellence, a campus in which undergraduate research is encouraged and supported across colleges, a number of nationally recognized projects to innovate student learning, and a large team across campus looking closely at the factors that contribute to student academic success -- and are willing to make changes to enhance it. With so many projects going on, with so many smart partners across campus, it's hard to think of a challenge we are facing that is particularly daunting. All of the things we seek to achieve are doable, though they take time and require a great deal of collaboration and careful thinking.

Can you describe some of the most significant accomplishments that Undergraduate Education has made to date under your leadership?

I have had the privilege of working with an extraordinary team of people, within UE and beyond UE. Together we have created strong collaborations across and within colleges to improve advising, developed new tools that improve our advising practices, enabled faculty to begin directly assessing student learning, reorganized our honors program to recruit diverse, talented students equally across our colleges, improved upon our abilities to provide courses students need in a timely manner, and supported admissions and our colleges in recruiting strong students who are well positioned for academic success. Receiving a renewal of our campus accreditation was another major success.

What are a few of the ways in which your team in Undergraduate Education contributes to student success at UC Davis?

To be specific with my answer I'll focus just on the core team here: two assistant vice provosts and two associate vice provosts. The associate vice provosts are both faculty who are half time administrators. Eric Rauchway is leading an effort to reenvision the University Honors Program. Matt Traxler helps us make sure we are offering sufficient seats in courses and enables departments and colleges to expand offerings to help students get the courses they need on time. Helen Frasier, one of our assistant vice provosts, helps with new initiatives such as expanding our testing center services, and assists with research to see what factors contribute to student success. Marco Molinaro, also a UE assistant vice provost, leads his team on specific projects to innovate teaching and learning approaches within our STEM fields. These passionate educators, experienced faculty, and skilled researchers are able to work largely behind the scenes to improve our existing programs and offer support to faculty and staff who are committed to undergraduate student learning at the highest level.

You’re the first UC Davis Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education to add “Dean” to your title.  What responsibilities does that add?

It recognizes that in addition to advising the provost on matters of undergraduate education and student learning, I also work closely with each of the college and divisional deans (who along with the faculty and academic senate are ultimately responsible for the success of students within their colleges) in order to make sure we are, within individual departments and across campus, ensuring student success.

What’s one piece of advice you’d like to give all UC Davis undergraduates?

Talk to faculty. Go to their websites, see what they are passionate about. Think about how you can get involved in research, getting behind the scenes to be part of the real innovation happening around you each day here on campus in libraries, offices, laboratories. It's wonderful when you do well in class, and we want to make sure your classroom experience is the best it can be. But take advantage of what waits for you, academically, when you get involved in the groundbreaking, high-impact work faculty are passionate about. It's a true advantage of a UC Davis education, and you may not realize it if you don't step outside the classroom. Do some digging, and ask to be a part of the questions being asked on campus each day. The URC is a great place to go to find out how to get started. 

-Sharon Knox - scknox@ucdavis.edu