Tiefenthaler’s take on Wake Forest

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Provost and Professor of Economics Jill Tiefenthaler leaves on June 30 to become president of Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

She joined Wake Forest in 2007 as chief academic officer with responsibility for supervising and administering the academic programs and plans of the Reynolda Campus. Maria Henson (’82) of Wake Forest Magazine sat down with Tiefenthaler to discuss her tenure at the University. Following are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: As you leave Wake Forest, how does the academic climate compare with what you found upon your arrival?

A: I think the biggest change on the academic side is the strength of the faculty, and I think the faculty is stronger in two ways. One, it is basically the same faculty, but with the improvements in faculty compensation, the new faculty development programs and the new opportunities for faculty to create centers and conferences it is a much more energized faculty. There’s sort of an idea a minute. And that wasn’t the case when I came four years ago.  A lot of those ideas weren’t coming forward as easily, so that’s exciting …. And there has been growing strength in faculty governance. It will really serve Wake Forest well for many years to come to see that voice have a stronger role.

On the student side, there have been so many great things in terms of student culture in the last four years. We’ve always had great students at Wake Forest, and with some modern enrollment growth we’ve been able to not only bring those great students from those same constituencies, we’ve been able to reach a broader student. That’s brought a more diverse student body. That includes bringing more international students, more students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, more students of color to campus and of course, more first-generation students under both our Magnolia Scholars program and our loan-reduction programs. To see that diversity and vibrancy: it really makes me very proud of my time here.

Q: What do you think are the University’s greatest strengths and biggest challenges for the next provost?

A: The greatest strengths are the people. I’ve never been on a campus before where the faculty and staff are so committed to students. It sounds like that should be obvious in higher education, but it’s not. What everybody is really here for is the success of students. That’s been a long tradition at Wake Forest. It has always been that way. I think alumni have felt that. I think our current students feel it, and they leave here feeling like somebody’s in their corner – the whole community, really. And I think it is with them the rest of their lives, which is one of the greatest things about this place.

The greatest challenges continue to be financial for Wake Forest. We have always sort of played above our means in a sense with the kinds of competitors that we run with in terms of attracting both faculty and students to the institution. And we do it with a lot less endowment and giving than a lot of our peer schools do. It’s always required us to be creative and innovative. It does make us bolder. But with the changes that are coming with demographics of high school students and the continuing growth and need among those students, it is really going to continue to be a challenge. So the number one challenge is to raise enough money that we can make financial aid packages competitive with our peers’.

Wake Forest. It really brings out the best in people. I said it in my address to the new students last week: What I always love about Wake Forest is that there are always creative tensions. It has the creative tension in a family sense, a community sense. There is a hug when you need it, but there is also high expectation. There’s the intimacy that you get from a very warm and nurturing kind of college, but it also has that high-expectations feel – that push, that kick, that really pushes people to be better, to do more. I think a lot of that comes from that teacher-scholar tension that we have where that scholar side is really teaching students to create and innovate and think big and that teacher side is really nurturing and caring and supportive.

Q: What would you want your legacy to be?

A: I have passion for two things for higher education. One is make sure you have the right faculty and students and staff, the right people who are running things. If you really accomplish that, then so much of the job is done. Recruiting great faculty, developing them. The same with students. It’s not just about finding the very best people and determining however you want to measure this, it’s about creating a student body and also a faculty body. It’s about creating a community, which is about thinking about diversity in all of its forms and in the different ideas, different viewpoints and different talents.

I think we have come a long way in achieving that over the four years. And we have done some of that on the faculty side in taking advantage of the economic downturn when people weren’t hiring. We were able to hire, and we got almost every first-choice faculty in the last three years. It has been an amazing contribution to the strength of our faculty.

On the student side we made great progress as well with new advancements in financial aid, SAT optional, interviews, creative essays — all the innovations that (Dean of Admissions) Martha Allman and her staff have done and (with) the support of the faculty to think more about how you build a student body.

My other passion in higher ed is having a really vibrant intellectual community where people don’t just go to study and the place folds down — the students go to their off-campus houses, and faculty goes back to their houses or shuts their office doors — a place where faculty get their intellectual stimulation with each other and students, then benefit from that and feel it. I think we have made great progress in that by student life and academic engagement moving more closely together … (and by) helping students see their lives not as either academic or co-curricular and social. Showing them how those two things can go together. We’ve made great progress there.

Q: How do you look back on the test-optional admissions decision?

A: I feel like it was bold. It was innovative. I feel like it has done great things for Wake Forest, and I know it was controversial and remains controversial, but in the end we know and our admissions staff know with all the work that’s been done that we can choose great students without (the SAT). I’m not saying it’s useless, but when you add it to all the things we already know — especially grades, APs (Advanced Placement scores), strength of curriculum — it adds very little and the research says that. If we didn’t have all those things, yes, it would be valuable. But it has really given us a spot in higher ed. It has expanded our admissions pool greatly, 50 percent after we made those announcements over those two years.

It also signaled to people what kind of institution this is — how it is small and can give so much personal attention and that we actually look at the whole person and not just a test score. It has also given us an amazing opportunity to attract students who are truly wonderful students who are not great test takers, who are drawn to Wake Forest and probably would not have been admitted here before test optional. So I know clearly the quality of our student body has increased. Going from 65 to 81 percent of students being in the top 10 percent of their class in the last three years has been really extraordinary. It was hard, but it was every bit worth it.

Q: You led a remarkable period of growth. How did you do it?

A: I think the most important thing for growth was having very clear priorities and sticking to them. Every day I thought about those: building the best faculty — teacher-scholars — bringing the right students and providing the support they need to flourish here, and making it a vibrant academic community. I thought of those three things every day in terms of targeting our investments.

And I would say a lot of the growth came from creativity; (for example,) some of the new programs that developed – the new master’s program in bioethics, the new MA program in business. A lot of the growth is very faculty led, especially the centers and institutes.

The changes we have seen in the library and in admissions were not doing a whole lot more than empowering great people who lead this institution and empowering them both with resources and permission in a sense to try new things, take some risks and experiment.

Q: How do you view the prospects for liberal arts institutions and the humanities?

A: I’m a firm believer. I think the liberal arts have never been more important than they are today. Students today when they leave college have no idea what their jobs are going to be. They are going to change more jobs. Their education is going to continue. The probability that they go on to either professional master’s or other kinds of graduate programs is increasing. And they are living in a world that moves so much faster. So never before have a nimble mind and a broad education that focuses on critical skills that the liberal arts develop like speaking and reading and analytical, critical thinking and writing and learning how to manage information been more important.

I myself am the beneficiary of a strong liberal arts education, and I know that that time is what made my life what it is – being able to be nimble and listen and critically evaluate options and make decisions. So I’m a believer and I feel like I’m a product. The harder thing is articulating that in a world that has unfortunately become more hostile to higher education and in a world where higher education has been cut, especially our great public institutions in this country.

As a farm girl from Iowa going to a liberal arts college, hearing my first symphony and seeing contemporary art, learning foreign language and learning how to computer program, loving calculus and falling in love with a discipline like economics, the broad range of that has had such an important impact on my life. It’s not quantifiable or measurable or anything else, and so I am a true believer.

The old quote about find what you love and you’ll never work a day is so true. Liberal arts help you do that.

Q: What is your advice for the next provost?

A: I would say to be a part of the community and recognize its strength and partner with people, and you can accomplish really great things here.

Q: What has Pro Humanitate come to mean to you?

A: The combination of blending excellence and making a difference. I always feel like our true motto in other words is to produce knowledge and educate young people who are going to make a difference in the world – to do both of those things in a way that makes a difference. I think we do that all the time – faculty and students do.

Q: What’s your secret to getting so much done in a day?

A: Being surrounded by great people. And I’m not a big sleeper. I’m very high on the extroversion scale, so I get so much energy from people. Moving from being a faculty member, which is kind of a solitary life in a lot of ways, to being an administrator has unleashed a new energy in me. And this community did, too. I’ve loved my job. I’ve loved my four years. What a privilege to be surrounded by brilliant faculty, students, administrators, staff – brilliant people every day who are all in the pursuit of doing something really good. Not very many people have that privilege.

Q: Are you climbing Pike’s Peak anytime soon?

A: Several faculty told me they are planning to get me trained when I get out there. So we’ll see.

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