Provost candidate champions student success and social justice

Melissa Lavitt, provost candidate, answers questions from the audience. (Donald Halsing / THE GATEPOST)

Melissa Lavitt, the fourth and final candidate for provost and vice president for academic affairs, discussed the importance of a healthy relationship between students and administrators during two open forums April 10. 

Lavitt received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in social work from Tulane University in Louisiana. 

She is the executive director of the Center for Women’s Leadership at the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) and former Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at UWT.

During the faculty open forum, Lavitt discussed her career as a “champion of social justice issues” and how her experiences as a social worker motivated her to pursue a career in higher education. 

She said she is interested in Framingham State as an institution that “focuses on the success of students and then factors in how the administration can support those students.” 

Virginia Rutter, sociology professor and member of the Massachusetts State College Association bargaining team, asked Lavitt how she would improve the relationship between faculty and administrators after three years of contract bargaining and “bad faith.” 

Lavitt said, “The morale issue I would imagine to be significant. … The part that seems so troubling to me is the sense that you all felt powerless. That to me must be a morale buster. Your complaints were not heard – nor were they acted upon. There appears to be little recourse in the attention to getting that.” 

Lisa Eck, English professor, asked Lavitt how she would “reframe” the conversation regarding the humanities majors. “How would you promote our narrative of success in departments in the face of declining enrollment?”

Lavitt said at a liberal arts institution such as FSU, it is important to “embed the message in the early curriculum” when students first arrive at the University. 

She added, “First-generation students may not have a fully formed view of how their major can connect to an actual job. That’s why I’m actually looking for a university, such as this one, with a high number of first-generation students. … College can be such a transformational experience for those students.

“Cultivating a true liberal arts education begins with having a coherent gen ed system,” she said. 

During the student open forum, Lavitt discussed ways to increase student enrollment through supporting the initiatives that are thriving “during a time of decreased student enrollment.” 

She added, “There is an uptick in graduate enrollment. How do we make that more accessible to students to get a sense from you all? … How would we build from that place to get you students to enroll?” 

Adam Scanlon, SGA parliamentarian, asked Lavitt how she communicates with students. 

Lavitt said, “I struggle with that. In this job, there is no format. … I tried to create student advisory boards as a provost.”

She said while that was “less successful” than some of her other endeavors, she tried to expand the hours she was available to students. 

She added her focus is on the “nontraditional” students who are not typically involved on campus by hosting lunches and impromptu meetings. “I am eager to find a strategy that improves communication for students.”