After the abrupt departure of Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Angela Salas in Spring 2020, Dr. Ellen Zimmerman was appointed interim provost.
Having started the position March 9, just days before the University moved to remote learning due to COVID-19, Zimmerman knew the search for a permanent provost would not be a priority for the University during the Fall 2020 semester.
As a result, Zimmerman accepted a one-year contract extension to continue in her current role.
According to President F. Javier Cevallos, the search to fill the position has not started. Instead, the University plans to begin the search Fall 2021, with the selected replacement taking over July 2022.
He said, “Everyone I have talked to is really happy that she is staying for another year because everybody knows that trying to go through a search process right now would be quite disturbing and quite tiring. It wouldn’t be easy. It would be a real challenge.”
Margaret Carroll, dean of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, said searching for a new provost during the COVID-19 pandemic would not be the best option.
She said, “The University was in a little bit of an uproar last year with the departure of our last provost and I think Ellen has been a very calming influence. I think things feel better again. People are feeling better on campus.”
Biology Professor Richard Beckwitt said, “The willingness of Dr. Zimmerman to serve brought an important degree of stability to what could have been a chaotic situation.
“Her prior experience as associate vice president for academic affairs as well as a member of the faculty meant that she could step into the position of provost already well versed in the functioning of the University.”
Beckwitt added, “She had already earned the respect of the University community. Personally, I would be pleased to have her stay on as long as she is willing.”
James Cressey, professor and chair of the education department, said he was glad to see an internal candidate with experience as a faculty member and an administrator accept the position.
He said, “As a new department chair as well, that’s a factor for me. You know, a lot of us are in new roles.”
Previously, Zimmerman served as the University’s Dean of Academic Affairs from 2008-10 and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs from 2010-15.
Before taking over the role of interim provost, Zimmerman served as professor and chair of the sociology department.
Zimmerman said she was invited to extend her contract for one year, and happily accepted as she was “feeling good in the job and enjoying it.”
“I told President Cevallos that I would let him know by September if I wanted to continue for the extra year and by that time, I felt comfortable in the job,” she added.
“Even with all of the COVID-19 craziness that ensued shortly after I took the position, it felt like a good fit,” she added.
Cevallos said, “I’m so happy that she has agreed to stay for another year. Having a search for a provost right now, with everything going on on-campus, would be so difficult.
“Having somebody like Dr. Zimmerman, that is so highly respected by the faculty – by everyone on campus – it’s wonderful. So, I am actually very grateful and thankful that she’s staying for an extra year,” he added.
Patricia Thomas, interim dean of business, said Zimmerman extending her contract is “excellent” for the University, “especially now in this environment, with faculty away for the most part, students away for the most part.”
“You want to go through the pandemic with some form of consistency,” she said. “She really knows the University and she’s been here for so long and sometimes, you just need that person who works really well with faculty and who works really well with students to help you in the interim.”
Zimmerman said one reason she agreed to an extension was due to the support she felt from colleagues and faculty.
Lisa Eck, English professor and department chair, said, “As the interim provost, Ellen Zimmerman has been incredibly responsive to faculty needs and faculty priorities.
“During COVID-19, communication has become more important than ever and Dr. Zimmerman is a genuine and skilled communicator. She established a weekly drop-in meeting for new chairs like myself, and has been readily accessible to all of us on a regular basis,” she added.
Philosophy Professor Paul Bruno said, “In my first meeting with Ellen after she took over as provost, I jokingly asked her, ‘What does the manual say about provosts taking over in the midst of the pandemic?’
“I think it is now obvious that Ellen could write that manual. She goes about her work with grace, humility, and intelligence. We are lucky to have her at FSU,” Bruno added.
Desmond McCarthy, English professor and coordinator of the graduate program in English, said, “Dr. Zimmerman is widely admired and respected by the faculty. She is uniquely qualified to serve as our provost because of her decades of experience as a Framingham State professor, department chair, and associate academic vice president.
“During these unprecedented times, it’s reassuring that the academic division of the University is being led by someone with Ellen’s wisdom, clarity of vision, and deep understanding of the faculty’s strengths and aspirations as well as our concerns,” he added.
Art Professor Jennifer Dowling said Zimmerman is dedicated to her role and “possesses traits that are vital for success in the position.”
Dowling said, “She has been accessible, communicative, transparent, supportive, and thorough. We are fortunate to have her.”
Zimmerman said taking the contract extension “gives the University another year to think about a search for a new person, which is good, because we’ve got plenty to do this year without worrying about the search process.”
Zimmerman said a large component of her work since March has been helping with the switch to remote learning.
She said, “We [Academic Affairs] wanted faculty to be prepared so that if they did need to take their classes remotely, they would have a better idea how to do it so that students would have a better experience.
She said Academic Affairs offered training to support both faculty and students because “it [going remote] wasn’t what they signed up for, but it was unavoidable because of the public health emergency.”
Zimmerman said during this time, the Academic Affairs office worked to provide resources for online, asynchronous, and synchronous classes.
She said workshops and training were provided to faculty who wanted to gain more experience with operating a virtual classroom.
Additionally, Zimmerman served as the chair of the Academic Continuity Team, a subgroup of the University Emergency Planning Committee developed in February to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Cevallos, Zimmerman “has been deeply involved in all the conversations about the pandemic, testing, contact tracing, continuity of academics, making sure we have courses on campus, and working with faculty to see who could teach on campus and who was going to teach remotely.”
Zimmerman said one of the most rewarding parts of her position has been serving as chair of the pandemic committee.
She said, “We met every single day at 8:30 in the morning for weeks, and the positivity of that group was really fantastic. Everybody was working together. Our whole focus was on how do we make this work for students and what are all of the things that we need to take into account.
“Just getting to know people from across the University and seeing how dedicated everybody was to helping the students continue their education, in the face of this situation, was very heartwarming. It was just really inspiring. I felt really honored and excited to be a part of that project,” she added.
Marc Cote, dean of arts and humanities, said, “She’s received a lot of respect from the faculty. I think she is very thorough and listens well from the faculty as well as the executive team.
Cote said Zimmerman is “nicely transparent” and said she is effective at helping faculty “understand some of the bigger concerns of the University.”
“I think she’s nicely transparent and can talk out well to faculty to get them to understand some of the bigger concerns of the University that might not be clear,” he added.
English Professor Alexander Hartwiger said, “Interim Provost Zimmerman has provided a steady hand during a very uncertain time.
“Her top-to-bottom knowledge of the institution and strong commitment to social justice work has enabled her to respond to the different needs of the members of the FSU academic community as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and answer the call for an increased commitment to anti-racist work. I am happy to learn that she will be extending her contract,” he added.
In addition to supporting staff and faculty, Zimmerman said she is concerned with how students are adapting to changes at the University.
She said, “I hope that students are feeling engaged. I think it might be a little more difficult for students to feel engaged under these circumstances. I’m hoping students will let us know if there are things that they are having problems with.”
Zimmerman added the Academic Affairs office has had more time to get student feedback and plan for the fall 2020 semester, compared to last spring.
Due to this, she predicts the spring 2021 semester will run more smoothly as members of the University will have engaged in remote learning for an entire semester.
She said, “Both faculty and students now know what it feels like to be in the classroom – for those who are taking on-campus classes – how the asynchronous remote classes are working, and how the synchronous remote classes are working.
“We have a lot more information about that and I think that will really help students figure out what they want their schedule to look like. I think students have more experience now and the faculty also have more experience.”
Zimmerman said the positivity seen by students is also rewarding.
She said the students she sees around campus always seem upbeat, even though the on-campus University experience is different this semester, but she is glad there is still a sense of community.
She added, “I’m going to guess the students are also connecting via social media and other ways to try to stay connected with their fellow students. That’s just so important for everybody’s spirits.”
Founding deans accept contract extension
The University faced a challenge this past spring when the contracts of all three founding college deans expired Spring 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Susan Dargan, Marc Cote, and Margaret Carroll were all hired at the same time six years ago and are considered founding deans of their respective colleges.
Susan Dargan, dean of education as well as social and behavioral sciences, said the departure in February of Angela Salas, the University’s previous provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, and the COVID-19 pandemic were major factors in the decision to offer contract extensions.
Margaret Carroll, dean of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM], said the retirement of the associate provost, Scott Greenberg, was also an issue when it came time for their contracts to expire.
She said, “It seemed like a pretty bad time to empty out Academic Affairs. So, we were asked and agreed to stay on in order to smooth the transition.”
Additionally, there was concern among faculty regarding hiring three new deans as Salas wanted to hire external candidates.
Dargan said, “In general, when people come from outside as deans, they might not know the system. They might have an agenda that isn’t the same as faculty here. I got a sense that faculty wanted people from inside to be hired as deans.”
According to the terms of their contracts, a faculty member can only hold a dean position for six consecutive years before moving back to a tenured teaching position. If a dean were to stay in an administrative role for more than six years, they would lose tenure.
Dargan said she went back to the faculty for a month in May.
“I was a faculty member. And then, I was appointed to dean. So, I don’t know how long I’m going to be dean, but it’s not a one-year [contract] – none of us got a one-year appointment,” she said.
Cote said the University would have faced a “complicated timeframe” with the departure of Academic Affairs positions as well as three deans.
Cote said he and his fellow deans agreed that moving back to the faculty for one month, then restarting their responsibilities as deans, was better than searching for new candidates to fill their positions.
This decision allows the administration to “stagger the departure of the existing deans to allow for a more planned-out program of getting those dean positions filled,” he said.
In reference to Cote’s contract extension, Lisa Eck, professor and chair of the English department, said, “Dean Cote gave a much-needed sense of stability to this school year, especially for the slate of new chairs who came on board for the College of Arts and Humanities.
“He has helped maintain a sense of the normal here at FSU by stewarding the Children’s Literature Festival just last week, which is such a touchstone event, while helping faculty adapt to the new challenges of being virtual,” she added.
Zimmerman said the Academic Affairs department didn’t think it was wise to train new faculty deans while dealing with COVID-19.
She said, “The deans were very generous in agreeing to stay. That will give us the flexibility to transition to new deans gradually. We’re hoping one or two at a time, not everybody at once.”
As deans, Cote, Dargan, and Carroll all work with scheduling and budgeting, as well as professors’ and students’ academic concerns.
Cote said, “In the curriculum, one of the things we’ve been working on is what’s often called decolonizing that curriculum.”
Some highlights of this decolonization include courses addressing diversity such as Contemporary African American Art History, LGBTQ Literature, and Contemporary Latinx Literature, said Cote.
“We think it’s a great idea to get some sort of stronger diversity and social justice component to the general education program,” he said – “social justice being kind of a key element of that.”
Carroll said she hopes to see a learning environment that is inclusive as possible in STEM.
She said, “I’d like to see all of my departments take our commitment to being an anti-racist institution very seriously and think about how their own departmental policies impact the success of different students differently.
“In terms of the curriculum, I’d love to see departments really thinking about what kinds of changes they can make that will help a broader spectrum of students succeed, and also better prepare students for the workforce.
“We can always do better,” Carroll added.
Biology Professor Beckwitt said, “Dean Carroll’s willingness to extend her service as Dean also brought a significant benefit of experience and stability.
“I have known Dr. Carroll since she began teaching at FSU, and I know that she is eager to return to the faculty. It is important that the various deans not all be replaced at the same time. There is a learning curve to serving as dean, and it is helpful if there is some institutional memory,” Beckwitt added.
Dargan said she also does a lot of work on diversity and inclusion and is “very concerned about the impact on communities of color that is often disproportionately negative.”
Xavier Guadalupe-Diaz, sociology professor and criminology program coordinator, said he is grateful for Dargan’s leadership.
He said, “She was chair of sociology when I was hired seven years ago, an early and steadfast ally for me and many other faculty of color, and she has always been a widely appreciated, faculty-centered leader on campus.
“I especially appreciate her work and involvement in diversifying the faculty and centering anti-racist work across department, curriculum, and more,” he added.
Education Chair Cressey said Dargan continuing as dean has brought a sense of relief.
He said, “Students are familiar with her, faculty members are familiar with her, and staff on our campus as well.”
Cressey said Dargan serving as interim dean of education for one year gave her the experience of working with the education department and licensure programs.
He added, “We’re thankful that she is dean of this new college because she has that experience with education.”
All three founding deans said they look forward to returning to the faculty once their contracts end.
Carroll said, “I really love teaching biology and I look forward to going back to the classroom. I had actually been on the schedule to teach the intro level course for majors this fall, and I was really looking forward to it.”
Cote said his current plan is to serve as dean for a few more years before returning back to the art and music department to teach studio art classes.
He added he hopes to set FSU up for the best search possible to fill his position.
Dargan said, “If I step down as dean before I’m eligible to retire, then I would go back to the faculty and do a sabbatical. … I was planning to study the Irish presence in the West Indies.
She added she looks forward to teaching “some courses that I love teaching.”
President Cevallos said, “I’m assuming, or hoping, that it will be 1-3 years before we replace all the deans, or you know, things change around or they go back to the faculty.
“I’m thankful for all three of them for staying longer than originally planned,” he added.
In addition to the founding deans, Patricia Thomas currently serves as the interim dean of business.
She said her contract is for one year beginning July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021.
Thomas said she took on the role because she has been a part of the college for the last 14 years.
She said she has listened to current students talk about what they hope to get out of their degrees, and listened to alumni of the College of Business talk about what they wish the college did differently.
Thomas added, “I have a really good working relationship with everyone within the college of business. So, I thought I would be an ideal person to help lead the college during that transition.”
Zahra Tohidinia, professor of marketing, said, “Dr. Thomas has demonstrated her true advocacy for our students when she was the management department chair and she continues to do a great job – this time, with her new role as the dean of business.”
Thomas said since accepting the position, she has worked to make sure the curriculum is relevant and successfully prepares students for the workforce.
She said, “I also want to ensure that our students have some experiential learning as part of that process, not just academic. We want to ensure that they [the students] are closely tied to the two centers: the Metrowest Economic Research Center and the Entrepreneurship Innovation Center.
“We want to ensure the students can get on-campus experiential learning as well as in the business community as well,” she added.
Additionally, Thomas has worked to ensure the curriculum reflects equity and inclusion.
She said, “In terms of the learning environment, we want to ensure that both faculty and students feel inclusive. … We want students to be really comfortable. We want them to work hard, to think critically as part of their learning. But, they should also feel very safe.”
Thomas said once her term at interim dean ends, she will return to the faculty.
She said, “If there is an opportunity to continue [as dean], I would also work on that opportunity as well.”
New associate vice president hired
Dr. Reema Zeineldin has been hired as the new associate vice president for academic affairs, operations, finance, and institutional effectiveness as of Sept. 28, 2020.
Before accepting the position, Zeineldin was the associate provost for faculty affairs at Mercy College in New York.
She said she was drawn to FSU because the University is a public institution that “talks about inclusion, diversity, and equity and recently committed to anti-racism. … That is really an important step in the right direction and I know that certain institutions may have hesitation in doing this.
“I have an appreciation of their mission, providing affordable education of high quality,” she added.
President Cevallos said it was important to fill the role of associate vice president as the position works with the Academic Affairs budget, scheduling of courses, and a number of initiatives and issues on campus.
He said hiring Zeineldin would ensure that Zimmerman wouldn’t have to complete this work alone, as it “would have been impossible.”
Zimmerman said “The Academic Affairs budget is a really important piece of Academic Affairs operations, and she’ll be responsible for monitoring that.”
She said Zeineldin will oversee the Office of Grants and Sponsored Programs, the Office of Institutional Research, and the Office of Operations for Student Retention and Success.
She added, “Her [Zeineldin’s] experience was very well suited to the kinds of responsibilities that she’ll have here.
“I’ve had the opportunity to meet with her a number of times since she got here – mostly by Zoom. She is a very friendly, positive person who’s happy to be here,” Zimmerman said. “She’s very interested in getting to know the students and faculty, and I’m very excited to have her here.”
Dean Cote said, “I’ve had the opportunity to meet up with her in a couple of meetings so far. We’re already starting to gameplan as to what things she might be taking on to alleviate the burden of the Provost a little bit and to guide some of the budgetary decisions.
“So, I think she’ll work well. It’s very early on in the game, but signs point to an organized person who can help us kind of navigate the budget and resources,” Cote added.
Dean Carroll said Zeineldin will be “an excellent addition to Academic Affairs.”
Carroll said, “She’s got a really good ability to sort of look across departments and across colleges and really kind of delve down into the numbers. So, she’s going to help with budgets, she’s going to help with faculty assignments, and things like that.”
Zeineldin said her time at FSU has been “excellent” since accepting the position.
She said, “Everybody is nice and very welcoming. The people I am meeting are sharing their experiences. I feel that people are collaborative, which is one of the attractive parts for me.
“I sensed that during my interview – that the members of FSU are looking for someone who’s collaborative, which is a very important thing in the job,” Zeindelin said.
She added, “I’m sensing that this is true, that they want to help give you information, to work successfully with them, and to help support the success of students.
“The dedication to the students is amazing. Since I came, I’ve been seeing some of the internal emails about activities, whether for students or for the community in general. It’s really great.”
[Editor’s Note: Dr. Desmond McCarthy is the advisor for The Gatepost]