Current interim provost Noel Wilkin spoke with faculty and students on campus Thursday at the second of four planned provost candidate open forums. Wilkin’s presentation focused on the interplay between the role of provost and the university’s mission, and how the mission’s ultimate goal is to change society.
“The role of the provost is to maximize our collective capacity to pursue our mission,” Wilkin said. “Making a difference in society is a function of the effectiveness of our faculty and staff. That’s where the magic happens – when we make a difference in the lives of our students.”
Wilkin is familiar with the university. In addition to serving as the interim provost and the executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, he also is a professor of pharmacy administration and research professor in the Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences.
A self-proclaimed fan of analogies, Wilkin compared the university to a coral reef.
“When you look at the sheer magnitude of the coral reef, it’s hard to think about how that was actually created,” he said. “But it was individual architects doing what they do best. It creates something that’s beautiful. It’s magnificent, and it’s incredible in size. That’s really not too different from what we do in an academic institution.”
Wilkin began his presentation by describing how the jobs he has held have prepared him to take on the role of provost. He detailed his time spent as pharmacist, faculty member, journal editor, consultant, chair, associate provost and interim provost.
“I became very comfortable understanding how to navigate that collaborative space and resolve conflict to better the patient and ensure the physicians were treating patients in the way they saw fit,” he said of his days as a pharmacist.
In addition to gaining problem solving skills, he listed care, collaboration, creativity, passion, productivity and integrity as some of the values he could bring to the provost position.
“I’ve had the true privilege of bringing all of those to advance our mission as a university,” Wilkin said.
Wilkin said provosts must master work in three areas: administering, managing and leading.
“Managing people is one of the most important things we do,” he said. “We need to make people feel connected when they enter our campus.”
As interim provost, Wilkin implemented performance evaluations for administrators so they could get feedback in order to better their management skills.
Wilkin also discussed revenue in his open forum. The school’s revenue is brought in from tuition, state funds, grants and contracts and donations. Wilkin said while alumni donations are important, they shouldn’t be the key piece of revenue.
“We can’t give away our mission to what someone else wants us to do,” he said. “It needs to be collaborative and needs to make sense for us and them. We need to capitalize on the interdependence that makes us the University of Mississippi.”
He also acknowledged money cannot solve all the problems a university faces.
“If you throw money at a problem, it’s not going to fix it,” he said. “You need a solution, a path forward, and then we can start to make investments.”
Recruiting new students was a key topic during the forum. Wilkin noted the South is the only region in the country that will see increases in the number of students graduating from high school.
“We will see robust growth, and we need to capture a portion of this market,” he said.
Wilkin also praised members of the staff who he believes excel at enhancing the university’s brand.
“I’m really impressed with Jeff McManus, who is our director of landscaping,” he said. “One of the things he’s done so effectively is that he helps the landscaping crew realize that their role at this university is recruitment of faculty and students.”
Greg Easson, professor from the engineering department, addressed the university’s increased enrollment during the forum.
“One of the things I’ve seen over the past 20 years is that we were fairly small and had a nice personal feel,” Easson said. “We actually got to know our students. With growth, that personal feel becomes much more difficult.”
“We need to be purposeful about our space and ensure that a big university feels small,” Wilkin said. “We need to grow enrollment at a rate that is digestible.”
Melissa Dennis, head of research and instruction for the library, attended the panel and said she enjoyed Wilkin’s presentation.
“Dr. Wilkin is phenomenal,” Dennis said. “I think he has a really good grasp on the needs of the university. He has been a huge fan of developing programs and individuals throughout the university. In the library, we get to work with a lot of different departments, and I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about him.”
The search for a new provost will continue with two more presentations Tuesday and Friday, with a decision likely to come by the end of the month.