Noel Wilkin was announced as provost of the university at the end of last month. The DM recently sat down with the provost to discuss his goals for his new role, how he began his career in academia and his favorite Ole Miss memories.
The DM: How would you describe the process of going through the interviews to become provost? What were some of the emotions you were experiencing during the process?
Noel Wilkin: First, I am glad our institution did a national search. I think that’s the right process for an institution like ours, and our community deserves the kind of opportunity to provide input into who their provost is. As an internal candidate, it made it a little unusual that people were coming to campus, and I wanted to get away from campus so they could freely operate and I could ensure that the search was not jeopardized by me being around. On those days, I scheduled meetings in remote locations off-campus so I wouldn’t interfere with the process. I’m happy to have the process completed, and I’m thrilled to be chosen.
DM: What are some of your goals as provost?
NW: I have a number of different goals, and they probably would be best categorized in the areas of teaching, research and service. The first, in the area of teaching, is to innovate and enhance our teaching strategies to remain on the cutting edge with regard to teaching innovation and innovative programs that we’re offering to students to help position them for lifelong careers. The next area is research and working with our vice chancellor for research and special programs to help him to energize our research activity.
In service, we are going to be adding energy to how we are reaching out to communities to enhance the prosperity of our state. We want to pour our collective energy and creativity and talents into the community in ways that are beneficial to them. The goals centered around that area include lots of little initiatives.
DM: Did you always envision yourself having a career in academia?
NW: I started out as a pharmacist, and in that profession, I learned a lot about interacting with people and helping people accomplish their objectives. Pharmacists are the connection between the physician and the patient and work to ensure that the patient gets the maximum benefit. That really started my career in the direction of navigating a space where I recognized what different roles play in accomplishing various objectives. I went back and earned my Ph.D at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and was able to start my career here as a faculty member in the School of Pharmacy. Once I got into graduate school, I realized I wanted to have a career in academia, mainly because of the incredibly meaningful work that we do as an institution of higher learning. I didn’t set out in my career in academia to achieve leadership positions. My goal was to be the best faculty member I could possibly be and be the best citizen I could to the university.
DM: Do you ever miss any parts of being a pharmacist and that side of your career?
NW: I miss the interaction with patients and helping them improve their lives. On the academic side of things, I miss working with graduate students and energizing their passion for their science and the contributions they want to make. I miss the classroom and being able to teach and engage students and help them to grasp and expand their understanding. I would say I miss those things, but I’ve always looked at this job affording me the opportunities to do lots of exciting and energizing things to facilitate the success of others, so it was trading off things I like to do for things I like to do.
DM: You’re not originally from Mississippi or the South. Did you experience any culture shocks when you came to Ole Miss?
NW: I didn’t experience any cultural shocks in moving to Oxford. I lived in a small town just outside of Washington, D.C., in a community where we knew all of our neighbors and interacted with all of our neighbors regularly. We volunteered, we helped the neighbors and all of the community would come together. Living in a community that really worked well together exposed me to the small-town community feel, where you get to know and interact with people.
DM: What are some of your favorite things about Ole Miss?
NW: I would say that one of the things that I enjoy about this community of scholars is the passion that people have for our mission and what we do. People are passionate about their research and about making a difference and working with others to accomplish those goals. Part of that is the deep caring for the success of students and helping students in various objectives. We are predominantly a resident school, yet we get students from all 50 states and, on this campus, 82 countries. What they say they love about this place is that when they come here, there are people who care about them and their success.
DM: What is your favorite Ole Miss memory you have from your time here?
NW: I would probably say the presidential debate that I had the opportunity to work on the steering committee for in 2008. My role in that was to help think through the issues and to handle the academic debate-related activities for our campus. We knew that we would only have access to about 100 tickets to get into the debate, so the only value would be to host events that made the debate real for the rest of our community.
We came up with 90 activities and events, and the issues they covered were so diverse. Chancellor Robert Khayat announced that all of the tickets would go to students, so we had to figure out how we were going to select the 100 students who were going to get to go to the debate. We created a passport where students would get an entry into the drawing for every event that they attended. Those events culminated in a festival that we hosted in the Grove on the day of the debate.
That night, everyone sat on lawn chairs, and you could hear people cheering for different candidates. I watched the debate sitting in the Grove with 15,000 people, experiencing the culmination of all of this energy and activity around the debate, which brought our community together.
DM: When you’re not here on campus, what are some of your hobbies or things you like to do around Oxford?
NW: It’s apparent to me that this job is pretty much 24/7 in that there’s always something that needs attention. It requires considerable time-management skills to carve out time to do other things that aren’t a part of this role. I love to watch soccer with my family. My daughter is a soccer player for Oxford High, and I love to watch their games. I enjoy going to Ole Miss sporting events for the community, emotion, people and talent they bring to our campus. I also enjoy home improvement. While I have little time to do big projects, I love getting to engage in a project that’s relatively small, but getting to see it completed from start to finish is rewarding.