Podcast Episode 7 Transcript

From the Office of the Provost

Episode 7: Fostering Collaboration with the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences


Joe McCarthy: Hello and welcome to “From the Office of the Provost,” a podcast that highlights exciting activities and initiatives in the Office of the Provost or University-wide that bolster and enhance our collective vision for growth and transformation. I'm your host, Interim Provost Joe McCarthy, and today I'm joined by Adam Leibovich, the Betty J. and Ralph E. Bailey Dean of the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, as well as the College of General Studies (CGS).

Adam came to Pitt in 2003, joining the faculty in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. He became the department chair in 2015 and associate dean for research and faculty development in 2017. Adam also served as director of the Pittsburgh Quantum Institute, a collaborative interdisciplinary organization that advances research, education, and training in quantum science and engineering.

Adam began his deanship just this past summer at the Dietrich School and CGS in July of 2023. The Dietrich School, for those of our listeners who might not know the specifics, is the University's liberal arts core, and it's home to more than 40 academic departments and programs. CGS, on the other hand, is the historical hub of Pitt’s adult learners, and is also a regional leader in online education.

Welcome, Adam.

Adam Leibovich: Thank you. It's great to be here.

McCarthy: So Adam, let's start by having you share your vision for what the mission and priorities of the Dietrich School and CGS will be moving forward.

Leibovich: So, as you mentioned, the Dietrich School is the liberal arts core of the University of Pittsburgh. We have programs ranging from the arts to the social sciences and the natural sciences, and as such, it plays a vital role to Pitt in general, and to a large majority of our undergraduate students.

CGS is the traditional hub for nontraditional students. Now, what nontraditional students means nowadays is sort of an amorphous concept. It could be people who have served in the military. It could be people who took a couple years' break. It could be people who have a dependent care, whether that's a child or an adult. So, we are looking to continue that mission to make it easier for students who fall under this nontraditional category to be able to come and get an undergraduate education.

One of the things that we did when I first started was take the leadership team and try to focus on a set of guiding principles that we are going to use in the dean's office and hopefully filter down to the school. So, these are our guideposts that we always come back to to make sure that we're moving in the right direction:

Respect, inclusion, innovation, communication, integrity and collaboration.

And this really speaks to how we are trying to govern from the dean's office, but also what we expect the Dietrich School and CGS to to live by. One of the things that we are trying to do is make collaborations within the school, but also across schools, working with the other schools, whether that's [the School of Computing and Information], Engineering or so on.

We’re trying to make things more available for faculty and staff and students to be innovative, take risks, try to do new projects that may not succeed but you know, as a scientist, you know a lot of the things you try don't succeed and just keep trying until you find something that does. So, these are the type of the things that we're trying to do in the Dietrich School and CGS right now.

McCarthy: Great. Thanks, Adam. So, as I mentioned before, you started your deanship this past summer during a time of transition here at Pitt as we welcomed Chancellor Gabel to the University. In fact, I recall she was involved in the decision-making process to hire you. Dealing with a lot of moving parts, how have you relied on the existing strengths of Dietrich during your first six months as dean?

Leibovich: Well, I was an internal candidate. I was associate dean, as you mentioned, for six years before becoming dean, so that certainly helped. I knew the people. I knew the University and the college quite well. And first and foremost, we have outstanding faculty, dedicated staff, unbelievably high achieving students, and so knowing that made it easier coming in because I feel like if I don't do anything, they're going to do great. But I hope to do things to make it even better for them.

For me personally, the dean's office, we had some transition, but all the senior staff remained and I had worked with them for a number of years. They knew me. I knew them. That made it very easy to slip in and start working right away.

On the other hand, we had one associate dean who stayed on, but we hired four new associate deans from a wide variety of backgrounds, and they, you know, have come in and learned the school more broadly and have been diving in contributing right from the get go.

Also, even though I was familiar with the school and other departments and the programs, we did do a listening tour of all the academic departments. So, the 30 academic departments and the three interdisciplinary programs that have faculty, really so we, the whole team, could get a better picture of the status of what's going on in those different departments and programs and really, to hear their aspirational goals and what type of help they need to make those things happen.

So, we just finished that tour and we are about to do some town halls for the smaller programs, the ones that don't have their own faculty, and the centers that we have in the school. Then really, it's really to try to get a better picture of what's going on and try to make things better for the faculty and staff and students involved.

McCarthy: So, you mentioned the interdisciplinary programs and and I know you earlier highlighted collaboration as one of your, your pillars or guideposts, I believe you called them. Can you tell us a bit more about how you interact with other schools and programs across the campus to, to really make Dietrich an interdisciplinary hub.

Leibovich: Yeah, so this is obviously an important thing. More and more research nowadays is becoming interdisciplinary. You don't get to solve the big problems by focusing on one subject. You really need to bring people in from different expertise and have them work together. That could be within the school, but oftentimes it would be across schools. And right from the start, when we had the new faculty orientation, I was telling the new faculty that they should, you know, reach out, meet their colleagues in the school, but also out of the school to find things that they could potentially collaborate on. It's obviously easy to get siloed in your own discipline. To try to breakdown those silos is a project that we are working on. We're trying to create opportunities for faculty to meet and to brainstorm and find ways to partner within the Dietrich School, but also across schools and even across institutions.

There's already a lot of interdisciplinary work happening in Dietrich, or with Dietrich and other schools. So, for instance, we have a lot of things going on with Swanson School of Engineering and [the School of Computing and Information.] So, for instance, have the computational bio major, the computational social science major, DNID [Digital Narrative and Interactive Design] between Dietrich and SCI. There's the quantum computing major which we just initiated, which I’m very excited about. That's in my own home department. And we are leading a lot of the innovation in education of quantum in the undergraduate arena. We have other things. We have projects with the Business School and I’m more than happy to explore opportunities with the other colleges on campus.

McCarthy: I want to back up for a minute. You talked a bit about some change in the leadership within the dean's office other than yourself, obviously, and one of the new associate deans that that joined your group, Professor Natasha Tokowicz, is actually serving in a new role: the associate dean for equity, faculty development, and community engagement. Why was this addition a priority for you?

Leibovich: Yeah, there's a number of reasons. I mean, we went from four associate deans to five associate deans adding this new role, which has the unwieldy title, as you mentioned, equity, faculty development, and community engagement, and really all three parts are something that I wanted to have more opportunity to work on from the dean’s level to help the school.

So, obviously the first part: equity. We want to create an equitable environment. We want to increase the diversity among our faculty, staff, and students, and having someone to work on that – to create better climate in the departments, to make sure that we are doing best practices for recruiting grad students, recruiting faculty, recruiting staff – really is an important role that we didn't really have someone dedicated to in the dean's office.

On the community engagement side, you know, community engagement is clearly a priority for the entire University. Pitt is really a leader in community engaged scholarship and that obviously is part of what the Dietrich School is also involved in. We have a lot of faculty who do community scholarship, but also other community engagement, outreach, and so on. And again, we didn't have a person in the dean's office who was focused on this area and the idea of having someone who was involved or could collaborate with the faculty, expand the opportunities. Even just get a listing of what's going on, I thought was important.

And then faculty development and, you know, one of the things that I feel is very important is that we do a better job with developing our faculty and making sure that they have the resources, have the tools, have whatever they need, right from when they're hired all the way through till they retire. Given the structure in the dean's office, I thought it would be important to hire a person who had that as part of their primary mission.

So there's a lot of different things that involves. You know, setting up better faculty orientation. We're working on plans for how we reach new hires right from the get go, making sure that we give them the information as they are transitioning from wherever they are to Pitt. Working on programs to help faculty develop new skills or have the tools, as I said before, to really prosper in whatever field that they are working in.

McCarthy: I've had the opportunity to get to know Natasha a little bit. I think she's an excellent choice for that role, so well done.

Leibovich: Yes, I agree.

McCarthy: As you know, this academic year is recognized as the Year of Discourse and Dialogue. I understand that the Dietrich School and CGS, not surprisingly, have gotten involved in the funding and have been awarded several projects. But how else has the school honored that theme and stepped into this space?

Leibovich: Right now, given everything that's going on in the world, this theme couldn't have been more timely. So, it's really great to see that some of our faculty have stepped up and put in applications and then were rewarded through the Year of Discourse and Dialogue. Beyond that, we're doing some things as well.

So, one of our awardees, Professor [Abdesalam] Soudi from linguistics has been working for a number of years with another faculty member, Doctor [Jennifer Brick] Murtazashvili, who is a professor in GSPIA. What they have done was create a series which is called “Community United in Compassion,” which is something that the Dietrich School has co-founded some of their events and I was honored to speak at last semester.

So as a University community we are interdependent. We need to stand with each other and for each other. What they have been working on is to try to create empathy, compassion, and solidarity, which really should be guiding principles for us through times of tragedy and conflict.

So, one of the things that is clearly happening in the world and the country is that we are not listening to each other. And so, by trying to foster the opportunity to listen to each other, to talk to each other without an agenda or judgment, we can find things that we have in common. And this is really quite important given everything that's going on in the world right now.

So, I think this is important for our faculty, but it's also crucially important for our staff and our students so that they can thrive in a world where people who won't always agree but then can have the ability to come together to actually solve problems and make things better.

McCarthy: So [in the] background, I gave your intro, your bio. One of the things that I didn't highlight, but I'd like to highlight now is, is your impressive teaching record. You’re a past winner of the Tina and David Bellett Teaching Excellence Award, for example, which is the Dietrich School's highest honor for undergraduate teaching. You're also the recipient of a Pitt Innovation in Education Award. How do you plan to bring that same spirit of academic excellence and innovation to your leadership?

Leibovich: First of all, thank you. Teaching was something that when I was younger, I didn't ever think that that would be important. I really started teaching officially, meaning I was paid for it, when I was an undergraduate. I worked in a walk-in tutoring service. That was exciting. It was not really structured, it was more of just, people came in and, you know, you would help them with the problems. And that was always satisfying to see them get to a solution for the problems. And then when I was in grad school, I was the TA. It was really. I I just loved interacting with the students. Just when you can help a student understand something or come to a new way of looking at the world, it's just, it's just, you know, it's wonderful. It's one of the greatest things I feel you can do as a faculty member.

So, all that being said, we're very excited about a number of initiatives that are in the works to support our faculty in the classroom. One of the things that we are implementing is new innovative opportunities to support faculty and staff interested in pursuing fresh solutions to current challenges. And we're really leaving this, trying to leave this as open as possible so that we're not dictating what people should be working on. People can really come up with things that they think are interesting and potential problems to work on. And again, going back to what I said earlier, if people are unsuccessful, that's OK. We want people to take risks and try things and not feel that there's some fear of failure. So, we're really trying to put that into the ethos of this new initiative, which we'll be rolling out later this year. But we're also working with departments to support, encourage specific efforts to revise curricula and to enhance teaching.

In the College of General Studies, you did mention that we do a lot of online learning. We are working to expand the online options and program development through CGS. To do so, we have a number of instructional designers on staff and we’re looking to hire a few more.

It really is important to us to make sure that we are not creating online courses that have low quality. We want to make them super high quality and so we spend a lot of time and have people work with these instructional designers. So, it takes a long time to do it right and we want to continue with that.

And on top of that, we're doing some other things. So as an example, we're developing a school-wide cross-disciplinary seminar for faculty. A couple of them, one of which is called “Artificial Intelligence Across the Disciplines.” So, the idea of this is really understanding how artificial intelligence in your particular discipline can be used and not abused. So that's sort of how we're thinking about that. And there's more that we'll be rolling out beyond that.

McCarthy: Thanks. Those are some really exciting educational opportunities. Looking ahead, what other opportunities do you see for the Dietrich School and CGS?

Leibovich: I mean, there's so much. I mean, the school I think has such a bright future. A lot of things on the horizon. I just want to highlight a few.

One of the things that I mentioned when we were talking about Natasha is that we are enhancing the onboarding experience for new faculty and staff. I really feel that retention for faculty begins with onboarding. Historically what we've done for onboarding is you sit them down for a day and you just pour information into them. And if you ever have experienced that, you might remember one tenth of the material if you're lucky. We're trying to do a better job of extending this out so it's really not just a one-day event. We've started doing that with our new faculty. We're further along with implementing that for our chairs. So we are having a shorter session for new chairs, just the things that they need to know immediately. And then throughout the year, we are having what we're calling just-in-time training and this is open for all the chairs so that if they want a refresher or they just hadn't done it before, depending on what the situation is, they get the information in a timely manner. So we've worked on that.

So that's further along. Like I said, we want to expand this for our hires, for our new faculty as well. So, this is something that we're going to be continuing to work on.

Another thing that we're going to be adding in hopefully soon is an ombuds office for faculty and staff. We already have an ombudsperson for graduate students, but we don't have anything for faculty and staff, and given the size and scope of our school, I feel like it's important to have that option, that available for, for faculty and staff to have some person that can have a confidential conversion with. So, we're going to hopefully be rolling that out in the in the fall.

And just also creating new opportunities to recognize faculty and staff to highlight the amazing contribution that people are doing across the school. So, we have fantastic people. The community is amazing, and we really want to do a better job letting others know about all the great work that they're doing, and we want to make sure that we get better at appreciating people for what they do in meaningful way.

McCarthy: Great. Thank you, Adam. As usual, we've really just scratched the surface of the things going on in your schools. So how can we tell people methods to stay up to date with the great news and opportunities coming from your units?

Leibovich: Well, we have a number of different ways. I mean, of course, there's a website as.pitt.edu or cgs.pitt.edu. We have an Instagram account and an X or Twitter account. I also am holding monthly office hours. No appointment necessary, you just need to be a member of the Pitt community and you can stop by. I love to have people stop by. Questions, comments, recommendations, book recommendations – I got a couple of good book recommendations already – or just to say hello. So, always happy to talk to people.

McCarthy: Well Adam, thank you so much for joining me today and sharing the great work that you and your team are doing. I'm particularly excited to have heard that you were a teacher as an undergraduate. I was as well actually. With that, I'd like to thank you listeners for tuning in. I'm Interim Provost Joe McCarthy, and this has been “From the Office of the Provost.”