On Aug. 1, Wallace Loh became University of Iowa executive vice president and provost—a new role in a familiar setting. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College, a master’s from Cornell University, a PhD in psychology from the University of Michigan, and a JD from Yale. Most recently dean of arts and sciences at Seattle University, Loh also served as dean of the University of Washington law school and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Colorado.
He recently spoke with Parent Times about his priorities as the University’s chief academic officer.
First, what is the provost’s relationship to undergraduate education?
In the big picture, the provost helps the collegiate deans shape the long-term, strategic direction of the colleges and also works on issues related to student success. We know that one important factor associated with student success and retention is a sense of being connected to a smaller group. So, for example, having a group of students with similar interests living together in a learning community and taking classes together can shrink the university for those students, and that is such a big factor in whether a student will stay in school and be successful. The provost’s office launches initiatives like that.
What about the University has struck you over the past few months?
The number-one impression is that this is a great university with great people. Throughout the spring and summer, I made a series of visits to campus and talked with a wide range of people. I’ve met so many high-achieving faculty, staff, and administrators, plus some very talented student leaders. They all share a genuine passion for the University.
The one disconcerting impression I have to note is the scope of underage drinking and binge drinking in our community, which affects the learning environment, and—most importantly—affects students’ health and safety. I realize this is a longstanding issue with no easy solutions, but it’s an issue that has to be managed, even if it can’t be readily solved.
What are your goals for the University? Any specific issues or initiatives you plan to focus on?
One is to ensure affordable access—all qualified residents of Iowa will have an opportunity to come here and obtain an affordable education. Number two is that students have an absolutely first-rate undergraduate educational experience—and I emphasize “experience” because so much of education occurs outside the classroom. A third goal is to support certain special programs to meet the needs of various subsets of students, such as those in the honors program.
Eventually, I’d love to have every single entering first-year student be part of a living-learning community. I’d also like to expand study abroad opportunities. And, related to the alcohol issue, we need to work harder to make ours a very safe and respectful community.
You worked as policy director for former Washington governor Gary Locke. How did that experience affect your view of higher education?
For me, working in government was an invaluable adventure. I gained a systemwide perspective, observing the roles of public research universities in the larger context of K–12 education, community colleges, and comprehensive universities. I also learned a lot about the dynamics of the appropriations process and the compromises that come with setting and funding state priorities. I understand why public investment in higher education may continue to decline as a share of state budgets. But I also believe, more than ever, that public research universities are states’ best hopes for the future.
by Lin Larson and Sara Epstein Moninger