Q&A with the Chancellor
Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2001 issue of the Purdue Calumet magazine
In becoming the fifth chief campus administrator in the history of Purdue University Calumet – succeeding Millard Gyte, Carl Elliott, Richard Combs and the recently retired James Yackel – Howard Cohen assumed his role as chancellor, July 2, with energy, vision and a passion for higher education. Previously the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay since 1996, he brings wide-ranging and results- oriented experience to Purdue Calumet. In the following Q&A interview, Chancellor Cohen shares his views on a wide range of subjects relating to Purdue University Calumet.
- What was it about Purdue University Calumet that interested you, and what excites you about being its chancellor? Answer
- What do you consider the primary strengths and assets of Purdue Calumet? Answer
- Much has been discussed about leading Purdue Calumet to “the next level.” What is your vision of the next level for Purdue Calumet? Answer
- How would you describe your concern for, involvement with and commitment to student success? Answer
- What should universities do to foster student success? Answer
- How do you plan to establish a strong relationship with Purdue Calumet alumni? Answer
- Describe the partnership role you envision Purdue Calumet playing in outreach to northwest Indiana business, industry and other entities. Answer
- How would you describe your leadership philosophy? Answer
- In general, what do you believe to be the primary challenges facing higher education? Answer
- What are your thoughts about public funding for Purdue Calumet, and how do you plan to work with local state legislators and the West Lafayette administration to encourage support? Answer
- The topic of dormitories was discussed during your campus visit last spring. What are your thoughts about residential housing at Purdue Calumet? Answer
- A key challenge facing regional/commuter universities such as ours is that of cultivating a sense of campus pride and involvement among students. What ideas do you have in that regard? Answer
- What are your areas of academic interest and research? Answer
Q. What was it about Purdue University Calumet that interested you, and what excites you about being its chancellor?
A. I was initially interested in a public, metropolitan university that offered a broad range of quality programs to students who, otherwise, had limited access to higher education. I became more interested when I learned that Purdue Calumet and the Purdue University system were serious about taking this campus to the next level. Interest turned to excitement when I discovered that my ideas about moving beyond access to a commitment to student success – that is, producing more graduates – resonated with the campus community. Graduation from college is a huge benefit both to the graduates and to northwestern Indiana – culturally, socially and economically.
Q. What do you consider the primary strengths and assets of Purdue Calumet?
A. Purdue Calumet has a great range of programs, from associate and bachelor’s degrees through graduate work, and a highly qualified faculty to teach them. It has a very progressive, integrated student services operation, and it is on sound financial footing. Being part of Purdue University, with its strength in technology and engineering, is also a valuable asset.
Q. Much has been discussed about leading Purdue Calumet to “the next level.” What is your vision of the next level for Purdue Calumet?
A The next level, in my view, is best defined in terms of graduation rates. Not that graduation is the only measure of success, but it is a prime indicator of many other measures. Right now, in the language of the National Center for Postsecondary Improvement, Purdue Calumet is a “good opportunity.” That means that fewer than 40 percent of entering freshmen graduate within five years. To move to the next level, again using the same language, would enable Purdue Calumet to become a “good buy.” That would mean that between 40 percent and 65 percent of entering freshmen would graduate within five years.
Q. How would you describe your concern for, involvement with and commitment to student success?
A My concern for student success is based on the fact that neither students, nor the society in which they live realizes the full benefit of their education prior to graduation. College graduates earn significantly more income than non-graduates, and contribute substantially to the communities in which they reside. My involvement with student success has been, most recently, as a provost. The provost is the chief quality control officer of the student learning experience, responsible for the curriculum, personnel and resources that constitute a university education. My commitment to student success is 30 years in public universities in a variety of teaching and administrative positions, working to help students learn and graduate.
Q. What should universities do to foster student success?
A. There are many ways universities can help students be successful. First, we must set high expectations and help students meet them. Next, we must understand the variety of factors that could lead a student to lose heart when the going gets tough. We can put systems in place to identify students who are disconnecting and reconnect them. Specifics include: orientation programs, freshmen experience programs, strong advising, early academic warning systems and extra-curricular programs that create a sense of belonging on campus.
Q. How do you plan to establish a strong relationship with Purdue Calumet alumni?
A. A unique feature of a college degree is that its value rises and falls with the reputation of the institution. This provides alumni with a special incentive to help keep the reputation of their alma mater high. My goal is to provide alumni many avenues of continued involvement with Purdue Calumet. They should be invited to participate in programs, give advice, help recruit prospective students and provide financial support that improves the quality of the university. I assume alumni are motivated to be involved. My job is to help make opportunities available and to be welcoming when they show an interest in participation.
Q. Describe the partnership role you envision Purdue Calumet playing in outreach to northwest Indiana business, industry and other entities.
A. As a regional university, Purdue Calumet has a central role to play in the vitality of the region. We are a major supplier of the graduates who constitute the educated workforce of northwest Indiana. So it is important that Purdue Calumet and regional business and industry are on the same page in terms of the competencies, skills and abilities our students will have when they graduate. I envision multiple partnerships that are based on our ability to produce educated graduates who will live and work in the region and also based on the ability of regional corporations to support us in this effort. We have a common interest in creating a bright future for northwest Indiana.
Q. How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
A. I approach the leadership of a university as one might approach the leadership of a voluntary society – the Arthritis Foundation or the Modern Language Association or a community soccer league. Not that universities are voluntary organizations – they are very complex corporate entities. Nevertheless, it is instructive and humbling to think about how voluntary societies achieve stability and perform at very high levels. People join voluntary societies because they believe in their goals and they know that they need to work with others in an organized way in order to accomplish something worthwhile. Understanding this, leaders of voluntary societies must focus on three key elements: (a) reinforcing common commitment, (b) creating opportunities for membership involvement, and (c) taking responsibility for setting the agenda. If leaders do these things well, members are enthused to participate. I believe that these three elements are also at the heart of university leadership.
Q. In general, what do you believe to be the primary challenges facing higher education?
A. Higher education’s primary challenge is to live up to the high expectations people have for it. Public higher education, in particular, is expected to provide access to a satisfying life, a worthwhile career, and an improved society. Over the past 40 years, public higher education has expanded rapidly and remained affordable, providing more opportunity for more people. In the next phase of its development, higher education must determine how to help more students successfully complete the learning experience without giving too much ground on accessibility or affordability.
Q. What are your thoughts about public funding for Purdue Calumet, and how do you plan to work with local state legislators and the West Lafayette administration to encourage support?
A. Regional universities enjoy public funding because of the high value that they return to the community. Our job will be to continue to provide that value and to continue to keep the legislators and the Board of Trustees informed of our success. Our story will require honest, hardheaded assessment that is grounded in data. When we make a convincing case, we make the job of being a legislator or a trustee that much easier. When we fail to make the case, we make it hard for our friends to support us.
Q. The topic of dormitories was discussed during your campus visit last spring. What are your thoughts about residential housing at Purdue Calumet?
A. As I said during the open session of my campus interview, residential housing is one strategy for improving student graduation rates. I believe that a critical mass of resident students can help create a vibrant campus life for all students. To get from the idea to the reality we will need to look at trustees policy, student interest, land availability, construction costs, cash flow and organizational structure – for starters. I expect we would do a feasibility study before making any firm commitments.
Q. A key challenge facing regional/commuter universities such as ours is that of cultivating a sense of campus pride and involvement among students. What ideas do you have in that regard?
A. I think we need to listen to students’ ideas about what is likely to involve them more in the campus and engender a sense of belonging. Once we have some new ideas, we need to select a few and try them out.
Q. What are your areas of academic interest and research?
A. My academic discipline is philosophy, and my ongoing interest is in authority relationships and how they play out in social contexts. I have written on children’s rights and, most recently, police authority. For many years I offered workshops to police academy instructors and curriculum developers on how to teach ethics in the police academy. As you can imagine, though, I have not had much opportunity to conduct research during my years as a provost/vice chancellor. I don’t think that will change much as chancellor, either.