By Emma Lyons
Arts & Features Editor
Kristen Porter-Utley stepped into the role of provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at the beginning of the academic year.
She said her primary goal is student readiness - working to connect major programs to careers and supporting students on campus.
Porter-Utley earned her Ph.D. in botany from the University of Florida. She said her area of focus was evolutionary biology, working to understand how different species of organisms are related to one another.
The field work for her degree was conducted in Mexico, Florida, Haiti, and Jamaica, she said.
At Keene State College, Porter-Utley began working as a professor before becoming chair of the Biology Department. She then took the position of assistant dean of Sciences. She moved to Bridgewater State University to become dean of the Bartlett College of Science and Mathematics.
“With each stage of that progression, what I found was that I was able to positively impact a larger and larger group of people,” she said.
Porter-Utley said she was drawn to serving in an administrative position because she wanted to bridge the gap between faculty and administration.
“People who love teaching, who love students, who love faculty members and have a central mission of serving students, those folks need to step out of their comfort zones a little bit more and move into administrative roles,” she said.
Porter-Utley said the position of provost was a “natural next step” in her career. She was already interested in becoming a provost before the Framingham State position opened and she was encouraged to apply.
Reema Zeineldin, associate vice president of Academic Affairs, said Porter-Utley’s prior experience as a dean is important to her transition into the role of provost. “Without it, it could be challenging. So, definitely, she has the right qualifications.”
Porter-Ultey said as she looked into Framingham State, she was struck by the commitment the University has to anti-racism.
She said it was very impressive that every page of the leadership profile for the position had the word “anti-racist” on it. “That’s bold. This institution is really committed to taking a bold stance in the area of equity, and that’s been important in my professional work.”
She said she was also drawn to the University because it is “on the cusp” of becoming a Hispanic-serving institution.
“I grew up in Florida, so I have a love for all cultures Hispanic or Latino/Latina,” Porter-Utley said. “I was really excited about also potentially serving an institution which was going to have that mission.”
In her role Porter-Utley is responsible for all academic programs at FSU. She said she works with the deans of each academic college, the dean of the library, the registrar, and the director of assessment.
“Those are all people I work with to ensure that the academic programs that we’re offering are of the appropriate quality, are appropriately accessible, meet equity standards of the institution, anti-racist standards for the institution,” she said.
She added she works to ensure students graduate on time, and the degrees they earn are meaningful and help the students develop professional careers.
Porter-Utley said since she just entered the role of provost, she is focusing on “trying to absorb. … Even though I came from another state university, our institutions are extremely different in multiple ways.”
She said the main question she is focusing on is, “How can an institution be student ready?” That is the driving question behind all of her decision making.
Porter-Utley said she is working with the department chairs and deans to analyze the University’s academic programs to ensure they are relevant, focused on students’ interests, and properly prepare them for the next stages of their lives.
Steven Cok, chair of the Chemistry and Food Science Department, said, “She’s open to those lines of communications. I think it’s really key to get the chairs, faculty, and administration to work together.”
Porter-Utley said she also wants to ensure the programs are relevant to the MetroWest region and serve a public need.
Lisa Eck, chair of the English Department, said her department has already taken steps to connect the major to careers.
“It’s exciting that these efforts are underway, but even more exciting now that they have visibility and they have support from the administration, or support from Academic Affairs,” she said. “It feels like we’re all moving in the same direction and having these important conversations.”
Porter-Utley defined a student-ready institution as one that makes every student feel welcomed and supported, as well as a university that meets the expectations of students.
“We often talk about how it is that students need to meet our expectations and there’s a balance there, because we have to have standards and to ensure that every student has a quality degree at the end of their time here,” she said. “But how are we thinking about how we are meeting our students' expectations?”
Porter-Utley said the mentality of being student-ready is primarily focused on every aspect of the student experience at Framingham State. “How are you [the students] experiencing our spaces? How are you feeling that we know you’re excellent and are here to support you?”
Erin Gemme, diversity and inclusion officer of SGA and a sophomore early childhood education major, said, “It is important for somebody in that position to think of the students like that. I think that a really good strategy to move forward is to keep the students in mind.”
Larry McKenna, chair of the Environment, Society, and Sustainability Department, said student readiness is important for the long-term survival of the University, but becoming a student-ready institution is difficult when the University has finite resources.
“We’re going to have to choose what to say is unimportant, so that we can choose to do the important work of being a student-ready university,” he said. “Everything can’t be equally important. If everything is equally important, then nothing matters.
“When you try to say, ‘Here’s what’s important. Here’s what’s not important,’ that’s going to be a very long decision-making process. That’s why strategic leadership is so important. And that’s why I personally am very excited that Kristen’s here,” he said.
Paul Yalowitz, chair of the Art and Music Department, said student readiness is helpful in retaining students and ensuring they do not become frustrated when they are unable to find the answers they need.
“What that means could be different things to different students. We have a lot of first-generation students, so informing them about what they can do. A lot of students aren’t even aware of some of the things they can do when they get here and don’t take advantage of the different things offered to them,” he said.
Kimberly Poth, a sophomore elementary education major, said her coursework for her major showed her the biggest complaint about public schools is that they aren’t properly preparing students for success in their careers.
“If college can contribute to that sense of readiness and really help students to be able to find their place and be ready to jump into that, all the better,” she said.
Jaydha Cabrera, a sophomore marketing major, said, “There’s a lot of things students need help on, and being able to recognize that and working toward that is really good.”
Porter-Utley also tied student readiness to the University’s commitment to anti-racism. She said when looking at policies put in place to see if they work for students, the University also needs to examine if these protocols disenfranchise any group of students.
She asked, “Are we sure that this is a policy which is going to ensure that every student is making progress?”
Porter-Utley said there are already equity reviews of policies and departments happening on campus.
Nancy Budwig, a member of the Board of Trustees, said Porter-Utley’s goals are on target with the strategic planning for student readiness and the University’s continued commitment to anti-racism.
She said that Porter-Utley’s commitment to anti-racism underpins her work. “That comes through loud and clear, and it’s one of her main goals and the kind of vocal areas that drives the approach that she takes to student success.”
Marc Cote, dean of Arts and Humanities, said the University’s enrollment is increasingly diverse and serving underrepresented students and students from diverse economic backgrounds is important to the success of the institution and to the ideals of student readiness.
“We do need to be ready to serve the students we get and move from a mindset of the students being ready for the University - still retain that - but also have the University be more ready to accommodate students, and that can take many forms,” he said.
Porter-Utley said she is planning on participating in student events in order to understand who students are in a variety of different ways. “If I’m invited, I’m going to try to come to any student event.”
She said she is thinking a lot about the communication between the University and students, using as an example how the upcoming tuition payment deadline could be communicated to students.
“How are we sending a message saying, ‘We have to hold you to this obligation, but we still want to support you. Here’s how you get support through this process if you need it’?” she said.
History Professor Bridgette Sheridan, interim faculty union president, said Porter-Utley’s goals are connected to those faculty have for the University. She added she appreciated how Porter-Utley has given attention to faculty members. “Faculty are really the point of contact that all students have.”
She said she is looking for Porter-Utley to ensure decisions about curriculum are driven by the governance committees at the University. This would help “faculty have not just a voice, but the primary voice in decisions that are related to curriculum - everything from general education to department requirements to scheduling.”
Porter-Utley said she is working with SGA President Dara Barros and Vice President Raffi Elkhoury to form a Provost Student Leadership Council in order to connect with students on a deeper level and position students as leaders.
She said she was trying to move past simply setting up spaces to listen to students - “Which is an important process and has to happen in the leadership council, but really a leadership council implies a little bit more action.”
Porter-Utley said this council would be made up of students who would represent the FSU student body, work alongside her to identify challenges, and work to solve them over the course of the academic year.
Barros said Porter-Utley had previously formed a similar council at Bridgewater State, but wanted more students on the council. “I know she specifically said that she wants students from all over the academic spectrum as well as leadership wise. She wants different types of voices on there.”
She explained Porter-Utley planned to send out a survey for students to nominate the professors who had the biggest impact on them, and she would then ask those professors to nominate students to be on the council.
Barros said she was not planning to be on the council because she was a senior. She suggested beginning the council with first-year students because it would allow for the work to be continuous and not have gaps from students leaving the council as they graduate.
She said the council is going to set up goals to work on throughout the year and pick up where they leave off at the beginning of the next academic year, continuing to tackle bigger goals as they go on.
Jillian Richard, a senior graphic design major, said she would be interested in joining the Student Advisory council. “I don’t know a lot of what goes on behind the scenes, so I think it would be good to get students involved.”
Ben Landry, a senior environmental science and policy major, said the council is a great way to solicit student input. “I think that the faculty at this school should be working for the students, considering we’re the ones that pay tuition and keep the school afloat.”
Nicole Berry, a senior political science major, said the council would be beneficial to have. “It makes me excited to hear that the University is planning things like that.”