By Leighah Beausoleil, Steven Bonini
Roxanne Gonzales-Walker, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at New Mexico Highlands University, was the first of the FSU presidential candidates to visit campus Dec. 2-3.
Gonzales-Walker has worked in higher education administration for over 25 years.
During their visits, presidential candidates participated in meetings, open forums, and interviews with FSU community members who will assess each candidate’s suitability as FSU’s next president. The final decision will be made by the Board of Trustees Dec. 15.
Gonzales-Walker said she was originally from New Mexico and comes from a military family.
She said she credits her father’s position as role model for her community members growing up as her inspiration for seeing education as something “special.”
He was a “boundary breaker,” she said, explaining how education helped her father and his family out of poverty and encouraged their community members to pursue education as well.
“For me, education became a symbol, not of prosperity, but for a movement of social justice,” Gonzales-Walker added.
She explained how because of this background, she is passionate about education for populations in need, including first-generation and non-traditional students.
COVID-19 impacted higher education by creating opportunities for “blended learning” to make pursuing post-secondary education more of a reality for students, Gonzales-Walker said.
She added when considering pursuing the position of university president, she was selective of where she applied because she wants to work at a school serving populations in need as well as work with the community to offer a diverse array of programming.
Framingham State University falls in line with these criteria, she said.
Meeting with Faculty and Librarians
Following her introduction at the meeting with faculty and librarians Dec. 2, the floor was open to questions.
With “nationwide backlash” toward the humanities that has contributed to declining program
enrollment, Lisa Eck, English Department chair, asked, “Can you share with us your experience promoting the value of arts and humanities within a broad based liberal arts college education and what strategies you would use to support the humanities?”
Gonzales-Walker, who studied theater and English as an undergraduate, replied employers want people who have strong soft skills developed through humanities programs – skills that cannot be taught overnight.
“For me, I’ve always seen the libral arts not separate from the workforce degrees, but the foundation for those workforce environments,” Gonzales-Walker said.
She added modeling the importance of the arts through attending events, such as theater productions, demonstrates to people the value leaders see in the humanities.
From there, support comes from creating and developing long-term plans with faculty that will ensure the security of humanities programming, she said.
Kate Caffrey, MSCA union president and communication arts professor, asked, “At Framingham State University, we have a structure that emphasizes a non-hierarchical approach to the decision-making process on our campus. What experience have you had with co-governance and working collaboratively with faculty and librarians?”
Gonzales-Walker responded, “I’m very used to and very comfortable working with a shared governance.”
She explained how everywhere she has worked has operated similarly to FSU, adding this form of governance allows for everyone to provide different perspectives and expertise on subjects.
Sometimes during processes, these differing ideas can cause “contradictions,” she said, but that’s when dialogues can take place.
With employee positions being removed at FSU through attrition, Art Professor Tim McDonald said current faculty are forced to pick up the responsibilities of those positions or hire part-time faculty who “don’t have the same relationship with the University and the community” a full-time faculty member does.
McDonald asked, “What stand might we take to kind of remedy that?”
Gonzales-Walker said three main factors need to be considered in these situations: program
enrollment, credit production, and the demands of the discipline, such as how much one-on-one time needs to be spent with students.
“I don’t like to give up faculty lines,” she said, “because they’re really, really hard to get back.”
Therefore, Gonzales-Walker said she likes to “put it aside for a bit” while working on increasing program enrollment.
She added the solution she has used at New Mexico Highlands University is to hire a full-time faculty member and include a “retain term” on a three-year contract, meaning a full-time employee is filling the position, but they are not tenure track.
Education Professor May Hara, director of the Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching, Scholarship, and Service (CELTSS), asked, “What specific structural supports and resources would you advocate to be offered to faculty as we work to meet the evolving needs of our students and to contribute to our scholarly disciplines?”
Gonzales-Walker said New Mexico Highlands University has a similar program the university supports through private funding and research funding as well as funding for conferences.
She said, “Faculty are not educators by training,” adding they are what their doctorate is in, such as a chemist or a physicist.
The educators are the ones who “learned all about pedagogy and rubrics,” Gonzales-Walker said. That is when a program like CELTSS becomes important.
She explained faculty can go to CELTSS as a resource for planning and implementing new teaching practices.
Meeting with the Board of Trustees
During Gonzales-Walker’s meeting with the Board of Trustees, she started by introducing herself and discussing her background. This meeting was held Dec. 6.
In addition, Gonzales-Walker shared her thoughts about her visit to FSU, starting with her assessment of the University’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think Framingham State is well positioned to take COVID and use it to its advantage,” she said. “I think there’s a huge opportunity with COVID, for institutions that are interested and willing, to step back and kind of do a reassessment.”
Gonzales-Walker said she believes higher education is going to be in a different place in the next 10 years, and she thinks much of that will be “driven by the things that we’ve learned through COVID.”
She spoke specifically to the technological advancements the pandemic brought to light, and talked about how faculty have become used to using technology for learning, adding it would be helpful to combine that with “classroom delivery.
“How do we use that to our advantage to bring students on board to say, you know, ‘you’re a commuter student. You don’t want to be here every day of the week, but we have some of these programs that you could do in a blended model,’” she said.
“I think that’s one area of potential growth,” she added.
Gonzales-Walker said she also believes faculty are ready to “embrace different modalities of teaching,” adding, it’s important institutions help their faculty “explore those options” and as a result, those educators will become “stronger” and more “committed” to their work.
She ended her opening statement by talking about her meeting with students who spoke about how they “love this place [FSU].
“They’re growing professionally and personally because of the opportunities that they’ve been given here as students to engage in extracurricular activities, so that was really wonderful to hear,” she said.
Chair of the Board of Trustees Kevin Foley opened the [oor for questions from trustee members – many of whom asked about enrollment strategies.
She said it’s important to get students to attend the university, but it’s also important to ensure the institution retains those students.
One of the short-term solutions she said her institution is trying right now is inviting students who may have some college education and no degree back to the university with an incentive such as a scholarship.
She said it’s important to provide “the opportunity for them to come back and become a graduate.”
Gonzales-Walker said regarding long-term solutions, it’s important to ensure the “programming” is “fresh.
“Does it need a facelift in some ways? Does it need to be upscaled? Does the title of the degree match what the market is looking for today? Do the course titles match what people are looking for today?” she asked.
“Take a look at the programming and then take a look at what the market needs are,” she added.
The presidential candidate was asked by one trustee about “intellectual honesty” and branding and marketing.
It’s important “to be truthful in your branding,” she said, adding, “otherwise, you’re misleading the market.”
She also talked about the importance of allowing students to tell the story of the University, and using that as part of the brand to get individuals to attend FSU.
With a few leadership positions currently vacant at FSU, most prominently the position of vice president of diversity, inclusion, and community engagement, Gonzales-Walker was asked about how she would go about hiring leaders.
“One of the best things to do is to put together a search committee that represents the institution across the board,” she said. “Get that position and have faculty review it, and see what we need to change about it. Take it to the VP’s, take it to the team, and then you post it and you let the process take its course.”
Trustee Beth Casavant asked Gonzales-Walker about her thoughts on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how, as president, she would work to maintain “an environment where everyone feels safe and welcomed and supported.”
Gonzales-Walker responded by talking about the importance of creating an environment to have safe conversations.
She noted the response from two female students she met before her meeting with the Board of Trustees whom she asked, “If you had one recommendation for Framingham State, what would it be?” She said they responded, “The one thing that they would like to see at Framingham is, when there’s a racist activity or an event, to not just make a statement, but to take action afterwards.
“I think that’s kind of closing the loop that I think about with accreditation,” she added. “You say you’re going to do this, but where’s that loop close? What kind of action can you take to demonstrate that support that you’re claiming in that statement that you’re making to the community?”