Editor's Note: What appears below are answers to many questions posed to Ohio University presidential candidate Lori Stewart-Gonzalez during a forum last week. A more detailed list of questions and answers can be found on our Athens Messenger website at athensmessenger.com. What appears here are questions that were not contained in the initial story in the print edition of The Messenger.
Lori Stewart Gonzalez served as interim president of the University of Louisville and said her past experience makes her capable of serving as the 23rd president of Ohio University.
She was the last of three finalists for the position to speak on campus. Stewart Gonzalez spoke to about 100 people in person last Wednesday and others participating virtually in the forum, which was held at the Baker Center Theatre.
The other finalists were Susana Rivera-Mills, provost and executive vice president at Ball State (Indiana) and Avinandan "Avi" Mukherjee, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Marshall University.
The OU Board of Trustees is expected to chose the next president at its April 6 meeting. The board held a special meeting, in executive session, to discuss the candidates Friday. The university said no action would be taken at the meeting.
Sarah Wyatt, OU Faculty Senate chair, served as the moderator. After she asked a question from the presidential search committee, the audience — both in-person and online — was able to ask questions.
Stewart Gonzalez currently serves as executive vice president and provost at the University of Louisville.
She has been in higher education most of her career, first as a language pathologist before going back for her doctoral degree.
"I worked mostly with pediatric populations," Stewart Gonzalez said. "Then I went and got my doctoral degree and moved right into higher education, starting as an assistant professor, actually at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, Illinois."
She spent 20 years at the University of Kentucky as an assistant professor before becoming dean of the Health Sciences College. She went on to serve at Appalachian State and several other university positions before joining the University of Louisville in March 2021.
Higher education is experiencing unprecedented pressures, Stewart Gonzalez said. To respond to those pressures, OU will have to be more nimble and figure out what is uniquely Ohio — what will draw students from all over the world to Athens.
The university's current assets will build a path to what the university needs to be able to get and retain the next generation of learners.
"The legacy, the history of the institution, can reform the foundation of the core mission of education," Stewart Gonzalez said. "Ohio has really a great foundation. And then you have areas of excellence that you have tried to build and you can tell many of those are related to serving the region in sustainability and environmental sciences, environmental health, health equity, all those kinds of things that make the people of Appalachia stronger, more resilient, healthier and have healthier communities."
Stewart Gonzalez said the university has the right mix of things to thrive.
"The other reason this school appeals to me is I grew up in Appalachia. I was born in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. My family all still lives there," she said. "I was the unknown sister who moved away. I don't know if you know what that means, but it was a big deal when I went to Florida. I think my family thought I was going to Guam and they would never see me again."
Although the culture of Southeastern Ohio is different than eastern Kentucky, she taught students for 20 years at the University of Kentucky, where about 40% of her students came from Appalachia.
"It's not that I understand everything about the region here, but I understand sort of the Appalachian culture as a whole," Stewart Gonzalez said.
Because of her variety of experiences as a provost, dean of a college, chief academic officer, etc., Stewart Gonzalez said she learned how to be true to the university's core mission of education.
She wants to make sure Ohio maintains its R1 institution ranking as one of the best research universities in the nation.
"We want to make sure that we evaluate what it takes to maintain it and how we value all forms of scholarship and creative activity," Stewart Gonzalez said.
One of the things she has done that she is most proud of is the creation of an interdisciplinary, inter-institutional rehab sciences doctoral degree.
"So I was speech pathologist and we had athletic training and physical therapy in our college. And one of the regional campuses just 30 miles away had (occupational therapy)," she said. "So we created this interdisciplinary, inter-institutional Ph.D. and our students would take a course in rehab and then focus their research in their disciplinary area, but they also had to work with other disciplines, as they went along through their educational program.
"When they got out, they could do more interdisciplinary research than just single scientist research."
She is also proud of the University of Louisville's Center for Engaged Learning, which focuses on undergraduate research.
"It focuses on undergraduate research and getting our students out in the community in internships, co-ops — just working with small nonprofits," Stewart Gonzalez said. "One thing that I was doing, every time I met with businesses and corporations is I said, 'Please give us money for those internships."
At the University of Louisville, they are really working on improving the mental health of graduate students.
"We made sure that we have counselors who understand the more mature students, older students," she said. "Then we looked at the stipend level for our graduate assistants and we just raised that. ... The other thing that we do at Louisville is we cover the health insurance for students. So they're covered under our health insurance."
She noted that the university needs graduate students, but has to focus on its four-year degree programs.
"That might be why you hear more of it," she said. "It doesn't devalue it, it's just the prerequisite for success and research for us to make sure our students graduate. So I haven't met the dean of the graduate school, but I have a lot of conversations with our dean of the graduate school, so we make sure things are in place."
Willem Roosenberg, a professor of biological sciences, noted that OU has seen huge growth in administrative positions while the faculty has shrunk. He asked Stewart Gonzalez to discuss her vision of shared governance.
One of the first things Stewart Gonzalez mentioned was looking at the faculty handbook and working with administration to work on a handbook that works.
"People that criticize shared governance I think forget that over the decades and decades that has been the thing that has kept the university intact — this conversation between faculty and staff and administration is really important," she said.
Something that she has done at other institutions is host presentations on shared governance.
"I think that it's an important principle of academics, and we have to make sure that it works," Stewart Gonzalez said. " But it can only work if everyone comes to the table as their authentic selves, willing to work for the mission of the university."
Improving Morale, Athletics
In regards to improving morale on campus, Steward Gonzalez noted that since 2016, Louisville has had five presidents, three of them interim.
"When I was in the role as interim, it's just was a low-trust campus and a low-trust campus tends to have issues with morale, right? Cause you're not sure that you're being told the straight story," she said. "So I engaged our Center for Child and Family Wellbeing because they've been working with corporations across the U.S. on trust. And so we engaged them to do a trust survey of all the campus and then go in and do focus groups with each unit, whatever the big unit would be."
The results recently came back and so far, the university has conducted eight listening tours. It is would on building a list of things to build trust at the unit-level and administrative levels.
Some of the list includes things like communicating, interventions through workshops. "I think transparency and communications, one of the best things to build morale."
Athletics is one of the gateways of a campus.
"You have two kinds of students that want to come to campus — somebody that wants to be on the team and somebody who wants to root for a team," Stewart Gonzalez said.
She noted that besides soccer, Louisville doesn't have any professional teams, so university athletics make a big difference in the community's spirit.
Stewart Gonzalez said she tries to show up to as many sporting events as possible so students know she's there for them. She also has invited donors to events.
"We were trying to grow black businesses that we're doing business with. They didn't always know how to be vendors," she said. "So I brought whole group of black business people into the football box, so they can watch the game. Then you talk to them about how the vendors work, so athletics is like this platform for communication, for community building and spirit building."
Initiatives with social impact
One initiative Stewart Gonzalez is proud of is called the Cardinal Commitment.
Those students who have a 3.25 Grade Point Average or above qualify for the program, in which the university pays for all the students' education.
This has an impact on people's social mobility.
Stewart Gonzalez' father went to Berea College. Because he was able to get that education, at home he often remarked how he got an opportunity that many kids didn't get.
"I didn't know I couldn't go to college. When we would sit around at the dinner table, it would be every three or four years, my dad would say, 'What do you want to do? You know, what do you want to do?" she said. "... Social mobility is real and it can matter. First-generation students, if they can get through school without crushing debt, they're changing their family."
If higher education doesn't help people build better lives where they have a decent living, the country "is not going to be very good," she said. "We don't need the divide of the have and the have nots. Education is the equalizer in that way."
By eliminating student debt, first-generation students and other marginalized groups are helped.
Nicole Bowman-Layton is a staff writer for The Athens Messenger.
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