Editor’s Note: What appears below are answers to many questions posed to Ohio University presidential candidate Susana Rivera-Mills 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.
An immigrant from El Salvador, who was inspired by a teacher to attend college, hopes to impact others as the next president of Ohio University.
Susana Rivera-Mills, provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs at Ball State University, spoke to about 50 people in-person and several more online via teleconference during a forum Wednesday in the Baker Center Theatre.
Rivera-Mills has also served as a faculty member at Oregon State University and Northern Arizona University, before pursuing a role in administration at Oregon State. Her current research focuses on issues affecting higher education, leadership, student success, retention, budget models and managing the pandemic.
Rivera-Mills was asked a main question from the moderator. After her answer, the forum was open to a session featuring questions from the in-person and online audiences.
Rivera-Mills, wearing a white jacket and OU green shirt, broke the ice with her introduction, saying that if chosen as president, her first order of business would be to create shorter podiums.
The tone for her life — personally and professionally — was set when she was 12, she said. Her family immigrated from El Salvador to escape the civil war there. They settled in San Francisco, where some family members lived. They hoped to go back, but found out a year later that they were unable to.
Rivera-Mills is a first-generation college student. While she was growing up, she didn’t think college was going to be an option. Luckily, one of her high school teachers created a safe space for kids during their lunch period.
“I would say, ‘Miss Q, you know, I just, I don’t belong here. I feel so odd. I don’t look like anybody else. I don’t dress like anybody else,’” Rivera-Mills recalled.
During their discussions, the teacher asked Rivera-Mills what she wanted to do in college. By the time she graduated high school, she knew she was going to college and she focused on becoming a professor at a university.
“It was due to the fact that this amazing teacher used the word ‘when,’ as opposed to ‘if,’” Rivera-Mills said. “She never said ‘if.’ And that made the difference for me going from thinking that I’d never go to thinking that I could go to college.”
Rivera-Mills said her happy place is being in a classroom, teaching. “It’s hanging around the students and learning from them as well.”
“Somewhere along the way as a faculty member, I realized that many of the students kept coming to class asking me for help with the same issues,” she said. “They had not gotten the right advice. They were struggling with financial aid. They didn’t know how to connect to resources … So I thought, there’s got to be a way to do this better. Instead of helping one student at a time, how can I begin to affect systemic change, so that I can actually decrease the barriers for a larger number of students.”
Rivera-Mills said she’s also excited about OU’s rich history. The university can build on its history to be future-minded and begin to address the significant challenged facing higher education.
“One of biggest one is the questioning of the value of higher education. Is it worth it? Is it worth the expense? Does the degree really do what it’s supposed to do?” she said. “Now as an academic, I can tell you that yes, the value of higher education is still here. Research still shows that someone with a college degree will improve their economic mobility, their social mobility, your health, their wellness, their longevity. There’s all kinds of markers that show why it’s so important that we continue to offer in college education to our populations. So for all those reasons, I’m excited about this opportunity.”
In regards to innovation, Rivera-Mills said that for her, innovation isn’t just the next big idea that no one has ever thought about before. It’s seeing a problem and implementing a solution.
“It’s also innovating and improving in how we do things, in how we look at problems. It’s how we approach problems and doing things differently,” Rivera-Mills said. “Whether the curriculum, whether it’s in the lab, whether it’s in how we prepare for grants, it’s in a number of ways that are much smaller steps that actually help us move forward faster.”
At Ball State, Rivera-Mills has worked on the Skills Infusion Program, which helped the university address whether higher education is relevant. It provides support for faculty to redesign and reimagine their courses by looking at the work skill competencies and incorporate those into their teaching.
“The faculty can then connect the learning outcomes of the course to the actual skills and competencies that students will walk away with,” she said. “It thereby enables the students to then articulate what it is that they have learned to future employers and be able to talk about how their experience in college actually translates to relevant skills for faculty for their job.”
To accomplish this goal, the Office of Provost provides internal microgrants to faculty.
“Once the faculty go through those workshops and have taught that course in the new format for one semester, they then qualify for a provost externship,” she said. “An externship is when a faculty member is placed with an industry partner, company, business or corporation. That faculty member spends anywhere from one to three weeks as an intern in that corporation working with people, talking to people, seeing how things can be applied from a different perspective. Then they bring that experience back to the classroom.”
The program started with about six courses in the humanities department. Four years later, every single one of Ball State’s colleges has a Skills Infusion Program course. About 300 faculty have been through the project.
As a side benefit, the “university has been able to create new industry partnerships, strengthen existing industry partnerships to the point where there’s now waiting list of corporations that want our faculty to go and work with them,” Rivera-Mills said. “I was very intentional in that I began this process with the English department. I wanted to do English because there’s so many stereotypes of English majors not being able to find jobs. We wanted to show that this could be done across the board.”
As far as her research goes, Rivera-Mills said she is a linguist and has never worked at an institution that has a linguistic department. She has been in modern languages, sociology or anthropology departments for her research.
“So I’m passionate about interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work,” she said. “I actually feel that the future of what we do needs to be rooted in that kind of work.”
Betsy Partyka, a Spanish professor in OU’s Department of Modern Languages, asked Rivera-Mills to give the audience her definition of globalization and how study abroad and foreign languages play a role in OU being a global-centered university.
Rivera-Mills said she thinks about globalizing in a number of ways. The first being being proactive in rebuilding relationships. She would do that by looking at leveraging faculty relationships that exist with institutions abroad. Those relationships may be strengthened through making them more formalized, she said.
“The second thing is that I would hope that we’ll be very engaged in opportunities in having visiting scholars from other institutions and exchange opportunities,” she said.
On the curricular side, Rivera-Mills noted that study abroad is a transformational experience. The university should look for ways to encourage students to have those opportunities “where they make sense.”
She said that they can find ways to embed the experience into the curriculum. One way to do that would be to go to underrepresented communities in the state to create experiences for students.
“In Oregon, our students were able to go and spend a weekend with the migrant workers, living with them, working with them side-by-side, sharing meals together,” Rivera-Mills said. “And that was transformative for the students.”
Impact of possibly being first woman president
If chosen as OU president, Rivera-Mills would be the university’s first president who is a woman and is Latinx.
While she has been the first many times, she appreciated the congratulations from the crowd, but “actually it is a bit sad. ... Because it means that we don’t yet have enough of a diverse population in these leadership roles that are so important.
“So I think that if selected, if I accept the position, that decision alone causes a disruption in status quo,” she said.
Diversity as a part of inclusion is important to her, Rivera-Mills said. So as president, she would engage embracing the university’s differences.
“Not just because it’s the latest fad, but because I really believe that the issues and the societal problems that we’re facing are going to require a diverse group of people to solve. And I think that we’re stronger as researchers,” she said. “I think we’re stronger as teachers. I think our students have a richer experience, if they can be exposed to people from diverse backgrounds, diverse thoughts, diverse experiences, perspectives. ... I think that there’s an incredible opportunity for an institution to truly embrace not just diversity, but what it means to be able to engage across differences.”
Rivera-Mills said she comes from a family where disagreeing is part of the culture.
“... My husband can attest to this, when people would visit us, they always thought we didn’t get along because we fight each other, because we were arguing all the time,” she said. “... We would disagree with each other, and then at the end of that, sit at the table together.
“I think that we’re missing out on the ability to really look at higher education as a space where we should be debating, where we should be questioning. We should have dialogue, we should be disagreeing, but not at the expense of moving forward together,” Rivera-Mills said. “We need to figure out how we can model that so that our students can see that and then acquire those skills to do the same.”
Office of Student Affairs
In regards to how the office of student affairs contributes to student success on college campus, Rivera-Mills said student success is everyone’s responsibility.
Student affairs is on the front-lines of caring for students. The office helps the university understand the impact of its programs and know what issues that need to attention and how everyone can work together to “engage in that service and support our students need.”
One thing many higher education institutions did, going into the pandemic, was think that the digital-age generation would prefer having school completely online.
“But on our campus, students were writing, they were saying, ‘When are we coming back?’” Rivera-Mills said. “It wasn’t necessarily because they wanted to be in the classroom. It was because they missed the entire college experience, what that meant to be on a college campus to learn, that we also had leadership opportunities and to have with their activities happening.”
Because of the pandemic, she thinks many students are committed to having that university education experience. The student affairs office is critical in providing that experience and is having the university understand that everyone must work together to support the students to help them meet their educational goals.
In regards to the role of graduate students at OU, Rivera-Mills noted how they conducted a survey of graduate students at Ball State to learn what challenges they faced and what experiences could be improved.
In the graduate assistant programs, they noted that some students were working in department offices answering phones rather than working on things to improve their educational experience. So the university, under Rivera-Mills’ direction, put together guidelines and policies for graduate assistants so their experiences would be consistent.
From the survey, the university learned there were a lot of concerns about mental health issues.
The office that provided mental-health support for undergraduates told Rivera-Mills that it would not be able to serve graduate students.
“So I worked actually with our vice president affairs and I said, ‘What if I give you a (budget) line to hire a counselor that will be dedicated to graduate students? They will report through you.’”
The university created a space for graduate students to receive services that is separate from the undergraduate space.
“I also did other initiatives to support graduate student research and travel,” she said. “We talked about how we can improve the stipends for graduate students. We’ve been able to start improvement process there.”
Willem Roosenburg, a professor of biological sciences, noted that OU has seen huge growth in administrative positions. Various rules and redundancies have made some faculty members’ jobs more difficult. Rivera-Mills was asked how she might restore shared governance.
She said her first priority would be to understand the issue by looking at data about how much administration there is. She noted that there is “just the inordinate compliance issues that are coming to us from federal and state government that actually demand that we have somebody looking at these. ...
“I spend a lot of time focused on shared governance because I think it’s really critical,” Rivera-Mills said. “... Anytime you build an organization for an idea or institution around one individual, you are gambling an awful lot. Because if that one individual is the one that’s calling all the shots, the rate of success, if that person leaves, for that organization is zero.”
It is incredibly important to help the university’s community buy into its priorities, because if they don’t, the mission won’t be accomplished.
She spends at least five hours a month attending meetings with the university faculty senate, faculty senate president and other organizations to answer any questions they may have. At Ball State, they’ve also began reviewing the faculty and employee handbook tor remove outdates policies.
Donations and funding
In regards to getting university funding, Rivera-Mills said she enjoys telling the story of the good things that are being done at an institution.
“I find that I have no problem talking, when it’s something I really passionate in,” she said. “I am passionate about the power of higher education to transform lives.”
As an example, Indiana hosts Ball State Day at the state capitol once a year. The university puts up booths all around the building, so state representatives and senators can hear what’s going on at the university and how it meshes with their priorities. She said if OU doesn’t do it, it should.
“When they hear this message echo, it is very powerful,” Rivera-Mills said. “... I have found that when you really believe in what you’re doing, knowing that you have the evidence to show what it is that you’re learning and how that’s having an impact, it’s easy to tell the story and get people excited about what we can do and make them get that checkbook out.”
Role of athletics
Two gateways into an integrated university are athletics and fine arts, Rivera-Mills said. Athletics is also a main component of the university’s community engagement.
“I think that it’s important to think of our athletes as student-athletes,” she said. “I want to make sure that we understand what that means in terms of the support that they need.”
The university also must make sure it creates opportunities for student-athletes to serve the community, Rivera-Mills said.
“They’re also our ambassadors for the organization, right? Because they can be out there in the community engaging with local schools,” she said. “They’re role models, at many times for students in the local schools. So I think is a critical part of who we are.”
In regards to the importance of university rankings, Rivera-Mills said the university needs to focus on doing what it does with excellence.
“I don’t believe that we need to chase the rankings,” she said. “I think we need to focus on doing what we do with excellence — our teaching, our research, our students. Focusing on enrollment and retention, because it’s part of who we are, because it’s our mission, not because we’re chasing the ranking.”
Sam Crowl, Athens City council member, OU Office of Sustainability assistant director, and instructor in the environmental studies program, asked Rivera-Mills about her thoughts of sustainability.
Ball State recently hired its first chief sustainability officer, she said, noting that the university had many uncoordinated activities happening on campus.
“There wasn’t really a sustainability strategic plan in place to guide bunch of efforts,” she said. “So now I have this position, we can begin to really collaborate around this and look at what we need.”
She also noted that she is working with the facilities department to make sure renovations are done in a a more sustainable way.
“It’s something that I think is critical,” Rivera-Mills said of sustainability. “Having spent 12 years in Oregon Pacific Northwest, this is something near near to my heart.”
She said sustainability is something that can be related to curriculum, research and how things are done across the campus.
Nicole Bowman-Layton is a staff writer for The Athens Messenger.
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