Come July 1, 2018, LSC Interim President Nolan Atkins will become Northern Vermont University’s founding provost. Atkins’ duties include developing new academic programs, strategic plans and making decisions on faculty promotions and hires.
But before Atkins helms NVU’s first provost position, he will serve the role for both JSC and LSC starting July 1, 2017. The decision comes after a comprehensive five-month search in which candidates submitted applications, were interviewed and assessed by the search committee.
The committee, co-chaired by JSC assistant professor of mathematics Dr. Greg Petrics and LSC professor of psychology Dr. Lori Werdenschlag, was comprised of faculty, administrators and student representatives from both colleges such as Donell Shaw [JSC] and Gwyneth Stahl [LSC].
Atkins says his first priorities as provost will be to earn the trust and respect of JSC faculty, staff and student body. “As provost, you’re the chief academic officer so I’ll have to really establish a good, positive, respectful and trustworthy relationship with faculty,” said Atkins.
Among his top priorities will be to take a long look at NVU’s curriculum and strategies for academic programming, development and fundraising to help the university meet the expectations set forth by its transition team.
“What do we offer at Lyndon and what do we offer at Johnson?” Atkins asks. “Where can we identify areas where we can collaborate and create some really unique and innovative offerings? Where can we innovate in other places to offer opportunities that are not presently available to students? If we bring the expertise together, what can we create that’s unique and innovative and value added for students?”
Atkins says he will carefully consider such high-impact opportunities alongside their respective efficiencies and affordability. “We need to move beyond the idea of just offering associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees,” he says. “I think we need to do a much better job at helping our local communities prepare for their workforce.
“Even for our current students in our current programs, we could imbed some certification training in courses and so when they leave… with their bachelor’s degree, they’re also certified in QuickBooks or Excel or Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator,” says Atkins.
And though Atkins, an 18-year veteran as a college professor, admits he’s only had two years in administrative roles, he asserts his familiarity with the VSC systems and strengths as a leader will translate to being provost.
“I have incredible knowledge of these institutions from a faculty perspective,” says Atkins. “As an academic dean, some of things I was able to do was to bring faculty together to solve a problem, and we did so collaboratively, inclusively and with our curriculum we institute a lot of positive change; it was a good positive process, so I feel like that that’s one thing that this position absolutely needs to be able to do and that is to bring people together in a collaborative way to solve problems.”
JSC President Elaine Collins says Atkins’ process-oriented and inclusive approach to leadership make him the ideal person to serve as NVU’s inaugural provost. “[He’s] very data-driven in his decision making, which I appreciate, and has a clear process in terms of how he comes up with a conclusion,” she says.
“He’ll consider all aspects of it before he makes it,” Collins adds. “He uses best practices and research to inform the final decision and all of that is really important in a leader.”
Work began almost immediately for the 10-person search committee upon its assembly last November, according to Petrics, with the application process, and phone and campus interviews happening in the span of two months from January to March.
Petrics says along with Atkins’ positive track record with strategic planning, his familiarity with the VSCS and the challenges it faces immediately stood out in the hiring process.
“Overall, he has a strong record of academic success as both an instructor and as a researcher,” Petrics says. “That was something that Dr. Collins, the president, was interested in us looking for in applicants. One of the things we were looking for was evidence of experience with strategic planning because that’s something that’s going to be really important as we start this Northern Vermont University adventure.”
Petrics lauds Atkins’ current body of work at LSC as an indicator of what he can bring to NVU in the near future. “He developed a number of initiatives as interim academic dean, which he’s continuing with,” he adds.
“The number one thing is probably this curriculum task force that looked at the curriculum of Lyndon for efficiencies,” says Petrics. “I think that’s something that you can expect to see him initiate throughout Northern Vermont University very, very soon. As far as what’s going to help him the most, I think he just knows the system so well.”
When asked why he applied for provost, Atkins said tersely, “It’s going to be a challenging position.” And though he enjoys the classroom, the former atmospheric science professor, department chair and interim academic dean says provost presented “the next logical step” in his career.
“I had to think long and hard about it because I have always been in academia from a research and teaching perspective and those are my passions,” Atkins added. “Having served in these two roles and having enjoyed it from a different point of view and thinking about what’s next potentially in my career; I made the conscious decision to apply.”
Additionally, the provost-to-be says his experience as LSC interim academic dean and president have prepared him for the administrative challenges he will face as provost. “For me, it’s been really helpful to learn about other parts of the college that I really hadn’t had a lot of connection with,” says Atkins. “In this role, it’s really exposed me to the entire operation and how it ties together. In that sense as provost — being responsible on both campuses — I think it will be very helpful.”
Moving toward NVU, Collins will maintain an executive team of herself, Atkins, LSC Dean of Students Jonathan Davis, and Dean of Administration Sharon Scott. The future NVU president insists, however, that her team will only function as democratically as possible.
Collins says Atkins will complement her skills and help bring fresh opportunities for faculty, staff and students of NVU. “I think that Nolan and I will make a strong team together and from there it’s just working through all of the unification issues,” says Collins, “because unification as we’ve discussed in the past is not something that will just [end] by July of 2018; it’s a process, it’s still going to be a process even as we reach that date.
“I think that continuing to work on the unification issues that are brought in front of us and strengthening the curriculum and offering more opportunities for students,” she adds. “That’s what we’re going to be doing.”
Now that he’s certain about his future, Atkins sees a high ceiling for what NVU can achieve in the northern tier of both Vermont and the country. But, Atkins also recognizes the work he must do to engage himself with the college and better understand the stories that led them to either campus.
“I think we could potentially become a university known for its academic excellence, quality, high-impact, experiential learning opportunities that students here both regionally, locally and even beyond will know us for and want to come here to engage in,” says Atkins. “Those are the kinds of things that excite me and really motivate everyday what I do.”