Five candidates for the position of provost and vice president of academic affairs at Slippery Rock University will visit campus in November. As part of their visits, each candidate will deliver a public presentation and answer questions during an open session.
Slippery Rock University began holding presentations on Thursday afternoon in Smith Student Center room 321. The first presentation was delivered by Dr. Ron Darbeau, a current professor and Dean at University of Arkansas – Fort Smith.
Darbeau introduced his presentation with background about himself. He holds a PHD in organic chemistry from John Hopkins University and is a native of the Twin Island Republic in Trinidad and Tobago, where he did his undergrad. Darbeau is currently in his fifth year as Dean of the College of STEM and School of Education. He also serves as the interim Dean of the College of Health Sciences at UAFS.
Darbeau said that his experience visiting Slippery Rock has been quite positive. He enjoyed the people that he got to meet during his original interview and during the day of his presentation.
“The attendance in this room speaks to your investment in this institution,” Darbeau said in his opening statement to everyone filling the room.
Darbeau said he has been a consumer of education for the past five decades.
“I am a firm believer in the transformation power of higher education,” he said. “I know what higher education has done for my life, for my children, and for their lives.”
Darbeau told the audience some of his beliefs about higher education and some plans he would have to change it, specifically at SRU. He said he believes there is a social contract that higher education has with the public. He said that the public trust has been slowly eroded by higher education in many ways.
“We find ourselves in a position where we are not trusted by the public in many ways and they do not want to fund us, but why would they,” Darbeau asked.
He said that there are misconceptions with higher education.
“We tell people that an undergraduate degree will take four years, yet only 19% of students finish their degree in four years,” Darbeau said. “Less than half of students finish their degree in six years, and 31% leave without a single credential and nothing to show for it besides debt.”
Darbeau said that institutions block those students who leave the institution and can’t go anywhere else out.
“Unless you can throw a baseball or football at the speed of light, your pathway into the middle class is through higher education,” he said.
He said that courses need to be adjusted. For instance, he said that most students have to take college algebra even though it is a class designed for people needing calculus.
“We force this on students and then they pay the price for it,” Darbeau said.
He said that 40% of students take out student loans and that the U.S. is first in all developed nations in terms of students entering college, but 20th in terms of getting them out.
“We have watched storm clouds gather upon horizons for decades and have heard people crying, but we have been slow to respond,” Darbeau said. “That time for us to wait is long gone.”
He used the term “academic suicide” as a way of describing what higher education is doing and how they are losing the public trust.
Another main point that Darbeau discussed is the need to build an environment for adult learners. He said the number of 18 year old’s starting college is dropping rapidly while people are seen starting college later in life with different circumstances.
“We need to build a model that identifies adult workers in the industries and create programs that are needed to attract those students and mechanisms on campus to support them,” Darbeau said.
He said there are people working days, who have kids to put to bed, and that it is impossible to ask those people to come to campus 8 a.m.-5 p.m. on all weekdays.
“We need to embrace online education in a real and meaningful way,” Darbeau said.
He said that online classes have evolved from videos of people teaching to something more advanced. Darbeau mentioned that there will be a group of students who will forever want that on-campus experience.
“We need to build the other end of the spectrum as well,” he said. “We do not want one to threaten the other, but we want everything from one end to another to come together and meet students where they are.”
Darbeau said that if 78% of students are adult learners, institutions will need to build a robust online program and train faculty accordingly. He also mentioned setting baseline exams for certain classes.
“If I worked for my family business running books for 15 years, how can I not get credit for Accounting 101,” he asked. “It doesn’t mean I should get automatic credit, but faculty should set a benchmark.”
Another point that Darbeau really emphasized was the need to attract minority and underrepresented students.
“It is not just about getting them in, it is making sure they stay,” Darbeau said. “There is a difference between diversity and inclusion, and everyone deserves to feel welcomed.”
Darbeau gave the example of his daughter who is currently applying to medical school.
“My daughter went to a presentation for medical school and when we called her she told us she was not going there because everyone presenting were old, white guys,” Darbeau said.
He said that he is certain those men did not say anything offensive, but that it was the point that the absence of people who looked like his daughter made her feel like she did not belong.
“Absence of people who look and sound like you sends a clear message that you don’t belong,” Darbeau said. “It shows that the school did not invest in having someone who looks and sounds like us.”
He said that the university needs to be intentional about making all voices heard in a meaningful way.
Darbeau also said that the school needs more international students and study abroad programs. He said that there are resource and visa issues, but that the institutions need to tap more into study abroad, student exchange, and faculty exchange.
“We need to create pathways and opportunities for those types of students to succeed,” Darbeau said.
Darbeau answered several questions from the audience as well, many related to topics in his discussion such as making minorities feel welcome and how he plans to execute these new systems.
“There are certainly problems that need fixed, but we are bright people and we can figure it out,” Darbeau said.
The remaining four candidates will present Nov. 11, Nov. 18, Nov. 21 and Nov. 25 in SSC room 321 at 3:30 p.m.