Clarion Conversations: University Provost Touts Exciting Times at Clarion

CLARION, Pa. (EYT) – Clarion University Provost Dr. Pamela J. Gent says she believes this is a very exciting time for Clarion University and higher education in Pennsylvania. recently had a chance to sit down with Dr. Gent, who was officially named provost and academic vice president in December of 2018. Dr. Gent has been working as interim provost since summer of 2018.

“I just think this is an exciting time,” Dr. Gent said. “We have opportunities to think about the future and think about what kinds of activities or courses or programs we should provide and develop for students, and that’s exciting to me. I think some of the changes from the state system are exciting, too.”

Dr. Gent, who came to Clarion in 1988 as an assistant professor in the department of special education and rehabilitation sciences, had also served as associate provost and academic vice president since 2014, including one year as interim. She has been a vital part of developing student success coaching model and comprehensive plan for first-year students, as well as new degree programs, minors, concentrations, and certificates. She also revamped orientation for new faculty.

“All of the academic things here flow up through this office, so that’s faculty, staff in academic areas, curriculum, the degree programs, and the policies.”

Although the university, and the Pennsylvania State System overall, have been facing some challenging times, it’s a challenge Dr. Gent is prepared to meet head-on.

“I wanted to make sure that we could rebuild relationships with faculty and staff. I wanted to work on our curriculum, so we could revitalize it or refresh it in ways that would be attractive to our new generation of students and to their families.”

With overall enrollment down, though the freshmen class enrollment was up, Dr. Gent says they’re meeting those challenges in several ways.

“Our Master’s in Athletic Training program began this year, and we deliberately have a very small class, but then next year we’ll have a larger class. We also expanded our nursing to Somerset County, and we have a very small class there, and next year we’ll have a complete class.

“This spring we are piloting some accelerated bachelor’s to master’s programs with other state systems universities as a way to build a pipeline from those universities to Clarion, as well. Those are the kinds of things that are the kind of out of the box thinking that we need to do to build enrollment in ways that are important.”

Along with those programs, the university is also looking at adding some other things to the curriculum to both draw and retain students. According to Dr. Gent, there are several things they’re working on, though each would have to be approved by the faculty senate before they could move forward.

“We’re working on a minor in computer game programming because we have a lot of students who end up doing that anyway,” she noted.

“We’re looking around at those kind of things, so it’s not a whole new giant program, but it’s a minor that would give students the skill sets they need.”

The university is also considering a new capstone course for history students that would allow for more than one option for completion: either a large research paper or a public project and a paper about the project.

“It’s a different way to help students develop skill sets. I’m really excited about it because I think it gives the students more choices and also gives them skills for whatever their career route will be.”

Another program under consideration, which Gent noted would require not only approval of the faculty senate, but also approval from Harrisburg, is a degree for teaching secondary education computer science.

“Hopefully, we will know in December if the faculty senate has approved these.”

With a new generation of students who see college as both a serious investment and a pathway to a career, Dr. Gent noted that one of her office’s focuses is not only developing programs that offer students the skill sets they need, but also making sure the students have everything they need to succeed in those programs.

“If we’ve accepted a student to our university, we’ve said to that student ‘you have what it takes to succeed here,’ and if they’re not succeeding, I feel obligated to help them.”

According to Dr. Gent, fostering that success isn’t only a major part of her focus, it’s also a major aspect of the university’s True North Initiative.

“I want to help our faculty learn how best to teach this new generation of students. These are students who didn’t have to learn to use a computer because they always had a computer. They’ve always had a phone. They have a shorter attention span, and they’re much more visually focused. They’re not readers, so therefore, they’re not writers. We have to look at how do we teach these students and how do we best reach them. It just so happens that our True North Initiative also said we need to figure this out.”

The student success coaching model and comprehensive plan for first-year students were two steps along that path.

“The really cool thing with that is it has helped us focus on certain pockets of students, like first-generation students and how they are different than students who have parents who went to college.”

The success coaches can help students with a range of complex issues, ranging from how to handle financial aid and billing issues to role playing how to approach a professor, if the student is particularly nervous about their interactions. They also get the students’ attendance records and can check in on a student if they begin missing classes.

“Last year we had them develop schedules for all of our first-year students,” Dr. Gent noted.

“In the past, scheduling was first come first served, so if you did orientation first, you probably got the best schedule, and if you were the last, you probably got a crummy schedule. This way, the success coaches can look across everybody and make sure that everybody has a decent schedule, one that is balanced across the times of the day, the days of the week, and that kind of thing.”

The focus on student success has also been the catalyst for an internal search – slated to begin in the coming weeks – for an Associate Vice President for Student Success position.

“What we realized is that even though I love student success, we need someone who can focus on it. The literature is pretty clear that we need to develop data systems that go along with student success and I just haven’t had the time to do that, so this will allow for that focus to be there and for student success to be coordinated.”

“We’re sure we have the talent here in the university. There are lots of people here who are committed to student success, and I know someone will step up. Actually, I think we’ll have a lot of people who will step up, and we’ll have to chose.”

Looking forward, through the major focuses on issues from enrollment and retention to the future, Dr. Gent says she believes the future of Clarion could be bright.

“I don’t imagine we’ll ever be a 10,000 student university. We’re a regional university and the demographics, the population, just isn’t here, but I do think we can be a really good 5,000 student university.

“I would like us to create an opportunity for all students to leave this university with experience they can put on their resume so they can be job-focused. I want us to continue to develop those soft skills in students, but I think we’re going to have to focus on those in ways we haven’t before.”

She noted that with changes in technology, and the job market, happening continuously, the university not only needs to prepare students to think critically and be problem-solvers, but the administration needs to continue to do so themselves, as well.

“Ten years ago, they said everyone should go to college, and now they’re saying everyone should go to vocational school, and I think there needs to be a balance. We also need to continue to create what we call pathways so that if someone goes to vocational school and gets, say, a certificate in welding, we can help them build that into a degree. So, someone who says I want to build my own welding company or I want to be the foreman of a welding crew, but I don’t know how to do that, we can give them the skill sets to move to that next level.”

“We need to do more of that because I think we’re going to see more and more of that kind of work. We also need to be more deliberate about reaching out to adults as some jobs go away, and help people to retrain or help them develop the skill sets they need for their next career.”

Along with the changes at Clarion University, Dr. Gent noted that some of the proposed changes within the state system will also create new opportunities for students, as well.

“I like the idea that we can work more collaboratively with the other universities. We’ve always done that, but to have some of our sister institutions say ‘yeah, we want to do that, too,’ it’s just going to be fun, so we’re excited about that opportunity. I think it will give us the opportunity to provide our students with even more experiences or courses that we can’t provide on our own, and isn’t that cool?”

“We really want students to come here, and we want them to stay here. This is a great place to live and work and we want them to still be here in the future.”

(This is the third story in a series of articles focusing on Clarion University’s Administration.)

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