Gillian Small, new University provost, on her role in leadership and academics

By Kenna Caprio

“If twenty years ago you told me that I was going to be an administrator, I would’ve laughed at you,” says Gillian Small, Fairleigh Dickinson University’s new University provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “I was a researcher, a scientist. That’s what I expected to do,” says Small, a cell and molecular biologist by training. “But throughout my career, when I’ve seen things that need changing, or doing, I have not been able to ignore them.”

President, provost, faculty 2016

University Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Gillian Small, at center with FDU President Christopher A. Capuano, celebrates distinguished faculty at Convocation 2016. (Photo by Bill Blanchard)

With University President Christopher A. Capuano leading the way, Small will be alongside as his chief academic officer, to help achieve the vision for FDU outlined in the strategic plan.

She’ll rely on her academic and research expertise to strengthen existing programs and develop new courses, curriculums and colleges. That experience includes her most recent job — vice chancellor for research at The City University of New York (CUNY), which she joined in 2001 as associate university dean for research and professor of biology.

Among the many things she has learned in her career — success often requires risk. “You have to be visionary. You have to take risks. I’ve seen leaders who are risk-averse and the outcome is not great,” she says. “I don’t mean we should put the institution at risk, but you have to have a vision, and then really go out on a limb to implement it.”

While FDU will always place the most emphasis on teaching, Small says, she is in a strong position to boost the institution’s research efforts. “Teaching and educating our students has to be our number-one mission, always. But I think the best teachers are also researchers, because if you’re not keeping up with your field, then how can you impart that knowledge?”

Small continues: “If you look at our strategic plan, one of the goals is to involve more students in research and recruit more research-active faculty. I plan to work on creating more opportunities, working with our faculty, where they can offer their students research experiences. Now, sometimes that’s integrating research into the curriculum, sometimes it’s one-on-one research with students, sometimes it’s trying to get external funding to allow students to do summer research programs. Being exposed to research opportunities, sometimes in collaboration with industry and employers — I think you’ll see a movement to towards that goal.”

To be effective, Small will have to balance the perspectives and needs of faculty, deans, administrators and students. No matter the program, the common goal is that “all students should be exposed to an excellent education,” says Small. “The faculty I’ve met so far, and I’m on a listening tour at the moment, meeting with as many as possible, say they really want that for their students, too.”

To stay current and competitive in today’s higher education landscape, she says, “You can’t teach from the textbook anymore. You can’t teach from notes from a few years ago. Faculty understand that. We have to keep our education first class; it has to be cutting edge. If the faculty are fascinated by and interested in their topic, then that comes over in the classroom.”

Small is also encouraging learning opportunities outside of the classroom — study abroad experiences, trips to the United Nations, and cultural exchanges and conversations among students.

“We have to provide a 21st-century education that includes all of these experiential opportunities, study abroad opportunities, cultural opportunities,” she says. “If students leave here feeling that they’ve had that education, and that they’re well set up for their next step, whether going on to higher education or going into the workforce, then I think we’ll have done a good job.”

She also believes in the power of mentorship, and wants to encourage students to seek out professors and administrators as mentors. Mentorship is really critical. I’ve had a few mentors throughout my years who really have made a difference.”

The one who influenced her the most, perhaps, is Christian de Duve, the late cytologist, biochemist and Nobel Laureate. Small calls him “a very prestigious leader.”

When the two met, she was a postdoc, completing research and scholarly training. “He took the time to meet with me, to talk with me,” she recalls. “On one occasion… he invited me to go to his institute in Belgium and give a talk. I went to his institute, he met me, he introduced me, he took me to lunch. Someone like that is just amazing — the opportunities, the doors that he could open for me.”

After she finished her postdoctoral program, and as she was pursuing her first faculty position, de Duve wrote reference letters on her behalf. Soon after, in 1988, she joined the faculty at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

“Sometimes people think that they think they can’t approach people to be mentors or to talk to them,” Small says. “But he opened the door a crack, and I just rolled right in.”

And so, she says, “My advice to students is to never think that people are too important for them to talk to. Often people feel complimented if you ask if they will advise you. More people than not will agree to do it, to spend time with students who are earnest, who really want to get some advice.”

Over the summer, Small witnessed FDU students in action, firsthand. She traveled to FDU’s Wroxton College in Oxfordshire, England, to meet with faculty and students as she started her new position.

On the trip, she observed an honors seminar on populism in politics, taught by former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine. For one assignment, Corzine split the class and had them debate the pros and cons of a Donald Trump presidency, with some for and others against.

“They were given an hour to prepare, and they had a very impressive debate. And that’s critical thinking. That’s looking at the literature, coming up with some ideas, and being able to put a point of view forward. Even if it’s not yours,” says Small.

“The more activities we can do with our students to train them in that way, and to think that way, and be exposed to global questions, and think about both sides of the argument, and be able to argue and understand each one — that’s going to stand them so well in life.”