Interim provost finds few surprises, big challenges

PULLMAN, Wash. – Since Dan Bernardo became Washington State University’s interim provost on June 1, the former dean of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS) said the only thing he has really found surprising is the number of people who report to him directly.
After working closely with the leadership of the university as a vice president and dean for the past eight years, Bernardo said few things he has encountered in his new post have proven surprising.
“The number of direct reports to this office is probably something of an exception. There are a large number of people and programs,” he said.
Everything else has matched his expectations – including the many unprecedented challenges that confront him directly and daily as the university’s senior academic administrator.
Rising to the challenge
But as difficult as those challenges may appear, Bernardo said they had a lot to do with his decision to take the job.
“I think most people who know me and my personality know that I wouldn’t take anything on as a caretaker,” he said with a smile. “President Floyd appointed me to this position knowing my personality, knowing this is not a time when we can afford to hang on to the status quo, knowing we have some very important decisions to make.
“The most important role of this job is to serve as the academic leader of the university,” he said. “I take our academic mission very seriously; not only our undergraduate mission, but our research and outreach missions as well. I come from a college steeped in the land-grant tradition of making significant achievements in all three of those areas, and we are going to continue to do that as a university.”
So while Bernardo sees himself ultimately returning to his post at CAHNRS, he makes it clear his sole focus in the interim will be on advancing the academic mission of the entire university. It’s a potentially daunting task for any provost, but one made even more difficult in an era when economic and political upheavals have led to unprecedented declines in state financial support for higher education.
Priorities under tight budget
Bernardo said he has worked actively with WSU’s deans and vice provosts since assuming his new role in an effort to identify and prioritize the issues that are most pressing and significant. Prioritization is critical, he said, “as we need to focus our attention on the areas that represent the largest opportunities for the university.”
“We’re operating under an entirely different budget model than WSU has operated under at any other time in its 120-year history,” he said. “We have a much smaller percentage of our resources coming from the state and an increasing percentage coming from tuition.
“We also have an increasing enrollment,” he said. “How to balance all of the demands on our resource base and employ a more tuition-based revenue model to drive the entire academic enterprise is one of our great challenges.”
Student retention
Another primary issue that emerges from such a tuition-based funding model is student retention, Bernardo said.
“Retention is affected by everything involved in the student experience at WSU, both academic and non-academic,” he said. “So we’re going to try to address this in a very holistic way that brings together everybody who affects that student experience.
“It’s also important from a financial perspective,” he said. “Quite frankly, students leaving WSU prior to degree completion represents an enormous cost to the students, WSU and society.”
Faculty retention
Retention of faculty – long a challenge for the university – has become one of the WSU’s paramount priorities, Bernardo said.
“The problem of faculty retention is becoming even more acute because our ‘competitors,’ if you will, are coming out of the economic doldrums and have legislatures that are aggressively funding higher education,” he said. “We’re lagging many other states in terms of our reinvestment in education, and a lot of universities are looking toward the West Coast to pluck away high-quality faculty.”
Faculty retention obviously involves compensation, he said, but also is driven by the overall experience of faculty members at WSU, as well as the university’s ability to provide the necessary resources for them to do their jobs.
“Ultimately, this place is about high-quality faculty and staff,” he said. “People are our most precious resource to deliver on our research mission and to deliver high-quality academic programs. A critically important priority over the coming year will be putting in place whatever mechanisms possible to retain our most precious resource.”
Bernardo said he expects to achieve significant progress on addressing many of the key immediate challenges identified with the help of WSU’s deans and vice provosts, as well as some of the university’s more traditional long-term efforts, such as strategic planning, during the next 12 months or so.