In interview, Provost Holloway lays out academic vision for NU, talks departmentalization and admissions scandal


Daily file photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson

Provost Jonathan Holloway. Holloway discusses the admission scandal and his academic vision.

James Pollard, Assistant Campus Editor

In mid-October, members of The Daily’s editorial board sat down with Provost Jonathan Holloway for an interview. Jeri Ward, the vice president for global marketing and communications, also sat in on the meeting. Holloway talked through his academic vision for the next few years, along with his reactions to the college admissions scandal — among other topics. His answers to these questions have been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Daily: With only a few months left until we’re in 2020, what’s your academic vision for Northwestern for the next decade?

Holloway: The basic point is start from the place that Northwestern is an excellent university that is unique amongst almost all of its peers. And when I’m saying “peers,” I’m talking about the top 15 in the U.S. News & World Report — we are like so many of them because we are a comprehensive research university founded with a liberal arts foundation. We are unlike all of them, except for maybe Penn, in the extent to which we are interdisciplinary, and that there’s a really strong mix of theory and application. Yale, where I came from, is a theory school. There’s very little there at the undergrad level that is about what one could simply call like vocational education. Northwestern has a mix.

So if you take that as the foundation of what Northwestern is, the vision is how can we amplify those things that make us really distinctive? We launched this fall the Faculty Pathways Initiative, which embraces those aspects I just talked about in terms of what makes Northwestern special — and also what is fundamental.

It’s a five-year plan. With each step being one year’s worth, where it’s articulating different levels of engagement — like it goes from tenured faculty to post-baccalaureate programs. And my vision is about trying to pay attention to the kinds of issues or pressures or stresses related to that niche for that year. Developing programming that involves a lot of mentoring — horizontal and vertical — so that we can improve the quality of their research agenda, their opportunities. And it would not just be one year — it’s just kicking off in one year and it continues.

It’s a vision that we need to build upon our — I’ll call it — conceptual strength, which is this interdisciplinary ethos that has a marriage of applied and theoretical thinking. And we do need to find our talent in those areas and push that to the front of the queue.

The Daily: Students and some faculty in LLSP and AASP have been seeking departmental status for years. We know Weinberg created a group to conduct faculty searches to appoint tenure-track professors for the programs last year. But is departmentalization still a possibility for them? What’s been delaying the process?

Holloway: It’s certainly a possibility for them. Until you get a critical mass — let’s just pick Latinx Studies for simplicity. Until you get a critical mass of Latinx scholars in Weinberg who actually want to work in the Latinx study space, it doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense to have a department in that regard, because departments need to be staffed and need to be managed, just like the languages. And if you don’t have enough faculty to have a healthy rotation of chairing, being a director of Undergraduate Studies, and eventually a director of Graduate Studies, you actually aren’t going to be able to have a functional department. Because if I’m a chair of a department it also means my teaching load has been reduced — so you’re taking people out of the classroom to manage the department.

And then a lot of people in things like Latinx Studies, African American Studies, Asian American Studies, they’re also in another department. So already if I were in the faculty, I’d be half-time history, half-time African American Studies as my actual appointment. So it gets very complicated very quickly. And students from Latinx background, just to go back to that, they may be assigned an advisor, but they’re also going to go to the Latinx faculty for support. And the Latinx faculty are largely going to offer it. So they’re getting taxed again. So you can combine all these things together.

The main thing is we’ve got to get more faculty who are teaching these areas. And Dean Adrian Randolph was able to secure this great grant from the Mellon Foundation, which is about doing just that. I’m confident we’re heading in that direction. I really am. I offered no resistance to the idea of it. But I don’t want to do it on the backs of faculty that are already overburdened. That’s just not fair.

The Daily: Elizabeth and Manuel Henriquez, who are parents of a former NU student, pled guilty to their role in the college admissions scheme this week. What lessons do you think Northwestern can take away from everything that’s happened in higher education over the past couple of months?

Holloway: Well, lots of different lessons. Thankfully, as far as we know — which I have to put that way very intentionally — we have not been deeply affected by the Varsity Blues scandal. And it’s a scandal. We have a very clean system in the first place, but we had to do our own — I mean, everybody across the country, especially at what I’ll call the targeted class of schools: You know, high-end research universities — we all had to do some pretty intense self-analysis. What kind of rigor are we applying to the application when it comes in the door?

A lot of schools, most schools in the country, are driven by what I’ll simply call “numbers data” to make a formula work instead of holistic data. And now holistic is much more expensive to process, a lot more nuanced. You can’t have people who can’t read as many thousands of files. But we have that system, and it’s the right system. And so, in this instance, we had to go back. The ironic thing is, because our system is holistic, it’s a little more nuanced in terms of, “Are we sure we’re doing things the right way?” So it’s more of a judgment subjective call in our process. And we feel very confident and comfortable in what we’ve been doing.

We certainly went back and looked at our practices when it comes to athletics — and that was actually pretty fast, because we already had policies in place where athletics, the department, or even at the coach or department level, they don’t admit people. The University admits people. And we now know that’s quite different than what a lot of other schools do. So we’re pretty clean. And I just say pretty clean because as we’ve learned the SAT and ACT processes is not rock solid that we thought it was before. And so we are subject to what they’re able to tell us. We are subject to the data we get. So when I say pretty clean, that’s probably about the highest level of confidence that you can have. But I am confident about what we do and that it’s rigorous and that it’s ethical. But boy, admissions everywhere, we are all — to say there’s a heightened level of scrutiny in internal processes is an understatement. That’s for sure.