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An Interview with Provost Daniel Myers

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Provost in front of a window.
Myers recently discussed his academic career and what brought him to AU. Credit: Jeffrey Watts.

American University’s new provost and chief academic officer, Daniel J. Myers, also considers himself a faculty member. And years removed from his undergraduate days at Ohio State University, he still thinks about those experiences while interacting with AU students. For Myers, accessibility and relatability are parts of the job. And he’s shown that in his online habits, as a frequent podcaster with an active social media presence. University Communications and Marketing recently sat down with Myers to learn more about his academic philosophy, intense running regimen, and itinerant beginnings as a minister’s son. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

UCM: Not everybody knows what the job of provost entails. What are your major responsibilities?

Myers: Typically, the provost is in charge of everything academic at the university. The fundamental structure of that has deans of the colleges report to the provost, and the provost reports to the president. But everywhere you go it’s a little different. Here, admissions and financial aid report to the provost. Institutional research and the Office of Sponsored Programs also report here. It’s about the lifeblood of the academic part of the university. The budget process falls under Doug Kudravetz, but we play a big role in that as well. Some things are not my formal, singular responsibility, but we’re still cooperating and collaborating.

UCM: What was appealing about this university?

Myers: When I was first approached about applying for the position, I knew a little bit about American, but not a ton. I tried to understand the character of this place, and I came to learn quite a bit about it. I thought that the university’s profile was interesting, and that it was in position to advance in a number of different areas. That was supplemented by President Burwell, who is unique as a university president. She has a set of career experiences that she brought with her to this position, and it’s quite different than the average university president.

Then I came out here to meet President Burwell and the search committee. I was so impressed with how much she had already learned about how higher ed works despite not having come up through that system. I thought she had a really interesting agenda for this institution, which is now embodied in the Strategic Plan. And I was impressed with the search committee’s level of investment and engagement at American. I could see how much they identified with the university, and how much the school means to them. So, then I was off to the races. I thought, “Well, I want to try to get this job.” But since I finished off the interview process and started experiencing the campus community, those impressions have been reinforced in lots of ways. It’s been heartening to me.

UCM: We talk about the teacher-scholar ideal here. How do you encourage professors to balance classroom teaching and scholarship?

Myers: I had a whole workshop on this topic, which I hope to give here at some point. The people who come to a university like American want to achieve this, but they can run into struggles with time commitments. It’s something that’s been a big part of my life. I have always loved the teaching part, and I’ve always loved the research and scholarship part. The trick for me—and this is something I encourage others to think about—is not to think of them as just two different things that you’ve got to do. It’s about putting them together in an organic way. The research can really inform and enliven what’s going on in the classroom.

UCM: You have a lot of influence over who gets tenure and what courses get approved. How do you make those kinds of tough decisions?

Myers: Well, course approvals really bubble up from the faculty. By the time they get to me, they’ve been vetted by so many people that I rarely would intercede in that. Now, at some point, I get in strategic conversations with people and say, “What’s a new program we could start?” Or, “How could we combine things that we’re doing to create something new and interesting?” But those kinds of things are driven by the faculty, not by the administrators. Tenure is a critically important issue for any university, and you have to be so careful and so diligent in making those decisions. When you give someone tenure, it’s a lifetime appointment. It’s a multimillion-dollar decision for the university, if you think about how much salary you’re committing over the course of possibly another 30 years or more. So, you’ve really got to take that very seriously.

But at the same time, this is somebody’s life in the balance, and not getting tenure can be devastating for people. In a sense, these are the most important decisions that we make every year. We’ve got a really good process here. It’s got a lot of levels of review in it, which I think is great. Here, at the end of the day, the provost makes the final decision. But it’s a decision that is informed by a lot of hard work by other evaluators in the university. I haven’t done it here yet, but I’ve been involved in these kinds of cases for 10 years or so. It’s something I take very seriously, and I’m sure the other faculty and deans who participate in that process do as well.

UCM: Where did you grow up?

Myers: Sometimes people ask me, and I say “parts unknown,” which is what the masked wrestlers used to say! I’m not from parts unknown, but just so many parts that it’s hard to keep track of it all. My parents moved around tons when I was growing up. It happened partially because my dad was a minister, and it’s not a super-stable profession. So we lived all over the place, from Oregon to Upstate New York, Pittsburgh, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia. I graduated from high school in Zanesville, Ohio, and that is why I ended up going to Ohio State for my undergraduate degree. But that was part of my life learning experience. I had some students here recently and we were talking about diversity and inclusion. I said, “Well, that’s one of the things that I learned to appreciate during all that moving, because we lived in radically different places.” We lived in a small farm town in Upstate New York, and there was not one single nonwhite person in the whole town. And then when we were in Pittsburgh, we lived in a very integrated neighborhood where probably the majority of people were African American. So, bouncing around in those different environments gave you a different sense of who you can connect with in life.

UCM: You got your bachelor’s degree in political science from Ohio State University. When you make decisions that affect students now, do you ever think about your experience as an undergrad?

Myers: Absolutely. I think about some of the greatest compliments I’ve received on my teaching evaluations. Every once in a while, someone would write something to the effect of, “Myers is great, because he hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be an undergrad.” And that is a huge compliment, because if you want to be a really effective instructor/teacher/mentor, you’ve got to know where people are and where they’re coming from. If you can remember what it’s like to be a student, and make that part of how you approach people, it makes a huge difference. When I was an undergrad, I was an RA my junior and senior year, and I loved it. And when I actually realized you could do that as a job, I got a master’s in student affairs, and I worked in the residence hall system at Ohio State for a few years after that. And so that continued to inform—and still does to this day—my approach to guiding students.

UCM: Later, you went to University of Wisconsin-Madison and earned a PhD in sociology. Why did you want to pursue academic scholarship?

Myers: As I was in grad school, I really started to like the research piece. Madison was such a research-focused environment. It really taught me the value of doing that kind of work. There are so many interesting puzzles out there in the social world that need thought and need investigation and need systematic treatment. When I went to Notre Dame [where Myers spent 17 years, finishing as vice president and associate provost of academic affairs], they emphasized research and they also cared deeply about that undergraduate experience. It provided a perfect opportunity for me to develop who I was as a teacher, professor, and then eventually administrator. And I developed all those different pieces of my portfolio.

UCM: You’ve been a regular podcaster. You’re on Twitter, too. How will you use social media in this job?

Myers: One of the challenges that we have these days is how to get information to and from students. Everybody is consuming different kinds of media. There’s Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and various other things that are probably emerging that I don’t even know about. I try to focus on Twitter, because I think its reach is pretty broad. For me, as a provost, the idea is to just let people know some things that are going on at the university. To let me have some sort of presence on campus, because as an administrator, you get caught in these offices sometimes and you’re not out there. So, let people know who I am a little bit, and add some fun stuff, too. And if something happens on campus or in the world, you have a pulpit from which to talk about those things.

UCM: What are some fun, little-known facts about you? Any interesting hobbies?

Myers: I play the guitar. I’m retraining myself to play the bass now, so I can get in a band. I don’t have enough time to be good on the guitar anymore. Music has always been a very big part of my life. And I am a runner. My claim to fame as a human being is that I have run at least a 5K, 3.1 miles, every single day. I have not missed a day for over seven years now.

UCM: Wow. Is that hard these days, if you’re working pretty long hours?

Myers: Yes, it is. There are times when I think I have lost my mind. But the streak is powerful. You don’t want to break it once you get it going. And I have been through so much to keep this streak going: broken toes, getting hit by a car, the flu, throwing out my back. But so far, so good.

UCM: Looking back through your career, are there any especially memorable moments?

Myers: I have been very satisfied with what’s happened in my career. I am just so grateful for the experiences I’ve had. As provost at Marquette, a lot of them were really about issues in the diversity and inclusion space. There were moments when we did things that nobody would have guessed. We opened an LGBTQ resource center, and it was one of the first ever at a Jesuit university. It was a student group that really needed much more support, and there were challenges that come with negotiating that kind of presence at a Catholic university. And we did it in a really positive way. There were just little moments, but they tell you something about what we should value. When things like that happen, you think, “That’s why I’m in this business.”