The “new” provost and executive vice chancellor of academic affairs at UCCS, Mary Coussons-Read grew up in Oklahoma and earned her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For that degree, she studied biological psychology and neurobiology, researching how stress affects health. Post-doc, Coussons-Read studied prenatal stress and how it affects development.
Most recently, she worked at the University of Colorado Denver. When asked, Coussons-Read, 46, said what surprised her most about UCCS was the level of optimism and teamwork on campus and the conscious connection the college has with the community. She talked about her new post and initial learning curve.
You’ve been at UCCS for a year. What strategic changes have you made and what are your near-term and long-term plans for academic and structural changes?
Part of my big challenge has been getting to know people and the institution. Having been through lots of administrative changes as a faculty member, I didn’t want to come in and make changes right away. I’m just now starting to make changes in collaboration with the leadership team.
Changes are really done to serve the students and meet their needs. We’re promising them something when they come here. How do we make good on that? We’re working on making it the kind of place I want my kids to go to. Strategic changes have included consideration and as of now, partial implementation of a shared services model to support the growing academic enterprise and ongoing realignment of leadership roles and positions within the provost’s office to best meet the traditional and more entrepreneurial aspects of the work of the colleges, programs and faculty.
In October, you implemented “coffee with the provost,” a monthly meeting with faculty. How has their feedback shaped your decisions?
The most essential outcome has been to provide opportunities for open dialogue between me and a broad group of folks on the campus. Developing these relationships and hearing what’s on their minds has been critical for me as a newcomer. Although I had some strong ideas about what to do immediately, I lacked the context of the campus, which has been provided to me through the coffees and other meetings. I still identify as a faculty member, and am an active researcher with a grant from the National Institutes of Health, so having the opportunity to meet with faculty as colleagues as well as in my role as provost is very important to me.
What are the unique challenges for UCCS?
Rapid growth brings with it tremendous opportunity and some major challenges. The degree of growth we are seeing is unique, unfortunately, among public higher education institutions in Colorado right now, and along with it comes an immense responsibility to meet the needs and expectations of the students and families who choose us. From the academic side, the biggest challenges are mounting sufficient numbers of the classes students need when they need them and staffing them with excellent instructors. Our current focus on increasing the availability of weekend, evening and online course offerings will further enhance our ability to deliver on the promise of an excellent educational experience.
During your career prior to UCCS, what accomplishment was most rewarding?
I mentored numerous faculty and students on the CU Denver campus, both in formal and informal ways. Helping others develop a vision for their own careers and learning about what each of them is facing in putting together the real-life pieces of academics, research, teaching and personal life was an honor and a privilege. For faculty, helping them develop as “university citizens” while navigating all the expectations of the tenure system was especially rewarding. Working with people continues to be the most rewarding part of my job. If it had not been for the folks who were able and willing to “meet me where I was” at any given point in time, I would have been adrift in my career at times, and I can only hope to provide some anchoring influence to others as a way of giving back.
What have been your impressions of Colorado Springs after a year of living and working here?
My family and I are enjoying Colorado Springs very much. The size of the community is perfect for us, and we appreciate the warmth and collegiality of folks from the campus to the shops to the trails. It’s a move I wish I had made long ago; it feels like home. We moved in last summer, and the next day the Black Forest fire erupted.
How do you assess UCCS’ progress toward its ambitious long-range goals for enrollment, academic programs and facilities?
The diligent planning and ongoing attention to these goals by Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak and her leadership team are putting UCCS in a strong position to meet these objectives. Some key parts of this equation are conservatism in growing administrative structures and doing all we can to keep tuition affordable while increasing quality programming and course availability. Vigilance, strong communication and focus on our shared goals all bode well for UCCS.