Meet Melissa Lavitt, Academic Catalyst

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As UW Tacoma's new Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Melissa Lavitt will have a key role spurring the academic development of the institution.

Melissa Lavitt, UW Tacoma’s new Executive Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs, has been asking some questions.

How will we buttress our commitment to student access, success and excellence as we grow? What new academic programs will best serve our region and our students?

What inspires and motivates faculty at urban-serving institutions like UW Tacoma, and how do we best honor and recognize the special role faculty play in the regions served by those institutions?

Anchored as we are in the Greater Tacoma region, how will we leverage the talents of our faculty, students and staff to expand the South Sound’s economic prosperity?

She doesn’t have all the answers yet (she’s only one month into her job), but she’s hit the ground running after she started on January 4, meeting faculty, staff, students and community members, and logging many miles on campus stairs and streets.

There’s a theme running through these questions: UW Tacoma as an urban-centered, community-engaged place.

 “This is what attracted me to UW Tacoma in the first place,” says Lavitt. “I am passionate about making our urban-serving mission real. I’ve been at four institutions, three of which are deeply enmeshed in their surrounding cities. I’ve learned the energy generated from those connections to community and constituency is important to me. I feel stymied and limited outside that setting. Maybe it’s because I’m a social worker. Maybe it’s because at this kind of place I can see first-hand on a personal level the transformative nature of higher education.”

Background

Prior to UW Tacoma, Lavitt served as Senior Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), a unique, collaborative urban-serving institution created in 1969 with the merger of the Indianapolis campuses and programs of Indiana University and Purdue University.

Her higher education background features over 15 years of academic leadership experience, including her time at IUPUI and deep experience as a dean of a large social sciences and public affairs unit at Boise State University in Idaho. Her Ph.D. is in social work from Tulane University.

Asking, Listening

Lavitt has developed a reputation as someone who asks good questions and listens to the answers. This penchant has served her in good stead throughout her career. Her first academic job was at Arizona State University West, one of ASU’s two Phoenix campuses.

“My department launched a national search for a new chair. I had no intention of applying, but the dean said ‘You’re really good at asking questions, and listening to people. Why don’t you apply?’ “

“I thought – that’s all you gotta do? I didn’t realize it would be as simple as that!”

She learned that it isn’t as “simple as that,” but asking and listening have indeed become hallmarks of Lavitt’s administrative style. “It’s sort of an aptitude to position yourself as a learner. I’m never the smartest person in the room, but I get to learn from all these fabulous smart people that universities have, and pull things together, and work as a team to get things done.”

Working around the Rules

“One of my personal mantras is, learn the rules well so that you can work around them,” says Lavitt.

She arrived at Boise State University as dean in 2008, the beginning of the Great Recession, and almost immediately had a chance to test this mantra, and to sharpen the university’s urban-rooted mission.

“Boise is a beautiful town, a state capitol, with a gorgeous river. The river divides downtown from campus. It’s walkable, probably only about a mile. But, the river forms this boundary that people do not necessarily traverse.

“The College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs, where I became dean, was quite large—over 130 faculty, 4,800 students. Many of the faculty were engaged with the community, but more as individual scholars. I wanted to do something that would leverage the university as an institution, ‘legitimize’ the faculty-community connections and somehow bridge that river into downtown.

“I found a loophole in the state regulations that if you did a project of less than 2,000 square feet, you didn’t have to put it out for bid, which meant you could move quickly.

“So, we opened this ‘urban classroom’ on Main Street in downtown Boise. It was a storefront so that people could see in as they walked by. We wanted people to be able to ‘see’ higher education, so they could imagine that one day maybe they could be a part of it.

“It worked right away, and I quickly learned how important ‘place’ and ‘placemaking’ are. That storefront classroom became this cool neutral convening space: it was Boise State, but you didn’t have to set foot on campus. Merely by its location, it became the evidence of access and what that means, with a ‘door’ to the university always in reach. It was like Switzerland—we could bring in faculty from other colleges and universities, have elected officials drop in… We developed this interdisciplinary summer ‘Investigate Boise’ summer workshop. It was topically driven, which became the key for future interdisciplinary work—focus on the problem, not which discipline gets to come in first.”

Public Scholarship, Broadly Defined

Lavitt has thought a lot about the role of research at an urban-serving university.

“There’s this notion of application. Sometimes it’s called use-inspired research, or translational research. It’s taking your knowledge as a scholar and finding a way to make it live on the ground. Often that’s with other faculty and students, solving interesting problems that are not owned by a single discipline.

“Application demonstrates loudly our value-added to both the community and to our students. The more we learn about how we learn, the more we discover that application is a very key experience for students—where they get to take skills and knowledge and figure out what it’s like to own and operate them.

“And it’s in the application of research where I think we can be a major resource and a force for change in the community. Scholarship that connects to Greater Tacoma, that uses Greater Tacoma as the ‘case study,’ can at the same time transcend the local context to deliver broader relevance. This is the kind of work that will maintain and grow our reputation as a creative, agile and distinctive UW campus.

“Part of application is accessibility. I’m passionate about public scholarship, which is as much about disseminating and circulating knowledge as it is about creating it. Public scholarship is a good fit with an urban-serving mission. At Boise State, we created a couple of channels for interdisciplinary, applied and public scholarship. One we called the “Blue Review,” which was a great way for scholars to get their work out in front of a large regional audience quickly, while they were going through the formal academic publication process. Another was a series of non-fiction books about regional and national topics that included rich imagery and colorful design. My favorite in this series was Surviving Minidoka, about the Japanese internment camp that was in Idaho.

Changing Structure of Faculty

If being urban-serving is what makes UW Tacoma distinctive within the larger University of Washington, then the community-engaged scholar--who is producing research and analysis that is not driven by discipline, but by and for non-academic communities—represents a distinctive academic career that needs to be recognized during the tenure-and-promotion process.

“Within American higher education,” says Lavitt, “the traditional model for evaluating faculty has been the three-legged stool of teaching, research and service. Teaching is pretty obvious, but research has traditionally meant peer-reviewed articles published in academic journals with international impact, and service has either been in reference to the university or to the discipline.

“But all that is undergoing change. There’s a national trend toward ‘disaggregation,’ and putting together different models of how we value the contributions of faculty.

“What inspires faculty at urban-serving universities? There might be more emphasis on service, and that service might be more community-engaged. Likewise with research and scholarship. How do we modify the evaluation model so that these approaches are fairly recognized?

“I can definitely say that I’ll be deeply involved with these issues, and I hope that UW Tacoma can be innovative on these fronts,” said Lavitt.

Walking, Learning

“This is an absolutely amazing time to be living and working in Tacoma and the Greater Tacoma region,” Lavitt says. “The Northwest is such a special place, with the mountains and the water, and Tacoma is this jewel in the midst of it all. There’s so much more than what you can see from a car on I-5!”

“I love the way downtown steps down to the Thea Foss Waterway. I can look out from my apartment, or from the big W at the top of the campus’s 19th street stairs, across to the port on the tideflats, and over to Mount Rainier. Seeing the sun rise around Mt. Rainier is thrilling. I took a picture of that and made it my wallpaper on my iPhone.”

“I’m really into walking, so I love that I can live downtown (in a place with a walkscore of 92!), walk to campus, and walk to so many cultural and community activities. I love learning Tacoma from the sidewalk. The hills are great exercise.”

The Point of it All

Ultimately, it comes down to the students, says Lavitt. “When in doubt about anything else, focus on the student experience.”

“This is what gets me excited as an academic administrator—the possibility of transforming a life.

“There’s been a lot of national talk about the point of a college education: that it’s to launch people into careers, make them more ‘marketable’…it’s always put in these economic terms.

“But it’s really all about the transformation. If we don’t stay open to that possibility, or if you somehow belittle that as the outcome of higher education, then I think we’ve missed the point.

“My son is a UW alumnus. He has a degree in human-centered design and engineering from the Seattle campus. And my father, who is an engineer, said ‘What’s he going to do with that degree?’ I said, “His job hasn’t even been invented yet.’ And I was good with that answer!

“That’s what I think ultimately the point is. I know UW Tacoma has been doing just that—transforming lives—for 25 years. I look forward to being a part of the next phase of this campus’s history, when I think we really have the potential to show the country what an urban-serving university means, more than any place I’ve been previously.”

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Written by: 
John Burkhardt / February 4, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu