New Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Donna Arnett spent five years as a nurse before embarking on a career in academia. Between that first career and her arrival at USC this summer, she worked as a researcher in public health at the University of South Florida, where she received her master’s, and at the University of Minnesota, where she led many large cardiovascular research studies, including the Minnesota Heart Survey and the Hypertension Genetic Epidemiology Network. Her leadership experience includes tenures as department chair and associate dean for academic and strategic programs at the University of Alabama Birmingham and as dean at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health. She served as president of the American Heart Association in 2012-13. She received her Ph.D. in epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
In a nutshell, characterize your leadership approach.
I recently went through a six-year summative review as dean at the University of Kentucky. One thing that resonated most with me was that I am seen as kind. I believe in treating people with respect, decency and professionalism. At the same time, I'm willing to do what it takes to move the institution towards excellence. So, I'll be authentic, I'll be transparent, I'll be kind — but I'll do the hard thing. At the end of my career, I want to be remembered for building other people to become the very best version of themselves.
Speaking of building other people, one thing you’ve emphasized is an interest in encouraging student success. What’s your strategy for that? Or what do you see as possible?
What's awesome — and I don't use that word lightly— about the University of South Carolina is we have amazing students. We are truly a flagship university. And I think the best way to promote student success is to provide support for the students and then get out of their way — because they are smart, they want to change the world; our goal is to give them opportunities to realize that transformation.
As you settle in, what are the key areas you’ll be tracking to measure our academic progress?
I'm really focused on our four-year graduation rate. One, it helps boost our rankings nationally. Secondly, if students get out in four years, they have less debt and more potential for income growth over time. It serves the student well, and it serves the institution well. So that's going to be my top metric.
I'm also looking at our graduate programs, which help feed the research mission. That's a big focus for the president and for myself and for the vice president for research. And we’ll have a big focus on diversity and inclusion. It’s my intention to increase the size of our South Carolinian underrepresented student body, our staff and our faculty, to become more reflective of the overall population of the state.
The third metric is retention, which ties very closely to graduation. We’re the number one institution in the country for the first-year experience. I want us to be that phenomenal institution through the lifespan of a student.
Two and half years in, the pandemic still poses challenges, but opportunities have also arisen. How has higher education, or the delivery of instruction, benefited from the shifting landscape?
This is a foundational question. The very foundation of how we work has shifted — and I think it's a permanent shift. One of the great benefits we've discovered is that we can teach in alternative formats, but one of the great challenges is that we've discovered we can teach in alternative formats — the expectation from students, appropriately, is, “Why can't I do this online?”
The next few years is going to be transformational. We're going to have to figure out how we deliver what is best for our students pedagogically and what bandwidth we have as a faculty to deliver what they need. Faculty have really stepped up, but there’s also some fatigue, and we need to recognize that and figure out how to support them. I would love for USC to be the leader in that discovery.
Maybe you could also talk a bit about research and about how your role as provost overlaps with that of the vice president for research.
The new VPR and I all want to go all in on research, and my contribution to that is to bring in excellence in terms of our academic programming that supports the research mission. If we have excellent academic programs and attract the best and brightest students, then we can ignite that research enterprise. And graduate students typically are sort of the workhorses, in many ways, of those research enterprises.
You come from a science background. So does Julius Fridriksson, our VPR. As provost, what do you say to faculty in disciplines that don’t bring in the massive research grants and maybe don’t grab as many headlines?
I believe in equality of all persons and equality of all disciplines. Just thinking of myself just as a human being: Who would I be without that creative writing class I took as a freshman? Who would I be without music, without philosophy? There are fields that may not produce large NIH research dollars but that still provide an essential element to being human and having a high quality of life, to being fully actualized as a person. Or look at history. Understanding how history shapes our current situation and the future is critical to who we are as a democracy.
What are the big higher education trends you're watching right now?
For three years I ran a task force on mental health at my prior institution. Our students were coming in more anxious and more depressed than ever before, and that has increased during the pandemic. So, how do we maintain good support for our students? What are the right strategies? There's also a lot of civil unrest, as you may have noticed. That’s another trend to watch.
And then we have to define our value added to society. As a first-generation college graduate, sitting here as an EVP and provost, I see the value of my education. We need to help our students, their families and our community understand the value of getting a degree from the University of South Carolina.
This interview was originally conducted by University of South Carolina TIMES, a print publication for faculty and staff.