Affordability, partnerships and plans for a new health sciences campus

State of the University with Bob Caslen podcast: Episode 3

In the third episode of "State of the University with Bob Caslen," President Caslen, Provost Bill Tate and host Sally McKay discuss the university's plans for affordability,  partnering with the state's HBCUs and building a new health sciences campus.



Sally McKay: As the 29th president of the University of South Carolina, Bob Caslen has a bold vision for the state's flagship institution of higher education. Eight ambitious priorities and a new strategic plan support the university's mission to transform the lives of the people of South Carolina, the nation and the world. As we begin 2021 and a new semester, President Caslen is keeping his eye on the future of South Carolina as he continues to lead the university through a global pandemic. I'm Sally McKay, your host for "State of the University with Bob Caslen," where every month we'll give you an exclusive look at the University of South Carolina from the perspective of the president and we'll talk with special guests along the way. So let's get started. President Caslen, hello and happy New Year.

Bob Caslen: Hi, Sally. It's really great to be with you. Thanks for having me again. And thanks for doing this.

Sally McKay: Always, always great to be with you and glad we're back together here on the campus of our beloved University of South Carolina. Typically, President Caslen, I like to kick these episodes off by asking you about the status of COVID-19, and we do that usually before we talk to our special guests. But because we're talking today with Dr. Bill Tate, the university's Executive Vice president for Academic Affairs and Provost, I'd actually like to ask you both for an update on the pandemic as it affects our students, faculty and staff. So, President Caslen, kick us off, and then Provost Tate, we're going to ask you as well.

Bob Caslen: Well, first, let me just say how proud I am of our students and our faculty for getting us through the fall semester when all things started falling apart. It seemed that way not only at our university, but also at universities across the nation. And people were shutting down. We persevered with great resilience, and I give a lot of credit to our students for their behavior and to our faculty for their adaptability. And they just did a great job. We tested over 75,000 tests, which is really amazing, and I think that was key to really proving our success. The other thing that really made a difference is that we were able to use all the resources from the university, particularly from our pharmacy school, with the saliva test, which is one of the first in the nation to come around; our Arnold School of Public Health that actually put the environmental monitoring in place. And it was a science that was really making a difference. But the real difference was the resilience of our students and our faculty. Now, everybody went home, as you know, after Thanksgiving. They came back. So we're now putting some mandatory testing in place on return. So some of this is very interesting now. On return so far, we have we've had over 300 students test positive. And because of the mandatory test on return, we're able to identify them and by identifying them, we can put them quickly into the quarantine, so that they're not around the other student body. So you start containing the virus so it wouldn't spread. So that's already proven itself to be a very important policy that's going in place. And the students are going to be great this semester. We're excited about the semester.

Sally McKay: Yes.

Bob Caslen: You know, we still have the COVID with us. So even though the vaccine is starting to float around the United States, we hope to get our faculty vaccinated very soon. And then, I'm not sure when the students will be vaccinated, probably towards the end of the semester if not later. But short of that, we can't be complacent and we've got to make sure that we take everything that we learned from the first semester and carried it over into the second semester because frankly, the conditions really are about the same second semester as with the first.

Sally McKay: That's right.

Bob Caslen: But thanks for that question.

Sally McKay: Thank you. And Provost Tate, there are all kinds of angles through which we can examine the pandemic and classroom academic modality is one of them. And I know you have been talking a lot about that. And tell us your perspective on where we are as we start this new semester as it relates to the pandemic.

Bill Tate: First, I want to thank you, Sally, for the invitation and President Caslen for the opportunity to talk to you in this format. We find ourselves in a really strong position, able to increase our face to face slightly over last semester. And we know and learned a lot from last semester. We had feedback from the students and faculty, and we use that information to provide better classroom situations and engagement for students. So I think we're off to a good start.

So far, we want to make sure that our students have a great experience in their learning opportunity. Last semester we learned that as measured by grades, they are pretty consistent with past academic terms and so we feel good about that. Parents asked about withdrawals — we didn't have any statistically significant increases in withdrawals in classes. That tells you — students vote with their feet, and it's really important that they stay engaged. But I'll tell you what I'm very excited about on the COVID front that that was one part of the academic in the classroom scenario.

But I'm also as President Caslen noted, really excited about the fact that our colleagues in pharmacy and public health have contributed in ways that are very distinctive across American higher education. The pharmacy school not just engaged in testing, but, actually, research that allows us to look at variants of this virus in ways that are really — if you pick up any newspaper, we know how important it is to have that kind of technical expertise, and to have it here on this campus where we can see it in real time is extremely powerful. I'm also very, very proud of the fact that those same colleagues who worked with us last semester in public health are running models. You can pick up the models we get in our stand ups that the president, and I  pick up The New York  Times and and see that our models are as good as it gets with respect to predicting what's going to happen. So it tells you the quality of the faculty and the kind of people we have for doing research.

Sally McKay: Absolutely. And if I may, Provost Tate, this is just your second semester that you're beginning here at the University of South Carolina. Would you be willing to tell us a little bit about your experience so far and talk about the role of a provost? Because we may have a few listeners who who know the name, but title, but don't really know what it means.

Bill Tate: The provost does what the president says. That's the job of the provost —  whatever he dictates is important, but technically, it's me, the person over academic affairs. And we tend to define academic affairs as the set of individuals, the deans who run the schools and colleges, the department chairs. And the way it works is those deans report to me and I report to the president, and through that chain, we are able to make sure that the academic affairs part of the house is appropriately managed and run. And so you asked me what it's been like. I joined the university during a pandemic. I actually think that was to my advantage because we had to be so close right away. The president and his staff did a great job of on ramping me on prior to arrival. So I was able to see a lot of things pretty quickly. And then in the context of this crisis, I learned about the quality of the individuals I work with who I think are amazing. It's a great team. I think we work well together and are supportive of one another. I couldn't have asked for a better transition absent the pandemic, but I think I look at it as a somewhat of a blessing in terms of the on ramping, it just really was quite powerful.

Sally McKay: And we are thrilled to have you here. President Caslen, I know we've all been excited about having Provost Tate  join us. Provost Tate, from WashU, Washington University in St. Louis., and we are really glad that you're here. I want to pivot a little bit and talk about an ad, a print ad that ran very recently across the state. And the ad is called "South Carolina, Leading in 2021." The ad ran in local newspapers  throughout South Carolina, and it really highlights several initiatives that speak to the university's, and I'm quoting here from the ad, "relentless energy to be the nation's preeminent flagship university." And President Caslen, we have talked a lot. You and I have talked about being the nation's preeminent flagship university. And I love this ad. And the first initiative that it speaks of is keeping education affordable.And I'd really like to hear from both of you on not only the significance of that, but how under your leadership we are approaching it. President Caslen, kick us off.

Bob Caslen: Oh, thanks a lot, though, I give a lot of credit to our communications people who put that out together because I thought they did a great job. We got a lot of very favorable feedback as a result. But our vision statement is to be the preeminent flagship university. And when you look at the profession of higher education and our clients, our students, and the flagship of the University of South Carolina serves the state of South Carolina. Our students predominantly come from the state of South Carolina, and they come from the families of the state. So the question I ask is, how do you build a trust relationship with the people of South Carolina as a flagship university? And there are so many ways that happens, but principally is to be able to provide accessible and affordable higher education to the people of South Carolina. And that's tremendously important access.

So how do students replicate through 12 system in the state of South Carolina have access? How do they inspire themselves to want to come to this university or to  go to higher education and qualify themselves for admission so that when they are inspired to go to higher education, they'll pay the price during their high school years to get the grades and the standardized test scores that are necessary. And then how do we find affordable ways for the young men and women and their families in the state of South Carolina to afford tuition — the tuition to be raised that we have here. If you look at the University of South Carolina compared to the appropriations that we get from the state, and you look at our tuition rates, and you compare that to the per capita income, our state is ranked 50 out of 50 as the most expensive flagship university in America. So that's something that we really have to take a look at. So how do you find affordable ways to be able to do that? So we're working with the legislators in the General Assembly and looking for proposed legislative changes that allow us greater and greater ability to be able to expand eligibility for need-based scholarships  and educations in a number of ways. And if you're going to develop a trust relationship with the people of South Carolina, one of the best ways to do that is to look like them.

And that really just drives into the whole issue of diversity and how diverse we are not only as a student body, but also as a faculty and our staff. And we have some some significant issues. So as we look at access and affordability, we also want to look at diversity, so that we can build that trust relationship because we look like the people whom we serve. 

Sally McKay: Well said. Provost Tate, jump into this conversation about accessibility and affordability. Certainly every institution in higher education is dealing with with this topic.

Bill Tate: They are. And I would try to take it from a personal perspective. The president has done an outstanding job laying out technical and policy issues that we have to attend to. Personally, I wouldn't be in this position had it not been for scholarships and things of that sort throughout my academic career from undergrad, master's program and Ph.D. education that has made it really affordable, kept me out of debt, and then gave me an opportunity to stay in higher education. As a professor, I just wouldn't have had the opportunity, as in people's generosity in terms of them giving in capital campaigns and state legislative bodies who invested in public higher education in the states in which I was growing up. And so I'm deeply committed to paying that back. Like the president, I think it's extremely important at the undergraduate level. We've got to find a way to continue the scholarship and really expand it, work with the state, and hopefully create more opportunities at the graduate level. We have to really think about reallocation in some places, so that students can come here and get master's level work done while being supported in ways that keep them out of debt. It's a way that we can add value to the state and give back. It's going to help us in so many ways if we can keep those people here as well, and then they reinvest in the state. And it's a cycle. And so the whole idea in my mind is really do everything we can to generate a set of students who don't have debt, want to stay in South Carolina, add value, reinvest their tax dollars so the next generation has an opportunity. 

Sally McKay:  Absolutely. And one of the basic but important pieces that this ad points out is freezing tuition, for example. And President Caslen, that was a major priority of yours when you began your office here, and that's a monumental step.

Bob Caslen: I take a lot of heat for it. Well, sure, it's important. 

Sally McKay: Right.

Bob Caslen: I mean not just because we're 50 out of 50, but you've got to look at the people who you're trying to reach out to, the people who you want to encourage to come to the university. I remember I was walking through one of the high schools last fall, walking with the principal, and this young man, just full of energy, came up to me and he was introduced to me he as the class leader for the senior class. And I said to him, "What are you going to do next, you want to come to the University of South Carolina?" He goes, "I'm not going to college." Why aren't you going to college? "Can't afford it" It's unfortunate because he's an outstanding young man who has such tremendous potential and sharp as he was, had already dismissed the idea of higher education even before he even asked the question. It was just not in the cards for him, and people, whether it's his family or whomever, saying, "Sorry, you can't go to college because we can't afford it." We've got to change that dynamic. We got to find pathways so that these young men and women, especially those with such tremendous talent, can find affordable ways to go to high school, to go to college. And being 50 out of 50 in the United States is something that we ought to really look at. We've really got to change that dynamic.

Sally McKay: That's right. And that story that you're sharing, I mean, I can only imagine how many of those stories there are in South Carolina and how the work under your leadership, both of you, President Caslen and Provost Tate, that we're going to chip away at that so we can we can do a little pattern interrupt in this cycle  and create a new one. Another initiative that's highlighted in this ad and it also speaks to access maybe to new levels of education — that is the university's partnerships with HBCUs or historically black colleges and universities and really looking at and taking some real charge in creating and establishing partnerships with these historically black institutions in South Carolina for those students to then attain higher levels of education at South Carolina. Provost Tate, will you talk about that a little bit and the significance of that.

Bill Tate: Well, the state has a rich tradition of educating students at HBCUs. If you looked across the American South, we would be as robust platform for HBCUs as any other state in the union. And I think that it's an opportunity for us to partner, for students to come and do some undergraduate work at a historically black college and then segue way to us to think about doing finishing up a degree at the masters level and getting a combination degree. Certainly that's an area we've just put in an agreement the president just signed with Claflin. And our hope is to expand upon that in other areas. That one was within the J-school and communication. But we would like to do it in other areas. We have one request right now from South Carolina State. We're working on it really diligently to make sure we can build that out. And then we, of course, have two historically black colleges right here in the city. So the aim is to really try to create a platform so that students can come here and finish masters work and in other cases finish master's work and potentially get a Ph.D, maybe join the Grace McFadden program where they might think about being professors, and then we can cycle those  students from the Ph.D. work right into faculty roles, either here or other places in the state and really be a generator of that kind of really academic intellectual community building.

Sally McKay: That's fantastic.

Bob Caslen: Yeah. Let me just piggyback off of Dr. Tate. This is so important for us to address our diversity challenges and issues. In our strategic plan where we talk about diversity. We are requiring every single one of our colleges to develop a program within an HBCU in the next couple of years. The first one that did it was Claflin, and we did with our journalism school. So other schools now are looking at what are some of these pathways? And three plus twos, four plus ones, things like that. And it really it creates not only opportunities, but it also really helps us in our diversity, particularly at the graduate school level.

Sally McKay: When you say three plus twos and four plus ones, we're talking about three years undergrad at one institution and then come over here for two years, get their bachelor's and master's degree, same  time, fantastic opportunity. And again, to me, it sounds just just exactly like what a preeminent flagship is doing for the people of its state. It's very, very exciting. 

President Caslen, you mentioned at the top of this episode about our expertise in health care. And certainly as it relates to COVID-19, you mentioned our pharmacy school and the saliva test and environmental monitoring through the Arnold School of Public Health. Well, health care and prioritizing health care specifically is listed in this print ad as one of the priorities of our university and how we're leading the way. Talk about, there's some big stuff on the horizon as it regards health care, the university, our expertise and the whole state. And I'm thinking about our Bull Street consortium. So talk about that. The President Caslen

Bob Caslen: First of all, we have five of our colleges that are related to health and medical care, public health and social work and pharmacy, nursing programs, so, you know, it's just really, I mean, we have two medical colleges, one here and one from Greenville. And so it's such an important part of who we are as the University of South Carolina and really proud to partner with the other medical schools within the state of South Carolina, MUSC, for example. And it is so tremendously important. And to be able to have these and frankly, to see our graduates on the front lines of COVID at the hospitals, the health care centers, nurses and doctors and people like that are really taking care of people really proud to see our graduates, seeing any of those public workers regardless.

But we want to expand this in a number of ways. One is not only in research, but the big one that you're talking about in your reference to at the end of Bull Street is where the new campus would be for a medical center and our medical research center that we have put up there. We're working very closely with the General Assembly, as that can be hopefully that will be part of the new budget. And as the new budget, we can put that thing — we're ready to break ground right now. We just got to sort through the budget issues. It was going to be part of the budget, I believe, last year and when COVID hit and you know that we had a continuing resolution in the state, as you know. But let's hope — hope is not a course of action — but I feel very confident that we'll be able to work with the General Assembly and get the revenue that's necessary to be able to get that school built at the end of Bull Street on the medical campus.

Sally McKay: And that is very exciting. How does creating that kind of a campus there at the end of Bull Street, how is that a game changer for us? And we have pockets of expertise throughout the state, as you said, President Caslen, with our medical schools and also the expertise here on the Columbia campus. But pulling some of that together and creating a real campus of medical research and expertise, how does that really raise the bar?

Bill Tate: So if you if you take where we are right now, we have three schools, pharmacy, nursing and public health that are as good as it gets. If we were in the AAU, they would be AAU-like. They are elite, some of the finest schools that you could have of that type at a university. And if you combine that with a research-clinical enterprise that is a fully locked and loaded to be outstanding, I mean, just really elite. It just catapults you into a whole different way of thinking about human health. And I don't want to decouple this and just talk about it because we're just interested in research for research sake. The state is in need of us to be great. And the reality is that human health, as defined by many metrics here, is woeful, it's scary.

And we have a need to solve many problems related to human health. And so the investment by the state legislature in something like this actually gives us an opportunity to begin to change the nature of health in the state. And if you improve health in the state, you improve educational outcomes in the state because health is the biggest predictor of educational outcomes. And educational outcomes predict economic outcomes and therefore you create a cycle of opportunity for people who heretofore didn't have it. So I think about this in a cost benefit way that that investment the state makes in our medical facility actually is a total investment in education and economic well-being of the state. I'm excited about it and I think we can leverage what we do really well and combine it and really be the preeminent flagship, as the president has outlined for us in his charge through the strategic plan.

Sally McKay: And we can really draw a thread through every topic we've talked about today. I mean, if you're right, the health reality for so many in South Carolina is woeful. I mean, I think it's the right word. If we can begin to change those outcomes, as you said, that predicts better success in education, that starts in young children. We get them better prepared and we're trying to make it more affordable so that they can actually conceive of themselves coming to South Carolina or maybe an HBCU and then they can do another program with us through our partnerships there. I mean, there's so much just in this conversation that is not only exciting for South Carolina, but it is necessary as you said. I like how you put it, Provost Tate, "the state needs us to be great." And it's not about greatness in and of itself. I do want to clarify, Provost Tate. You mentioned AAU, Association of American universities. Talk about that for a moment, because I know you referenced that and I want to make sure our listeners hear AAU defined.

Bill Tate: So AAU is a set of  institutions across the United States that are research intensive, but they're also known for their excellent teaching and learning processes. I think there's 63 right now. It's by invitation only. And what I want to say is our job is to set up the institution to get invited to the prom.

We might not get invited, but if we're really, really outstanding, it doesn't matter if you get in — you know you look good. And so that's that's where I am with this thing. So I really believe that using it as a benchmark to guide our decision making is right headed. And if we strive for it, we'll be a lot better overall over time. And if we get the invite, great. If we don't, we're going to be great for the state.

Sally McKay: That's fantastic. The university over the decades really has talked about AAU and that's — it's win-win as we prepare and as we continue to build and build. I like that — an invitation might be nice, and yet we're going to be bigger, greater, more impactful for the state of South Carolina. Well, you have me fired up at the beginning of a semester. And as we still deal with a pandemic, before we close it out,  what else is on your minds, anything at all that you might want to share about what's happening in your worlds and just any optimism you have to share with us about the semester that you haven't already?

Bill Tate: Well, I'll tell you, it's been exciting the last couple of weeks for me, looking at the strategic plan and thinking about how the Office of the Provost is going to be operating in the context of that plan. I've really recently made some modifications that keep the plan, the fidelity of the plan, but asking hard questions about how we might reallocate in shifting so that our programmatic efforts line up in ways that we've been talking about today. And that's exciting. President Caslen gave the go ahead in a recent meeting for us to be thinking in a cyclical fashion about what we do. And so that means I have to think and really work a little harder than just sort of following the script, but actually pondering with my colleagues in a governance function what we should do. So it's been exciting the first first couple of weeks in January and look forward to seeing what we come up with to share with the president in the months to come.

Sally McKay:  Wonderful. President Caslen?

Bob Caslen: Well, I would say two things in terms of being a flagship. We put a program together that takes our students and puts them into high schools across the entire state. With COVID, we're doing a lot of this virtually. But the idea is that they would run a half a day conference with freshman and sophomore high school kids and  it would be a conference on ethics and leadership and then breakouts into STEM and they would build robots and fly drones and things like that. And then they develop informal relationships which some cases may turn more formal. And as a result, our students not only become teachers and inspire them to be — they become role models as well, and they inspire the young men to want to go to higher education so they can be like their role model.

So it's this whole idea of creating access by inspiring young men and women in high school years to commit themselves to the high school curriculum, to get the grades and test scores they need to gain access and a mission to not only the University of South Carolina, but higher education at large.

And also, as we reach out to the state of South Carolina, we recognize two things that are really interesting. There's 50,000 former college students who did not get a degree who live in South Carolina. And you have to assume that many of them, most of them perhaps, are interested in getting a degree. And the residence model, because they now have established families and have jobs and stuff like that, the residence model is not to their liking or that's not feasible. So how do you reach out to them? So we are putting together an online program not only with the University  of South Carolina, Columbia, but for the entire system that will reach out to that 50,000, that particular market and provide opportunities for them to get to get their degree. And not only that, the other piece is interesting is that we're surrounded by some very highly motivated military personnel across the entire state of South Carolina, over 100,000 active duty military, many of whom would love to know they're going to get out of the military and they want to catapult directly into some high-performing career paths so they know they've got to get their education to enable them to do that. So we're going to reach out to them as well. And we already are. So I'm very excited about that, as well as not only providing education with that modality, but also it's got great revenue potential as well, of course. 

Sally McKay: Well, I know based on everything that you both said today and more and more, you have a lot to get going and to go do. So I cannot thank you enough, both of you, for spending time on the State of the University podcast. And I know we'll we'll talk again soon. Prevost Tate, good luck. Have a great semester. You're off the hook, Provost Tate. President Caslen, I'll see you back at our next episode. And you've been listening to "State of the University with Bob Caslen." I'm your host, Sally McKay. We'll be back with a new episode next month, thanks for listening. Bye for now. Forever to thee.



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