Donna Arnett smiles for the camera

Leadership and listening

Donna Arnett sets course as university’s new provost

Growing up, new University of South Carolina Provost Donna Arnett wanted a career in health care. Initially, that meant becoming a doctor, but when her parents told her that was a reach financially — she was a first-generation college student and lived at home throughout her undergraduate career at the University of South Florida — she went for a degree in nursing.

It was the first ‘right call’ in a series of right calls. Arnett spent five years as a nurse before embarking on a career in academia: a clinical research job at USF, followed by a master’s in public health there; a Ph.D. in epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; a tenure track post, right out of grad school, in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota.

“Epidemiology and biostatistics was really like a lightbulb,” she says. “It’s how you put structure around formulating questions, design studies to answer them and statistically analyze them to know if they're important or not important. I fell in love with that.”

It was a good fit, a chance to sharpen her analytical and problem-solving skills by applying the scientific process. It also helped her discover who she was as an academic.

I want to really understand the unique points of excellence at the University of South Carolina. I want to discover those gems.

Donna Arnett

“Because I was always a person who loved to ask questions and do research, it was a much better kind of professional career for me than probably medicine would have been,” she says. “I became a scientist.” 

But Arnett was also a leader and from an early age.

“It's interesting — when I was a Brownie and a Girl Scout, I was always the group leader,” she says. “I never asked to be. I was just always appointed. And when I started my research, when I was an assistant professor, my first year, they put me in charge of a large study that had been ongoing for 20 years called the Minnesota Heart Survey.”

The study, which involved surveying 11,000 people over a two-year period and conducting clinical exams on over 5,000 people in 44 clusters across the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, was a lesson in complex systems management. It also gave her the confidence to explore other leadership roles.

In 2004, she joined the University of Alabama Birmingham where she served as department chair and associate dean for academic and strategic programs. “I loved being chair of an academic department because you really can shape not only the discipline, but you can shape the course of your faculty’s lives and your students’ lives,” she says. 

She would subsequently serve as president of the American Heart Association in 2012-13, and in 2016 she parlayed her considerable academic leadership experience into a new role as dean at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health. 

But when the provost position opened at the University of South Carolina, the timing was perfect to take on an even bigger administrative role at a flagship public university.

“I was very selective in where I interviewed, and I waited until President Amiridis was named before formally dropping my name into the pool because I want to be a partner,” she says. “I really believe in strong partnerships, and I think we can do good work together.”

And what will that work look like? Her shortlist of priorities includes working with the university’s new vice president for research, Julius Fridriksson, to expand the university’s research enterprise, and working with incoming vice president for student affairs and academic affairs, J. Rex Tolliver, to improve student success.

She also plans to conduct an intensive 4-6 month listening tour of the Columbia campus, talking to faculty and deans, hearing their specific concerns but also discovering their strengths so she can build new networks and programs across disciplines.

“I'm doing it in smaller groups so that I can actually have dialogue with faculty,” she says. “I want to really understand the unique points of excellence at the University of South Carolina. I want to discover those gems.”

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