Posted October 3, 2007

A conversation with Provost Lisa Staiano-Coico

Provost Lisa Staiano-Coico — or Provost Lisa, as students and her colleagues call her — has barely had a moment to breathe since she arrived at Temple from Cornell University's College of Human Ecology this summer. She is already working with the faculty to develop a new academic strategic plan for the university, and the Provost's Office has unveiled a number of new initiatives, with plenty more to come soon. Staiano-Coico even found time to be football coach for a day when she joined the team on their road trip to the University of Connecticut last month. There may not be a busier person on campus, but that's just the way she likes it. The Temple Times caught up with her last month.

Temple Times: How would you describe your first impressions of Temple — any big surprises?

There's tremendous vitality and energy here. You see actively engaged students and a faculty who are absolutely dedicated to the mission of Temple, the students of Temple and being in North Philadelphia.

But the biggest surprise has been Temple's diversity. Before I came down for my initial interview, I drove around Main Campus to get a feel for the place. I was astounded by the student diversity. I had heard the talk about Temple being "Diversity University" before I came, but you can't appreciate what a campus that values inclusiveness and diversity really feels like until you visit Temple.

Temple Provost Lisa Staiano-Coico
Photos by Ryan S. Brandenberg/Temple University

TT: Do you consider diversity one of Temple's core values?

Absolutely, and so do President Hart and the deans. But it's more than just diversity for the sake of diversity. We believe that diversity at all levels of the university — students, faculty and staff — enriches and livens the conversation and leads to better scholarship, better citizenship, better engagement and a whole host of other cascading benefits.

TT: How about if we force you to offer one negative first impression?

Sure, I'll give you one: We need to do something to improve the classroom spaces for our students, especially in our science and technology buildings. They're not up to the level they should be for a modern research university. We need some sprucing up. You'll be seeing changes and renovations in Paley Library. Our campuses must reflect the excellence of the university.

TT: You just came from Cornell University, an isolated, small-town campus. Has the change of scenery been abrupt?

The move has been fabulous! Once I came to Philly, it only took a day for me to realize: 'I feel at home here.' Cornell's campus in Upstate New York is pastoral and beautiful, but many people don't realize that I grew up in Brooklyn and spent the first 21 years of my career at Cornell's medical school in Manhattan. Philadelphia is a terrific city; it's walkable, sophisticated yet homey, tremendously livable. I couldn't be more thrilled.

TT: What is the role of the provost at Temple?

The provost is the chief academic officer. I am responsible for the academic programs at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels at all of Temple's schools and colleges and for ensuring that our students' needs are well met. I report to the president, and I work as a partner of the president to support her missions and goals. So, for example, President Hart has set goals in internationalization, community engagement, sustainability and diversity. I am here to support the voices of the faculty as we develop a common, unifying plan to meet those goals and missions.

But there is something beyond that — something that is very important to me personally: I want to be a provost of the students. We're here to serve our students, and it's important for the provost to make meaningful connections with students.

TT: For someone who spent most of her career at a professional school, you spend a lot of time talking about undergraduates.

It is a passion. Part of it is having two college-age children. But it's more than that. When I first started spending time at Cornell's campus in upstate New York, I fell in love with the energy and pulse of undergraduate life. It was a transformative experience. There is something magic about that stage of life, when students are seeking their identity, honing their moral compass and discovering new ideas.

I am very excited that Student Affairs has come into the portfolio of the Provost's Office, because it enables us to integrate student activities, student affairs and student mental health with our academic programs. My vision for undergraduate life at Temple is to continue to develop a living, learning, engaged academic community of undergraduates in which, whether they're inside or outside of class, they have opportunities to learn.

TT: People seem to call you 'Provost Lisa.'

Yes, that's what I go by. I love my last name; it's beautiful and melodious. But it's so long that people who approach me often spend such a long time trying to pronounce my name that they forget what they wanted to say to me. I'm comfortable being called Provost Lisa. It's who I am. I'm not a very formal person. I'd probably tell people to call me Provost Lisa if my last name were Smith.

TT: You went to Brooklyn College, an institution that, like Temple, has often been described as a commuter school. At Temple, that description doesn't quite fit any more.

Temple today is very different from the Temple of a decade ago. More than three-quarters of our students are now full-time students. We've gone from an overwhelmingly commuting population to an increasingly residential population. We need to look at who we are now and the changes we need to make to ensure that our students continue to develop a sense of community. But that transition needs to be about more than just building housing. We need to assess the services we provide for students and continue to develop living and learning communities.

At the same time, we can't leave behind the commuter students, who still make up a significant proportion of our student population, as well as our adult students and night owls. We have to be sensitive to that balance as we move forward.

TT: Both you and President Hart have said that one of the provost's top priorities will be the development of an academic strategic plan. That would be something new for Temple. What is an academic strategic plan?

An academic strategic plan asks: 'What do we want Temple to be in 2012 and in 2017?' I'll be working in partnership with the faculty to write a narrative — our own story, from the ground up — of Temple's academic future. The idea is for our faculty and administration to come together by the end of this year to develop the university's academic goals. Then each of the individual schools and colleges will participate in their own planning of how their goals can contribute to Temple's.

We'll integrate the academic strategic plan into the university's master financial plan under the leadership of Tony Wagner, our chief financial officer; the master campus plan as led by Clay Armbrister, our executive vice president; and the fundraising goals of Stuart Sullivan, our vice president for Institutional Advancement.

TT: People would forgive a new provost for waiting a while before unveiling new programs, yet you've hit the ground running and are already beginning to announce a number of initiatives. Can you offer some cocktail-party-speed highlights?

One of President Hart's true passions is the importance of our undergraduates having international experiences. Soon we'll be rolling out a Temple Ambassadors Program. We'll identify rising freshmen who have a combination of academic excellence and financial need so that they can obtain a semester abroad experience they may not be able to have otherwise. It's part of an understanding of globalization — the more we integrate global issues, including experiences in foreign countries, the better equipped our students will be to face the world.

We're also creating a fund to help send students to academic conferences. We've already sent students to a conference at Harvard on HIV and international issues, where they met ministers of health from sub-Saharan Africa and other international leaders. The idea is to bring Temple students together with the thought leaders tackling critical issues from global health to politics.

When it comes to research, I'm a connector. I'm a big believer in collaboration, and I'm a big believer in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. Within the next month or two, we'll announce a program aimed at fostering inter-college, inter-campus translational research efforts at Temple. Stay tuned for that announcement — and many more.

TT: Why the focus on research that crosses disciplinary lines?

Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research are so important. For example, there are many genetic and environmental factors that contribute to major killer diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. These days, biologists need to work with computationalists to identify subtle relationships between your environment — your diet and lifestyle — and the genes you've inherited. As an individual biologist, I don't have the ability to see those subtle connections. But a computationalist can develop mathematical models to take all of these data and find those connections.

This is a unique opportunity for Temple. I've never been at a university that has such a breadth of disciplines, where we can bring artists together with engineers and social scientists and researchers at the professional schools. We can develop unique niches.

TT: How do you feel about the new program for general education, or gen-ed, that will be implemented in fall 2008?

I am a tremendous proponent of gen-ed. We have two wonderful leaders in gen-ed: Terry Halbert from the Fox School of Business and David Watt from the College of Liberal Arts. The gen-ed program will bring innovative pedagogical approaches to teaching our students. They'll learn critical multidisciplinary viewpoints that will not only make them better thinkers, but better future employees, regardless of the profession they choose. We now we have a task force working with the Teaching and Learning Center on developing assessment tools so we can rigorously assess pilot courses and improve them as we go so that when we roll out the gen-ed program next fall, we'll feel a sense of comfort. I'm very enthusiastic.

TT: You've always been an active faculty member. That will continue at Temple with an appointment in the School of Medicine. What are your primary interests as a teacher/researcher?

My interests have shifted over time. My historic love has been in the area of burns, wound repair and skin biology, but I entered the field in a serendipitous way.

I was scalded as a child when I spilled coffee on myself. I remember the pain of having the bandages changed. Decades later, when I was a graduate student doing immunology and aging, one of my thesis committee members needed me to work on an experiment in the burn center. It hit me: This is where I'm meant to be. Since then, I've been working on the genes involved in the outer layer of the skin when it was injured and responding to injury, and developing new approaches for biological wound dressings to help accelerate injury repair and to help mediate scar formation.

I had a long discussion with President Hart about my lab before I came on; clearly, the provost's position is a full-time position. So I closed my laboratory. It was very painful. But I haven't closed my intellectual curiosity.

When I came to Cornell, I became very interested in mental health, drug and alcohol abuse and other issues affecting undergraduates. I have become actively engaged in research on alcohol and drug abuse prevention among late adolescents and early adults. So my research continues, but now it's social science research. It's a whole new world to understand and learn.

TT: When you arrived, Temple became the first major university in the Philadelphia area — and perhaps well beyond — to have women sitting in the offices of the president and the provost.

I have to say it's wonderful having another woman — an amazing woman like President Hart — at the helm.

I do believe role models, particularly for women and minorities in the sciences, are important. Women and minorities are underrepresented in the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I am fully dedicated to working with the faculty so that our faculty and administration reflect the diversity of our undergraduate students. To help mentor junior women and minorities coming up through the ranks is so critical. We are going to be submitting an application for an advance grant to help increase representation of women and have more diversity in our STEM disciplines.

TT: A few weeks ago, you hit the road with the football team, an unusual business trip for a provost. What was that experience like?

Being the guest coach for the game against Connecticut was one of the best experiences of my life. I lived out a fantasy I've had ever since I was a teenager — a time when women couldn’t be in the locker room or on the sidelines. We have a group of die-hard Temple alums and fans who travel with the team to away games to show their support, and I was very grateful to go on the bus with them.

But the take-home message for me as a provost was when I saw the discipline of our student athletes. They travel in their jackets and ties, within 15 minutes of checking in at their hotel, they're in meetings with their units. They run through a rigorous set of meetings, then group meals. You don't hear chit-chat or laughing and joking. They're focused on reading their playbooks and preparing for the game. Then early to bed. The next morning, there’s a pre-game practice. Then the game. And boy, when you're on the sidelines, you realize what a bruising game it is. Then, after the game, win or lose, they're back in their professional attire for the long journey back to Temple.

And you think they still have to integrate their academic lives as students! It helped me develop a much greater appreciation of the challenges that our student athletes face in maintaining their academic standing. Yes, we do have athletes who end up on professional teams in the NBA, the WNBA and the NFL, but the vast majority of our students are taking their places in a wide array of other professions. The athletes I met were very serious about their academic endeavors. It's my job as provost to ensure that we have the best athletic experience but also the best, most rigorous academic experience so that when these students go to take their place in the world, they're fully prepared to undertake exciting careers beyond the football field or the basketball court.

TT: The game had a controversial finish.

I was there in the end zone when [Temple wide receiver] Bruce Francis caught that pass with 40 seconds left. His foot was in!

TT: We hear you're a competitive amateur ballroom dancer. What have you learned from ballroom dancing that can be applied to daily life?

I love ballroom dancing. I've always done different kinds of dancing, from modern to jazz. My husband arranged ballroom dancing lessons for us as a gift on our 25th wedding anniversary. I’ve become passionate about it. There's an awful lot that goes into it, the discipline of it, pushing yourself to learn something new.

So if I had to take a lesson home from ballroom dancing, it's embrace being a novice learner. Don't worry about being embarrassed. Don’t be afraid. Jump right in. Don't worry about not knowing a step, or if you’re a scholar, not knowing a discipline. That's what I took to Temple. At Temple, I'm learning about the arts and areas that I had never learned about before. And I'm going to be excited about coming back tomorrow to learn something else new.