Polak looks to student engagement

Provost Benjamin Polak will meet with the Provost’s Advisory Committee to increase communication between stduents and the Provost’s Office.
Provost Benjamin Polak will meet with the Provost’s Advisory Committee to increase communication between stduents and the Provost’s Office. Photo by Jennifer Cheung.

Provost Benjamin Polak will eat dinner twice on April 23 — once in honor of a retired economics professor and once with a group of eight students known as the Provost’s Advisory Committee.

Since his appointment as provost in January, Polak said it has been difficult to find time to engage with students because of the obligations and “crowded” schedule that accompany the role of the University’s second highest administrator. Though Polak has had one meeting with the Provost’s Advisory Committee and one meeting with representatives from the Yale College Council, the Graduate Student Assembly and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate this spring, he said his meetings so far are “not enough” and that he hopes to make more room in his schedule to converse with students next year.

“We’re here to be an educational institution,” Polak said. “The students aren’t just some random voice. They’re what this is about. They’re the point.”

At the Feb. 27 meeting with the representatives from the three student government organizations, Polak, Deputy Provost Stephanie Spangler and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews listened to student opinions about several University issues, including concerns about introductory science, technology, engineering and math classes, YCC President John Gonzalez ’14 said. The group also discussed mental health counseling and improving access to health care, Polak said.

Gonzalez said he thinks increasing student engagement with the provost is important, adding that he hopes the YCC will be able to sit down with Polak in the fall to outline some of the issues that “need student input.”

“With a collaborative environment, the YCC can solicit student opinion in a way that guarantees that the provost will care about and pay attention to the findings,” he said.

Unlike administrators that oversee faculty and students, the provost interacts primarily with faculty and administrators, so contact between students and the Provost’s Office is less common.

Former YCC President Brandon Levin ’14, who co-founded the Provost’s Advisory Committee, said he does not think students’ lack of familiarity with the provost’s responsibilities is a matter of great concern because the role of the provost is “not necessarily the most well-suited to engaging with students” and impacts students less directly than administrators specific to Yale College or the graduate and professional schools.

Still, former Provost and President-elect Peter Salovey and Levin both saw a need for increased communication between students and the provost when they established the Provost’s Advisory Committee in 2011, Levin said.

Salovey said he met with this group, which consists of eight students, two or three times per semester while he was provost, adding that he has continued to meet with the committee since his appointment as President-elect.

“Many good ideas have been shared in this group,” Salovey said. “Our conversations are confidential because I would like the students to feel they could raise any concern, but I can tell you we have focused on all kinds of issues from [the] room draw to student activity [spaces] to financial aid policies.”

Polak said he aims to be responsive to student opinions, some of which are voiced in in-person meetings and many of which he hears about indirectly through channels like online course evaluations.

“It’s not always the case that everything that every student wants to get done should get done,” Polak said, “but there’s an enormous amount of information about what we’re doing well and what we can improve.”

Student engagement is not always about policy, Levin said, adding that Salovey was impressive because he remained a visible campus figure while he was provost through teaching the “Great Big Ideas” seminar, guest lecturing in “Introductory Psychology” and attending a variety of sports events.

“The Salovey model worked well,” Levin said. “I think Provost Polak will probably aim to similarly engage.”

Polak was appointed provost on January 14.

Comments