A Q&A with Donald Nieman
Outgoing provost looks back — and to the future — after a decade in the position
Binghamton University’s “uniform commitment to excellence” stood out to Donald Nieman when he first visited campus in 2008. It still resonates as he prepares to step down as provost after 10 years.
“I was impressed with the University and Harpur College when I came to interview,” says Nieman, who served as Harpur dean from 2008 to 2012. “But when I got here, it was even better than I thought it would be. That has continued to be the case.”
The University’s balance of teaching and research appeals to Nieman.
“I’ve seen it for 14 years: We have a faculty that is seriously committed to teaching undergraduate students even as they are engaged in cutting-edge research,” he says. “That doesn’t happen in a lot of places. It struck me at the beginning, and it still strikes me as being part of our DNA and culture.”
Nieman will depart as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the end of the 2021–22 academic year. Donald Hall, the University of Rochester’s Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Dean of Faculty of Arts, Sciences and Engineering, will succeed Nieman, who will return to the classroom as a faculty member in the History Department in 2023.
Q: Why leave the position at the end of 2021–22?
A: I’m 73 years old. I have been a dean or provost for 22 years. I’ve really enjoyed everything about it: the opportunity to learn new things; my exposure to different areas of the University; working on program development, such as the First-year Research Immersion (FRI) or reforming how we teach calculus. Learning about broad financing and budgeting for the University; what goes into planning a building; what goes into planning a new campus; working with alumni; being engaged with partner universities and high schools in China, India and Turkey. It’s been a wonderful learning experience. I’ve always said: If there aren’t problems, I don’t have a job. Figuring out how to solve problems is intellectually engaging.
So why step down? There’s nothing magical about 10 years [as provost]. It’s not that I’m frustrated or bored. I just felt that it’s time. No epiphany. No “aha” moment. It came naturally.
I still enjoy doing the job. That’s the time you want to step away — while you still enjoy it and before it becomes “work.” When I was thinking of going to graduate school, my dad said to me: “What you really want is a job and a career that you look forward to when you get up in the morning.” I’ve never had a day when I didn’t. I can honestly say that.
Q: There are surely a lot of things about being provost that you won’t miss. What or who will you miss?
A: I’ll miss the people I work with — from Vicki Griffin, my administrative assistant, to President [Harvey] Stenger to my vice president colleagues, the vice provosts and the deans. At some level, I’ll miss “being in the know” about things. I’m also going to miss the challenges and the creative energy that comes from solving problems or creating something new.
Q: The past decade has seen accomplishments such as the Road Map, the Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence (TAEs), the establishment of the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the opening of the Health Sciences Campus, growth in graduate student enrollment. What successes stand out to you?
A: Harvey always said that we are getting bigger not to get bigger, but to get better. That has always been our North Star. It’s growth to serve students better, serve the community better, become a more widely recognized university. Build the brand.
In one of the first meetings I had with Harvey, we agreed that a pharmacy school should be top priority. Starting a pharmacy school was a great way to boost research, serve the community, give opportunities to students, expand our programming in health professions and create a program that would return revenue to the University. We have an outstanding school and our first class graduated last year.
Like the old adage says: One thing leads to another. Why not move [Decker] to Johnson City, proximate to the pharmacy school and the site where the largest group of clinical placements [UHS Wilson Medical Center] are? And then the Upstate Revitalization Initiative comes along. We were able to take advantage of that to reclaim an abandoned factory and turn it into a state-of-the-art nursing and health sciences college. We were successful in hiring a dynamic dean — Mario Ortiz — who came with ideas for growth. We now have a bigger footprint in the health sciences to the good of our stakeholders and the University. We can make investments in programs that, once they are established, will return revenue, enhance research and expand our portfolio.
Q: Looking into your crystal ball, what’s the future of higher education in the next 25 years?
A: I’m a historian (laughs) and historians don’t like to predict the future! But I think higher education is going to continue to be essential for a broad swath of young people to prepare them to flourish in a world that is more heavily dependent on knowledge and lifelong learning.
One of the most valuable things we do is help students learn how to learn. I foresee the next 10 to 25 years placing more emphasis on that — the ability to learn and to be able to deal with change. I also think the liberal arts will continue to retain their value and will become more attractive to students. Communication, integration of knowledge, critical thinking and the ability to think through issues of values and ethics are going to be in-demand skills.
Our society drastically needs good citizens. My biggest fear about the future is the survival of a republican government — a place where there can be civil disagreement, a respect for truth and facts, and a willingness to resolve differences through processes peacefully. That doesn’t exist everyplace. With the exception of the American Civil War, we’ve been blessed that it has been the norm in the United States. Higher education and liberal arts education will prepare people to maintain that tradition, I hope.
Q: As provost, you have still been able to write, teach and research. What are the goals and visions for your next chapter?
A: Spending more time with [wife] Leigh Ann [Wheeler] and sharing the life of a faculty member with her. I also look forward to returning to full-time teaching. I want to offer students the expertise I have in U.S. legal history and the history of civil rights, as well as the perspective of some-one who has had a varied career and who can speak to what higher education offers and what Binghamton has to offer. I can give them the perspective of someone who has lived a long time. For a lot of young people, what they know is the world they’ve experienced. As a historian, you can provide context through both your discipline and your experience.
I’m also working on a book that tries to explain how American politics became angry, dysfunctional and a threat to the republic. It’ll offer a historical and analytical perspective on the multiple forces that shaped where we are now. Our current predicament has been building a long time, but there are critical pivot points. Until we understand those, we won’t be able to right the ship. It’s a history of American political and social and cultural life that parallels my own life. It begins when I became politically conscious in 1964 and goes to the present day.