Judith Ramaley: Bringing UVM to Vermont
Dr. Judith Ramaley began her academic
career as a biologist, but moved into administration early on. She came to the presidency of the University of Vermont two years ago from the same job at Portland State University in Oregon, where she oversaw a substantially larger institution -but one that is not as broad in its range of roles as the University of Vermont. She was pleasantly surprised to find UVM a better university than she expected, but she still has plenty of ideas for its improvement, including a more energetic effort to engage the whole state in its activities.
Ramaley has spent much of her first two years studying Vermont, the university and young people here. She has developed both a feel and an affection for the place, and also a vision of how the university must change to serve the state adequately. Her perspective as a biologist inclines her to see the university and the community as organisms that change in time and in response to environmental stimuli, and whose condition must be monitored carefully for optimum health.
Similarly, she sees young people and their culture in terms of fast evolving generations that may become impossible to understand if not closely attended She has continued and extended UVM’s initiative against alcohol abuse out of a concern for the health of both the students and the institution.
Ramaley says UVM faces serious financial challenges in its effort to maintain excellence, keep up with the latest technology, and yet avoid becoming even more expensive than it already is. She counts as one of her significant accomplishments the successful team effort by the university and other public colleges in Vermont to gain a 7 percent increase in funding from the last Legislature.
Richard Andrews interviewed Dr Ramaley for Vermont Business Magazine in her office during one of the warmer days of the summer.
VBM: What attracted you to UVM fromPortland State University?
RAMALEY: A lot of things. The mission of this institution is comprehensive. Portland State had an urban mission for one sector of society.
What’s wonderful about the University of Vermont is that any aspect of life is fair game. Our academic programs respond to everything that affects quality of life – health care systems, business and economic development, education, good government, community and economic development, agriculture and natural
Life today is affected by so many factors and influences, and this university has the expertise to explore all of them. It gives me a very different sense of how a university and a community can work together.
It’s an ideal environment. The mission is right, the quality of the programs are excellent. The connections to the state, which already existed, can be developed further. So it all fits.
VBM: What is the mission of UVM?
One part is scholarship or discovery: to create knowledge that makes a difference. That’s the research part.
The second is to prepare students to lead productive, creative and responsible lives. That gives clear guidance; it’s the learning part.
The third part is to share knowledge in Vermont and in society as a whole, and that’s the engagement part. I call that engagement rather than outreach, because it’s two-way, rather than one-way. The typical land grant university has an outreach mission – the institution should respond to community needs by offering its expertise. Engagement means we may learn as much from Vermont as Vermont learns from us. Then we create an environment at the university and in the state that supports the development of all of our citizens. And I like that part.
Missions of institutions are usually a lot longer than that. They ramble on about the history of the place. They might mention values or intentions, but you often can’t quite figure out how to measure whether they’re successful.
Our mission lends itself to measures. Do our graduates lead productive, creative, responsible lives? Does the knowledge we create make a difference’? And how do we know?
VBM: We’ve heard you are getting out into the community to see what other people feel the role of the university should be. What are you finding out?
RAMALEY: Some very interesting things. Those articles about the future have more truth than I expected. I tend to see these predictions as somebody’s dreaming, like what the 1939 World’s Fair predicted for life in 1999. But it turns out that the effects of electronic communication, the changing economic structure of our communities, changing family structures, are really affecting people’s opportunities and aspirations.
My first trip was to the Northeast Kingdom. The most powerful lesson there was that folks depend on a very small number of people for community leadership -the usual suspects who always step forward when there is a community need -and it’s very easy for those leaders to burn out. So one of the most important issues is, how do you support community leadership, and how do you recruit new leaders and give them the experience they need? We’ve tried to address this with a grant from the Connell Foundation.
The other lesson was that we’re losing our best and brightest young people, and they’re not coming back. That’s related to the first issue, because they’re the future community leadership.
VBM: Is it really a problem that some bright young people leave, if other bright, young people from other places arrive?
RAMALEY: But they’re not arriving. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for bright people in some parts of the state. You’ve got a real disparity between the opportunities in the more populated areas – like Chittenden County, or north to Milton with Husky, and south to Addison County – and what you can find in Essex or Caledonia Counties.
There is a lot of work to be done to create opportunity. I agree with you, in the long run, if you look at the balance sheet of talent, if you can attract good
people at a regular rate as your own young people go other places looking for opportunity, you’re fine. But the balance sheet at the moment is in the red.
VBM: How do you know that?
RAMALEY: I only know it because of conversations with people who are worried about where their community leadership will come from. They haven’t shown me facts and figures. But there is concern about sustaining communities, ensuring that people who care will spend some of their precious time in service to those communities. Who will do the public work in the future?
VBM: I’m a little skeptical about those anecdotal concerns, because I heard the same thing 40 years ago in Vermont, and the state has grown substantially both in population and economic vigor since the 1950s. I suspect that if you drew a line around 600,000 people almost anywhere in the United States, you’d find most of the young people moving elsewhere – but other young people moving in.
RAMALEY: It would be interesting to compare Burlington and Derby. I was sitting in Derby at the time.
VBM: Do you hear different things in other parts of the state?
RAMALEY: I hear various things. I don’t know how to turn it into anything quantitative that would stand against appropriate skepticism. But in a lot of places the Social Indicators for Vermonters, which is a fairly objective set of numbers developed by the Agency of Human Services, suggest that opportunities are not great, that the outcomes for young people are not uniformly high, that quality of life educational attainment, health – varies enormously from one part of the state to another. And community leadership is what seems to determine whether or not two different places with similar profiles are making progress.
VBM: How are things at UVM going, and how will you know when you are successful?
RAMALEY: Various measures I derive in part from the mission, but they include a couple more features.
I’ll know by the quality of people we can attract as freshmen, and by the interests and educational goals of people we attract as graduate students, and by the kinds of faculty and staff we can attract how they interact with each other.
What do I look for? I look for the level of prior educational preparation, and for other signs in people’s lives that they are using their talents well. For example, a surprising proportion of our freshmen have done meaningful community service before college. It’s a hypothesis that needs to be tested, but I think individuals with good academic preparation and a history of caring about their communities are the sort of people who can benefit most from a stimulating academic environment maintained by an institution connected to the community.
This is, of course, the alma mater of John Dewey. That’s important, because he is one of America’s most comprehensive philosophers. He thought about every aspect of life you could imagine. He was forgotten in the trendiness of the ’50s and ’60s, and has been rediscovered in the last 15 or 20 years.
His basic idea is that education is living, it’s not preparation for life. I interpret that to mean that if you are learning in a way that lets you see the consequences of what you’re learning, you change, and the result makes a difference to somebody else. Your learning might be research with a faculty member, community service, or an experiential learning class where you see the effect of your report to a local company.
We want students looking for that kind of experience. If we have the academic programs and the expectations that promote the cultivation and expansion of that path, we will get the result we are aiming for.
Another measure is the intellectual property of the institution, our research and scholarly work, the act of discovery that generates something that contributes to our understanding of human nature, life in general, the environment.
There the results are harder to trace, because the more engaged we are, the more we’re part of a network of interacting institutions and communities. And the more successful we are at that, the less anyone can tell we were there. So I almost feel as though I should go around with a little stamp, UVM was here! UVM was here!” Our greatest successes have been when we helped a community identify its own resources, and connect them to create a critical mass of talent or assets to meet their own goals. It’s like the old Lone Ranger films: “Who was that masked man?” [She laughs.] Well, it was – a UVMer! VBM: What are the most significant changes you’ve made at UVM?
RAMALEY: I’ve only been here two years. I could answer that question better in four or five more.
One change is the way I talk about things. I try to create a language for these ideas. The University of Vermont is wonderfully diverse. I can find an example here of almost anything I want to talk about. I’ll say, “Look at what Professor so-and-so is doing,” or, “Look at what this class is doing – that’s an example of engagement.” Or service learning, or experiential learning.
A lot of leadership is attaching tags of meaning to something significant already occurring that can shape the direction of the institution if people talk about it. It gives people a new vocabulary, new things to think about.
Second, I am trying to create what I call a “culture of evidence.” You did it a few minutes ago in response to an assertion: “How do you know that?” The next question is, “And in what way does it really matter? Why should we attend to that, even if it’s true?”
That’s very helpful when you’re working with people from many different fields. It helps to verify your assumptions, produce some common language, agree on some ways to measure how you’re doing.
The provost, Geoff Gamble, is instituting what we call the balanced scorecard, a concept borrowed from the West Coast. It has four components to it: our fiscal health; the quality of our research and academic programs; the quality of our service internally; and the quality of” our relationships with our external constituents and audiences. We intend to get to the point where we can back up our assertions about ourselves with tangible evidence that we’re advancing on our goals.
Another change is that we’ve really moved ahead in five investment strategies to bring out the best in the University of Vermont to make us different from institutions that play similar roles in other states.
We’re investing in the undergraduate experience in liberal education, and thinking about what liberal education will be like in the 21st century.
We’re also investing in the health sciences We broke ground recently for a major medical research facility, the first of several components of the creation of a contemporary academic health center, in cooperation with Fletcher Allen Health Care.
The third area is environmental. We will soon open the Rubenstein Ecoscience System Research Laboratory downtown. The idea predates me, but I built upon the idea. So you can say Tom Salmon did that, or I did, but it’s happening.
The fourth area is technology. We are continuing to invest in a well-wired campus. We already rate well, if you think ratings like that mean anything.
And finally, engagement itself. The real accomplishment there is the largest state appropriation in a decade.
VBM: How much larger it than the norm?
RAMALEY: A 7 percent increase. We’ve seen nothing like that since the big cuts to higher education – UVM, the state colleges and VSAC at the beginning of this decade.
The increase has three parts. The parts look a little bit different at the state colleges than they do here, but they have the same logic, because we went to the Legislature as a group, working together in a way I think the state will enjoy in the future.
There’s a 3 percent increase that just keeps us functioning. It costs more to operate a university than it does a household. Our price index, the higher ed price index, goes up faster than the CPI, and 3 percent is close to the higher ed price index.
And there’s a 2 percent part, which will enhance our ability to use technology to reinforce good learning strategies on campus.
And then another 2 percent will support the engagement piece of our strategy. It’s called the Vermont Package.
We didn’t get everything we asked for. I was hoping for 8 percent, so the Vermont Package would be fleshed out at a full 3 percent. But we got 7 percent, and there’s a lot you can do with that.
Another change is that we have finished clearing the decks for technology transfer, which began before I got here. It is essential to make sure that the University of Vermont not only has a good, productive research base, but that that can be translated into something that generates economic activity.
VBM: Have you had any surprises here?
RAMALEY: A couple of interesting surprises.
First, the place is better than I expected. Of course it could be better still, as any institution could be. But we are much better than my impressions as a candidate.
I found excellent programs. Our faculty is known nationally and internationally. Our students and graduates do great work. We are making differences in our partnerships, both with schools, where we have a record of more than 10 years of helping students succeed, or health care. Vermont is one of the top 10 states in telemedicine, because of the leadership of our College of Medicine. Or in the environment. Our School of Natural Resources has an extraordinary model for understanding not only the natural processes of the environment, but the human interactions with it.
I had no idea how good we were. So that was a surprise.
Next, I knew Vermont competed every year with New Hampshire for the basement of the 50 states in support of higher ed. But I didn’t realize how little higher ed was in the picture at all. I assumed the state intentionally limited expenditures because it had a small population and a fairly limited tax base.
But I discovered higher ed wasn’t even on the screen. That was a surprise.
I think that’s changing, because of the importance of knowledge-based industries. We need knowledge to sustain the working landscape and offer our children an inheritance at least as good ours. College-educated people are essential for Vermont to move forward.
But where’s higher ed in this picture? Where’s Waldo’? He’s nowhere! I couldn’t understand that.
VBM: That may be related to the contrast between Chittenden County and the rest of the state. You probably know that Vermont has 14 counties, of which one has a percapita income higher than the state average, and 13 have per capita incomes lower than the state average. RAMALEY: I have seen those numbers, and that’s certainly part of it. That leads to my last surprise. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that joke: what’s so wonderful about Burlington is how close it is to Vermont.
So I arrived here assuming I had a real challenge, because the University of Vermont was so self-contained. Well, I started going around the state, and I discovered we’re everywhere! Yet everyone assumed UVM was just the University of Burlington. It isn’t. I’m still puzzling over why that impression remains. We have telemedicine, UVM Extension, our College of Education and Social Services.
We are meaningfully involved in most of the geographic areas of the state -the Northeast Kingdom, northwestern Vermont, the southeast, southwest and central area, to make a pretty rough cut, because there are distinctions between those big zones, though they fit the geography and the geology, and where the people are and how the economy works.
VBM: People here have long memories. The impression may originate before telemedicine and so forth.
Also, there’s a sense in southern Vermont that when people actually have to meet, there has been a reluctance to look beyond Chittenden County. I hear of meetings commonly scheduled at 8:30 am in Burlington, but refusal to attend meetings earlier than 10:30 in Bennington. Or stories from people who left home an hour early, drove a hundred miles or more to classes at UVM through snowstorms, discovered when they arrived the class was canceled because it was too hard to get from one end of Burlington to the other, and nobody could understand any irritation, because every radio station in Burlington had been notified.
RAMALEY: Well, my guess is, that’s a good explanation. If that image is out
there, all we need is one slip to reinforce the image, while it takes 10 contrary examples to begin to break down that image.
And it is true, certainly, in my own experience as a newcomer, that people use present tense for things that happened 40 years ago. I have learned I have to ask, “When did this happen?” because they don’t use past tense. It means we need patience.
VBM: You’ve led a drive to reduce alcohol abuse. Has there been resistance?
RAMALEY: The most important step was taken before I got here, by Dean Batt, our Vice President of Student Affairs, with the full support of Tom Salmon and the board. That was to acknowledge that we had an alcohol problem. This is very parallel to individuals and families. If you can’t acknowledge there is a problem, it is very hard to get on with doing something about it.
That acknowledgment occurred as we put together the profile of the institution to compete for a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant to work with, the American Medical Association and the Harvard School of Public Health to understand what is going on with young people today: to what extent is our experience distinctive, and to what extent are we sharing a national problem?
It turns out it’s a mix of the two. The New England states have the highest adult problems with alcohol in the country. The Upper Middle West is next. Maybe it’s weather, geography, isolation – but whatever the explanation, Vermont has a drinking problem.
So it wouldn’t be surprising that the University of Vermont might get labeled a party school, even though our profile is similar to that of many other schools that are not labeled party schools.
We’ve gotten serious about it for a lot of reasons. One is that it endangers the health and even the lives of our students. The toxicity of alcohol is frightening.
VBM: Even if you don’t get in a car.
RAMALEY: Yes. Secondly, a lot of young people don’t realize how long the effects of over-indulgence in alcohol last. Mental and physical functioning can be compromised several days. At 17 or 18 young people are still in a rapid stage of development, and alcohol is deeply disruptive of those natural developmental patterns.
The party school image is also unhealthy because it tends to deter dedicated students from considering a school with that image.
The third problem is that society has an issue, and if the University of Vermont is dedicated to creating and sharing knowledge that has consequences, we need to start at home. Then we have a commitment to working with the state of Vermont, New England, and our other neighbors, to get a handle on a problem which arrives at our doorstep.
We don’t create the problem of alcohol abuse. The national trend is scary. More than half of the students who will abuse alcohol in college are already doing so in high school. The problem starts early.
I had an alarming conversation with a teacher just a couple weeks ago who observed the problem of drug abuse in a first grader who was being fed cocaine by his older sibling. Now, I didn’t run that to ground, and she had properly reported it. But it made me realize the University of Vermont is inheriting a whirlwind.
If we can learn from our local experience, and can then partner with the state, which has a large grant to deal with both adult and youth alcohol abuse, we can advance on all three fronts. The young person, the college student and the adult are a continuum.
VBM: Your background as a biologist seems to inform your thinking. Does it tell you why people do these things?
RAMALEY: I set myself quite a study schedule this year to try and answer that question. Biology tells you alcohol is an addictive substance, and it has longterm effects on body function, but it doesn’t tell you why people get into this condition in the first place.
I have quite a stack of books on my sofa, what I call my sofa reading. I have three stacks. One’s on John Dewey, because I have to do a major address this fall on John Dewey at the University of Michigan.
Another one is on adolescents. They’re like a tribe apart. I’m trying to understand, what is the life of young people like today? And every chance I get I talk to young people. I do a lot of circuits around Vermont, and during the school year I will be in a school on every excursion. I’ll teach a class, or I’ll spend some time with a group of young people in the library. I’m always asking.
I’m getting an interesting picture. It’s just taking shape, but the picture is an incredible pattern of how alone our young people are. It’s not just latchkey children, although they’re part of it. Young people really are a tribe apart, and not many of them interact very meaningfully with adults.
The student leaders of the University of Vermont – the orientation leaders, student government leaders, student ambassadors – do have wonderful relationships with adults. They talk about important things with their parents. They are comfortable talking with me as an adult. We have good, insightful – I’d say inspiring conversations. They report wonderful, transformative relationships with members of our faculty.
So not every young person is wandering around bereft of the opportunity to form an image how to be a responsible and creative adult. But too many are, including bright kids who do well on their SAT scores and do well in demanding high school work, but arrive at college clueless as to why they’re in college and what they should expect from this experience.
A year ago I asked a group of high school juniors, “How many of you are thinking about going to college?” Well, this group had been carefully selected for the president of the University of Vermont, so they were all going to go on to college.
And I said, “What do you expect will happen there?” They didn’t know.
So I said, “What does it mean to get a good education? What would that be like? How is high school affecting you?” Well, they couldn’t answer that.
So then I said, “Can you think of someone you know with a good education that you admire? What about them do you admire?” Well, that finally opened something up. They said things like, “Able to think their way out of a problem. Curious about the world. Interested in other people. Able to talk to a lot of different folks about a lot of different things. Able to make a difference.”
Their list didn’t sound much different from what I say in my standard Rotary speeches on the qualities of an educated human being. It’s less about what you know than what you do with what you know. Certainly my college experience has long since moldered into compost. There probably isn’t a thing I learned 35 years ago that would be looked at in the same way now. But the ways of thinking about the world and interacting with other people, my sense of myself as a learner, my curiosity – that’s important. And those high school kids could get at that. But I think the real issue is the vacuum around most young people that prevents them from forming any image of what they’d like to be when they grow up.
I think it was in The Closing of the American Mind that Alan Blume, a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago, basically said, we’re all going to experience a bereavement of the mind, because young people have no high goals any more. In the mid-’80s he asked a bunch of college students who their heroes were, what books they read, and what they cared about. Hardly any could list a single hero or heroine, other than maybe Mom or Dad or Jesus.
VBM: And that continues?
RAMALEY: I think so, though I have no proof. Many student leaders here do have heroes, but high school students don’t. Even at other colleges it’s very rare that somebody says, “I want to be like Mahatma Ghandi,” or Abraham Lincoln, or someone contemporary.
VBM: In your column in the spring issue of Vermont Quarterly, you said UVM has some “serious financial challenges.” What are they?
RAMALEY: Well, there are several elements. We cannot continue the current financial structure and deal with several imperatives.
One imperative is to provide excellent education to well-prepared students. That costs money for scholarships.
We need to keep tuition as low as possible, because it’s already very high. We have to be very aware of the very competitive market and the other choices students have.
And then finally, to create a really stimulating intellectual environment, we have to attract the best possible faculty and staff, which means we have to pay them well, and provide them a good research environment and a good classroom environment.
Those different imperatives clash. That means we have to think differently about how we’re going to fund this institution.
Fifteen years ago, the typical language applied to public institutions was, “They’re publicly supported,” or “state supported.” That meant that of their instructional budgets, usually called general fund budgets, maybe 50 percent came from taxpayers. So students were paying, after financial aid, maybe 30 percent of the real cost of their educations, which is not a bad standard.
A few years later, we dropped to being “state assisted.” Some institutions still enjoy a higher level of support from the state, but in most cases a third of their budgets are tax supported. Students are now supporting 40 percent or more of the real cost.
A few institutions are “state affiliated,” or “state related.” We fall in that category. We are “an instrumentality of the state.” Less than 10 percent of our total budget comes from the state. It’s about 18 percent of our instructional budget, because about half of our $300 million budget relates to instruction.
A very few, like the University of Michigan, are reaching the point of being simply “state located.” Many of their programs are now completely self-sustained.
People have been avoiding some fundamental policy questions. First, what are the public and private benefits of higher education? After World War II, we believed the public benefits justified considerable federal and state investments in helping people pay for college. In fact, some economic analyses indicate that the public return on that investment is higher than the rate of return in the stock market.
VBM: The value of human capital in most modern economies dwarfs all other forms of productive capital combined.
RAMALEY: Absolutely. And for very good reason, given how we’ve changed the way value is created.
But we’ve drifted away from that understanding. Today we act as if higher education benefits only the individual That’s not true, because those returns on investment remain about where they were.
The other big policy question is, who should pay? There aren’t any norms out there, though some practices have become common enough that the approach norms. Those are that a student in a public institution shouldn’t really pay more than a third of the actual cost of the education.
The third policy issue is, how good is this investment, and how accountable in the institution for the resources it enjoy from its students, their parents and the public? And how much should you spent on education? How do you relate that to the quality of the experience? The argument goes back and forth.
On average, across very expensive programs and very inexpensive ones, the University of Vermont stands at about $15,000 per student. That’s below the median for institutions of our type, but well within the range.
The University of Vermont is lean, mean and keen by comparison with our sister institutions. That’s because we never have had much of a funding base. There was a lot of investment in public higher education prior to the 1960s, but UVM missed most of it, because it had a very unusual background. It was private until 1955, though it had a public component, the State Agricultural College. It became public in 1955, when it was chartered to be an instrumentality of the state, and the funding pattern shifted.
But as a result, it never got the foundation that public institutions were able to obtain during those institution-building eras.
VBM: By foundation, you mean facilities?
RAMALEY: I mean the base budget. Our land grant was flimsy compared to those in the Middle West and the West. The substantial early state appropriations associated with creating the nation didn’t happen here.
VBM: Peter Drucker is quoted on the UVM Web site as saying residential universities are relics and won’t survive the electronic learning revolution.
RAMALEY: I don’t agree with that, but we put it there as a challenge.
There is a very significant role for electronic education. It may be the contemporary equivalent of correspondence school, except that you do it with a listserve, or with satellite communication.
That form of education is extremely valuable for someone updating themselves, or who needs a particular set of information for a project, or who is in isolation. Necessity is the mother of invention.
However, these people tend to be adults, often subsidized by their employers. For instance, the University of Phoenix does not admit students to their degree program unless they are over a certain age and have evidence of an employer subsidy.
VBM: That’s a distance learning program?
RAMALEY: Yes, but not only distance learning programs. A significant proportion of the students of proprietary institutions like the University of Phoenix study in Class A office buildings with adjunct faculty.
So some people there, and elsewhere, study for an entire degree without ever coming together with their instructors or their fellow students. They can study entire Web-based courses, and perhaps interact electronically with others, but never actually sit in the same room with them, or if they do, it’s for an occasional seminar or gathering. However, that’s not common.
But I believe institutions with a strong sense of place, that create a strong sense of community, that offer a stimulating interaction with other people, will still be important, if for no other reason than to establish a foundation for lifelong learning. Once students know how to manage their educational strategies, they can pursue learning as a self – managed process.
Of course, we have a lot of distance learning here. We offer a certificate in gerontology to professionals in several parts of the state, but students on campus also participate in those courses. Twenty-year-old students interact with a professional in Brattleboro who’s working with 70-year-olds, in a mixture of on-site and electronic interaction.
That opens up the age segregation that occurs on campuses with a traditional student population. That’s going to change over time anyway, because we are encouraging transfers from Community College of Vermont. We’re going to see more nontraditional students, sometimes returning as adults to complete degrees. Some may be on campus, some may be in sites around the state.
I think that’s valuable. I learned that at Portland State, because very few classes there were taught to homogeneous ,groups. It’s one thing to talk about problems of aging to a group of 20-year-olds. It’s another thing include people in their 40s, 60s and 80s,
VBM: You teach biology. How much do you teach, and why?
RAMALEY: Ever since I became a full-time administrator, I have tried to teach one course a year. That’s about all I can handle. When I can’t do that, I do guest spots in other people’s classes.
I teach in biomedical ethics, for several reasons. I was a reproductive biologistanatomist-physiologist, and so I have a background that lends itself to that topic. I can no longer comfortably continue to teach in my original subject, because I don’t have time to keep up with the literature. But I certainly understand the basics, and I can read recent material with some comprehension.
The second reason I teach in biomedical ethics is it’s a wonderful way to teach ethical decision making. And I can teach that at any level freshmen, residents in pathology, seniors, graduate students; I can teach a leadership series of our own faculty and staff – and I have done all of the above. I vary the complexity of the cases I use, and what I expect of the students, but the basics are the same.
Why do I do it at all? Several reasons. One, I love the stimulation of being with students.
Two, it’s a good way to find out what our faculty encounter when they’re trying to put together a class. It ranges from watching how the library is changing, how they keep things on reference for classes, to how do you get a videotape when you need it? How do you make sure the equipment works? How do you deal with the lighting in the classroom? These daily things affect how faculty and students interact.
Three, I get a lot of ideas from the students, unrelated to the subject matter. I get a sense of how they are changing. The cultural generation of students is pretty short probably five years or less.
Some of our seniors work with freshmen, as residence hall assistants, or in the summer orientation programs, or leading tours for prospective students.
VBM: Or they’re in fraternity houses or sororities.
RAMALEY: Yes, although only about 6 percent of our students are in Greek houses. But that’s another very important place where they interact with freshmen. And those seniors report surprise at how different the freshmen are from how they remember themselves.
Now, maybe they’ve just forgotten what they were like. But I can see the differences, and I’m not changing that fast. So the experiences, expectations and baggage people bring with them seem to shift in fairly meaningful ways over a surpassingly short period. Staying in contact with students in a teaching situation, where you get to explore more of what they are really thinking, is essential. Otherwise, I could miss a whole demographic shift.
VBM: You’ve spent a lot of time in Nebraska and Kansas as well as your recent stint in Oregon. How would you compare the sense of place and culture in those areas?
RAMALEY: A very homely analogy. If you approach somebody’s house, where do they suggest you sit? On the front porch? In the parlor? Or in the kitchen?
In Kansas, it would be the front porch. In Nebraska, it would be the formal parlor. Urban Oregon was funny. They would take you to a good restaurant. They wouldn’t let you in the house. In Vermont, assuming you’re genuine, it will be the kitchen.
What are you being told by that? How far you are let into somebody’s life. How soon people warm up and let you know what they’re really thinking, or what their lives are really like.
I am fascinated by the fact that although Vermonters have this reputation of being people who are stand-offish, keep their own counsel, say “Yup” and “Nope” a lot, I’ve had some of the most wonderful conversations of my life with Vermonters. It’s a trust you have to respect and honor, because people will open up and tell you what they really think. Not right away, necessarily. I mean, I can’t barge right in, say, “Hello, tell me everything you think.” But I end up in the kitchen a lot quicker here.
VBM: The kitchen is closer to the stove.
RAMALEY: That may be why! (She laughs.)
VBM: What do you do in your time off.
RAMALEY: Well, I am a very avid bird watcher, so every chance I get, I’m out there, either looking for something I haven’t seen or heard before, or just enjoying seeing old friends again.
And I am an absolutely devoted grandmother. Every chance I get, I go visit the grandkids in Kansas.
(The sound of a crash comes through the open window.)
Well, there went a skateboarder. There is a group of very young boys who like to show how daring they are by coming down the slope and going over the railing. They scare the living daylights out of me. Either they’re going to kill me, or they’re going to kill themselves. We’ve tried to prevent that, but it’s very hard, because they are quite defiant.
VBM: The harder you make it, the more interesting it is.
RAMALEY: I suppose I could put a higher railing.
The third thing I do, is I love good conversation. I try to get somebody to talk with me about almost anything. And then wander around Vermont when I get a chance,
VBM: What did I forget to ask?
RAMALEY: Probably a lot of things. You ask good questions.
One of the things we didn’t talk about is that for a lot of reasons, including what we think is the best for the state, the University of Vermont is not trying to do much on its own. We’re trying to think about partnerships and collaborations, and to blend what we’re good at with what other people are good at.
For instance, we are competing for some federal funding to attract, educate and then support in their profession talented people as teachers. We decided not to submit our own proposal. Instead, we sat down with the state colleges and with the independent colleges that prepare teachers to figure out, how could we collaborate to create a statewide strategy?
That might not have happened a few years ago. It can happen in Vermont, because the scale, the geography, the inclinations of Vermonters are to help each other out. state, unless the weather is horrible, in two-and-a-half hours. That’s important, because it is feasible periodically to stand on the main street of Brattleboro, or be in Springfield, or talk to people in St Albans, Enosburg Falls, Richmond or Winooski. Keeping connected is important.
For the University of Vermont to be as engaged as I am trying to say we should be, we need a certain climate, culture and environment. Our partnerships with the state colleges, state agencies, community leaders, the business community are all critical.
It’s a collaborative model. We try to define our role as R&D, and join with the resources, interests or assets of other organizations and people. That leverages the value of any dollar the taxpayer puts in our pocket, but it also leverages the value of the educational experience for students, because they can use the education they are obtaining in very practical as well as theoretical ways.
We look for synergy all over the place. That fits contemporary business practices. I was just out at Vermont Teddy Bear, learning how they came back from a near-death experience. I was fascinated by the way they think about their business. They don’t sell teddy bears; they sell Beargrams. And they also are looking for ways they can partner with other businesses that know different markets.
I thought, you know, there’s a real parallel between that and what we’re doing. We’re in the knowledge business. We teach some of it to our students, we generate some of it, and we interpret some of it from what other people know. We’re generating and adding to the value of intellectual property. We’re in the intellectual property business. And we partner with other people to get the most use from it.
VBM: Well, thanks very much for your time.
RAMALEY: Thank you.
Copyright Boutin-McQuiston, Inc. Sep 01, 1999
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