The Ins and Outs of the Vice President of Academic Affairs Role

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Dr. Gary Armstrong delivers a speech at William Jewell College’s 2017 Matriculation ceremony. Photo provided by photos.jewell.edu.

As of Fall 2022, Dr. Gary Armstrong, professor of political science, has been appointed Interim Vice President of Academic Affairs.

The Vice President of Academic Affairs (or VPAA) is best understood in the context of the previous role that it partially replaced – that of the Provost. The Provost, in the absence of the President, is the chief executive officer of the college. The Provost supervised numerous aspects of the William Jewell College’s affairs, including student life, academic affairs and sometimes enrollment and marketing. 

The College’s adoption of The Flight Plan is what precipitated the dissolution of the Provost role. The Flight Plan describes the college’s long-term, institutional trajectory goals, including plans to increase the student body to 2,000 students, an increase to student diversity to 50% and a $500 million endowment. 

Because these goals are so numerous and so ambitious, Dr. Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, President of the College, decided that the role of provost needed to be split into three roles. In this way, one vice president would focus on just academic affairs, another on student life and another on enrollment and marketing. This split would facilitate the attainment of the goals of the Flight Plan. 

Armstrong’s role as Interim Vice President of Academic Affairs encompasses the academic affairs section of the previous provost role. This role is complemented by the Vice President of Access and Engagement, currently Dr. Rodney Smith, and the Vice President of Marketing, Enrollment and Student Life, currently Eric Blair.

According to Armstrong, “[The]… principal job [of the Vice President of Academic Affairs] is to encourage support [and] lead excellence in academic affairs under our new strategic priorities of highest quality and highest access [in education]. [The Vice President of Academic Affairs] also [leads] and [develops] new academic programs, [while] ensuring assessment of them in their alignment towards the mission.”

Armstrong offered some examples of just how the Vice President role directly affected the student body, faculty and staff.

On the student end: Armstrong – in his capacity as Interim Vice President – hears several complaints and appeals. These include appeals concerning final grades in a class, unfair collegiate policies and complaints about the behavior of faculty at the college; although these complaints are heard by the appropriate department head first.

On the faculty end: Armstrong said he leads the department chairs, who are “the key people in building the courses, building the curricula and…the key assessment officers.” 

Though Armstrong was not able to provide the details of these projects, he is working with the faculty to develop three major structural changes within the college’s curriculum. Furthermore, Armstrong is helping faculty construct a cohesive narrative describing their particular coursework and programs in preparation for an upcoming accreditation visit from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) in October. Finally, Armstrong helps to set the agenda for faculty meetings, which are then led by the Faculty Council Chair. 

All department chairs serve under the appointment of the Vice President of Academic Affairs. Furthermore, though this is not always the case, the Vice President of Academic Affairs can help with academic searches for candidates  to fill in vacant faculty positions; the Vice President makes final recommendations for these roles to the President.

On the staff end: several staff are under the direct purview of the Vice President role. These include such roles as Director of Teaching and Learning Technologies, Heath Hase, and Assistant Dean for Student Success, Pharamond Guice. Working with these staff members, Armstrong has been helping to develop the new Student Success Center, an undertaking which revamps the old Academic Success Center by implementing new training strategies for tutors and expanding the range of available subjects that are tutored. Armstrong adds that the strategy surrounding the Student Success Center is part of the college’s ongoing commitment to raising graduation rates from around 60% to closer to 80%.

The VPAA role is also concerned with the budget for academic affairs. “The cool part of the budget is always knowing so many excellent things going on here, and there’s more of them than we can possibly afford,” Armstrong said. “The good news is that when you’re working on the best budget stuff or the hardest budget stuff, it’s not a choice between good and bad stuff; it’s a choice between really good, really good, really good and unfortunately we can’t do it all.” 

Armstrong is specifically Interim VPAA and will eventually be replaced. Armstrong asserts that he is not a candidate for a permanent position: “I’m happy to help the college in the moment, but my love is the classroom and working with students and helping to administer programs where I’m teaching.”

In fact, there is a search committee specifically for a permanent VPAA role. This committee has received numerous applications for this role – this committee has now narrowed potential candidates to the extent that Zoom interviews will begin soon. 
“The plan is that they will have the finalists on campus in or by November, and be ready to make an offer… so there’s a chance that a new person will be here in January… But there’s a bigger chance that… they’ll start next academic year,” Armstrong said.

Though Dr. Armstrong’s role as Interim VPAA is somewhat constrained given its limited temporal nature, there have already been some important changes that have taken place under his leadership. For example, there was a persistent issue with the ratio of advisors to advisees when it came to first-year college students. In some cases, as in departments like business and nursing, the number of advisees allotted to one or two advisors was quite large. Thus, the faculty and Armstrong came to the conclusion that all full-time faculty have to have a minimum of ten primary advisees. Thus, faculty advisors will now mentor freshmen and sophomores who are not in their academic department – an action that has led to increased training overall.

On the whole, changes like the addition of the Vice President of Academic Affairs role represent an ongoing commitment to be a “student-ready” college. As Dr. Armstrong stated, “Jewell wants to be student-ready and focus on whether we’re student-ready, not whether our college students are college-ready.”

Agatha Echenique

Agatha Echenique is the Chief Editor for The Hilltop Monitor. He is a senior majoring in Oxbridge: History of Ideas and Philosophy. This is his third year on staff.

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