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MSU Provost June Youatt focusing on student success, health and well being as new school year opens

Russ White
MSU Provost June Pierce Youatt, MSU College of Communication Arts & Sciences Dean Prabu David

Michigan State University Provost June Pierce Youatt talks about a variety of topics as the new school year approaches. She talks about student success, health and well being. And she provides updates on MSU's new STEM Building, Science Gallery Lab Detroit, and new additions to MSU's team of collaborative deans.

Russ White:    I'm Russ White, for MSU Today. Michigan State University provost, June Pierce Youatt, says that MSU is holistically focused on student health and wellbeing.

June Youatt:    Well what we should know is that there is a strong emphasis in this coming year on making sure that we're thinking holistically about the care of students. We spent a lot of time thinking about academic success and we continue to. We have a number of things going on in that arena, but part of student success is making sure that our students can be fully engaged, not just in the classroom, but outside the classroom and activities. That means making sure they really are healthy, emotionally healthy as well as physically healthy. So Dave Weismantel is the first director of student health and wellness and he's housed in what everyone knows as Olin Health Center. The emphasis isn't on taking care of sick people, it's on promoting the best health of students. So we have expanded the counseling center, and there's been a lot of conversation about that. Students now have access to counseling virtually 24 hours a day. We've also expanded the number of in-person counselors. This fall, we'll be moving a branch of the counseling center in to the Union and that will increase access, we hope, fairly dramatically.

So while we have more providers, and that's important, maybe what's most important is that all of our providers have a new attitude. And it's not new for most of them because most of them were always concerned about promoting the health of our students. But now with counseling and psychiatric services really integrated with primary care, there is kind of a new commitment on the part of all of our providers to making sure that our students have what they need, again, to fully participate in campus life at MSU.

White:    Provost Youatt and her team continue to work on improving student success at MSU.

Youatt:    Well, I think the most exciting thing about the Student Success Initiative is that it's owned by everyone and not by a few people whose job it is to do student success. There are campuses where there's an office of student success. We don't have an office, we have a campus of student success. So some very exciting things continue to be in academic departments, again not just mentors, a set of mentors or a set of tutors, but the curricular reform is pretty exciting.

So the significant one for this fall is mathematics and the end of remedial mathematics. Not because there aren't students who need support in math, they certainly do. But we spent the last couple of years experimenting with different models. How do students best achieve who come with some mathematics vulnerabilities? Perhaps they didn't have the strongest background in high school, or just have struggled with mathematics. So thinking about how to pair the help they need inside the class, rather than in a special class, is the way in which we believe students will be able to make the best progress, not just progress in math, but progress toward a degree, instead of stopping and taking a remedial class and then taking a course in their major, or a course that will count for academic credit. Now that we've merged all of that in a longer class, a full year class, we believe that students will do better, just generally do better because it's a better developed course. But also they will feel better about working toward something that really advances their goals.

So those are the kinds of things that we continue to talk about. The credit momentum project is still alive and well. There are students who probably shouldn't take 15 credits but that's a very small number of students. Most students need to be enrolled in 15 credits, and that's how you complete in four years. But we aren't just suggesting students take 15 credits. Part of the Student Success Initiative is really getting smarter about advising so that we help students pick the right 15 credits, not the 15 credits that will crush them in their first semester, or discourage them, but the right combination. Again, it moves them toward a degree but keeps them fully engaged. We have some very, very bright students who come here and many of them come and say, "Oh my goodness, I'm only in class 12 hours a week." And then they spend those other hours in ways that are not nearly as productive. Part of student success is increasing expectations. But for every time, or every notch, that you increase expectations, you also increase student support.

So we've paired the high expectations with high student support and we think that's why more students are becoming successful and we're really starting to see that turn around. The number of students on academic probation the first semester has dropped. The number of students graduating has increased, particularly in populations where MSU and most of the public institutions in this country have lagged. To our dismay, and probably to our shame in some ways, students of color and under-represented minority students in this country do not graduate at the same rate as majority students, and we know all the reasons of coming from schools where there may be fewer resources and fewer academic supports in communities. Those are all reasons, but they can't be excuses.

What we have done is really try to think about how you put supports around, not just under-represented students, but students who generally come from educational backgrounds where there may have been less support. So last year, we saw our graduation rate for African American students increase by 6%, our graduation rate for Hispanic students increase by just 1%, but that's in the right direction. And I have said to many groups, "Okay, so that was the easiest 6%," the next 6% will show us where we're challenged because we still have about a 10% gap and that's just not acceptable, it's not who we are, it's not what we were created to be and we have the capacity to do better, and our students deserve that, all of our students. So we continue to work at it and it's pretty fun. I think we're going to celebrate with our students as the academic year starts with our new building, which again, supports this whole idea of different ways of teaching, different ways of supporting students and different ways of student learning.

White:    MSU is planning to dedicate its new STEM building on August 31st.

Youatt:    When we say STEM building, I think many people think, "Oh this is for science and math majors," but we forget how many students on this campus take courses in science and mathematics, who don't go on to study necessarily science, but aligned majors. So the new STEM building will be primarily for introductory and gateway courses. There will be a couple of upper division courses, but it's really designed for those first classes, those first years of classes and focused on how to teach and learn differently. So the spaces will not look like the science laboratories of days gone by. There won't be some of the smells of chemicals that we know and love, but we will be using much more technology, much more virtual teaching, it'll be a pretty exciting place. It really is sort of science of the future and in a place where we have researchers creating science of the future, it's well matched.

So we are so grateful to the State of Michigan that provided some capital support and so we're taking that old power plant, where there used to be the smoke stack, the MAC smoke stack, and we're keeping that old building and we're repurposing that for student gathering space, student research space, and student work space. But on each end of the building will be these 21st century classrooms. It's going to be a pretty exciting place and I think it'll be fun for our alums to come back and see that old space.

We're keeping as much of the old infrastructure as we can. There were old boilers in there and all kinds of things. It is environmentally safe. We've been working on that for several years to make sure that it's good to go, but it's such an interesting old space and we’re keeping the old brick walls and some of the big metal coal hoppers. People talk about the warehouse look and the industrial look, this isn't the look, this is the real thing but we think it'll be a particularly enjoyable and creative space for students.

White:    MSU provost June Youatt is welcoming new deans to the university.

Youatt:    Well they join a pretty esteemed group first of all, but they all have earned entry into the club. And I am so appreciative of the deans that are here now, because it really is so much easier to recruit when candidates meet these colleagues and the quality of colleagues that we have at MSU now. So there are several new deans. We have a new dean of veterinary medicine, Birgit Puschner, who is coming from UC Davis, the department chair there and the first female dean of veterinary medicine. We're very excited, and she's very excited. She's full of energy and good ideas and I think the majority now of our vet med students are female, so this will be fun.

Our new dean of Lyman Briggs, Dr. Jackson, has arrived and is already doing great things. She came from William and Mary and is the first director or dean of Lyman Briggs who comes more from the social science side than the natural science, or biological science side, although she's done a great deal of work in STEM education and has real technology skills that will benefit the entire campus, not just Lyman Briggs College.

Dr. Phil Duxbury will be assuming the role of dean of the College of Natural Science, and he is a good citizen of the university, having served as the chair of physics for several years, and has been enormously successful in that role. So we're excited for him to assume that position. Then we have a great new director of libraries on campus. Joe Salem comes from Penn State, and again, his background is around teaching and learning and technology and he's going to be a great partner all across campus to all of our academic units. He will both support their creativity but also lead creativity on campus in terms of creating environments where students and faculty can do their best work. So it's a wonderful class of 2018.

White:    MSU is involved in a cool project called Science Gallery Lab Detroit.

Youatt:    Yes, our science gallery opened this summer and we're not in permanent space yet. We'll be open for a while and then we'll go dark until our next exhibit. But this summer has been so much fun. The first show, Hustle, really looked at different ways people move and behave. And whatever you think hustle is, that's what this show was and is. Everything from the way ants hustle, to the way we work on our computers, to bitcoins, to the way plants work. And you can experience that in a virtual reality experience. We were fortunate to be able to have this first show right on Woodward. We've had a lot of traffic, all kinds of people who came deliberately. But people who pass and are intrigued come in and aren't sure what to make of it, but it's an amazing way for our university to do a different kind of outreach.

Science Gallery is targeted at youth 15-24 but you cannot get too old for this and you're never too young for it. It's an immersive experience and you don't just go and look at things hanging on the wall and leave. This is something in which you need to interact, you need to think, you need to talk to the mediators who work there, and mediators are youth in that age group who help you. I wanted to say interpret but really they allow you to interpret, but they ask questions and they provide information about what you're seeing or what you're experiencing and they facilitate. They're good guides, but they allow you to really come to understand what it is that you're experiencing.

It's the only science gallery in the United States. The others in Dublin and London and around the world are all connected to an institution. Michigan State is the perfect institution for this experiment because we understand outreach and we understand facilitating learning in the broadest possible way. The Science Gallery is a very different way to learn. It's not about handing out pamphlets. It's not about an online class, it's about getting in there and interacting with things and ideas and other people.

White:    There's more at detroit.sciencegallery.com. MSU's College of Music is significantly expanding and renovating its facilities.

Youatt:    Well the college of music has arguably, some people might challenge this, but they have some of the oldest and perhaps most tired instructional space on the campus. Their building is many decades old but unlike a lot of buildings on campus, it's not just used for a few hours a day. The practice rooms and the studio rooms, particularly on the lower level of that, are sometimes used 18 hours a day and that really is not an exaggeration. If you can imagine now generations of students using these places day in and day out, hour in and hour out, people sitting at a piano for four or five hours at a time, you can imagine how much wear and tear there really is on a space. They desperately needed new space in which to both prepare students for faculty to do their work, but also to share their work, a really new performance space.

Fairchild Theater, where they primarily live and play, play for all of us, is an extraordinary facility now. Cook Recital Hall inside the building is superb but that left them still needing space, particularly for jazz performance, which takes a very different kind of space. And they need space to teach and practice. So the new pavilion will give them about 40% more space. It's almost another half of a building and it will focus on student learning, practice space and some performance space.

So they had an announcement of this in July, but the real ground breaking is the 19th of October and so there'll be a number of people gathered to celebrate. If you go past there now, the fences are up and there's work being done, but we have a very excited faculty of music, and a lot of excited students who will be able to experience the new space.

White:    MSU provost, June Youatt, speaks for many Spartans who are anxious to get the new school year started.

Youatt:    I think people are anxious to come back for this academic year for a number of reasons. Our faculty, certainly, because of their work and the students, but also I think people have taken a deep breath over the summer. I know the leaders have and I think the faculty have as well. They've spent some real time thinking about what it is we have learned and what do we know and I think the collective wisdom, again at least of the academic leadership is that we do not want to forget what we've been through. If we forget, then we've lost the value of this really awful experience. What we want to do is put it in front of us and remember it and say, "Okay, given all that has happened, all that we experienced, all that we have learned from the women who've shared with us, how is it that we create a place where there really is, as one of the deans says, a culture of care? How do we take care of each other, support each other?"

From the time I became provost, one of my three goals was to create an environment where everyone could do their best work, and this is an extension of that. It's a turn in the road that I didn't see, but it's an extension of what I had said we needed to do and the difference now is we have an entire campus that understands that. So the leaders are ready to go back to work. They’re anxious. We've done a lot of talking about the size of the class and we'll see. There are always a few students in the summer who decide maybe there's a better fit, but we're expecting a large entering class. We're excited for that; we're going to have a great opening of school.

Our One Book, One Community event is going to be like none we've ever had before. The excitement of having a Supreme Court justice speak to our students on the very first day they're here I think is extraordinary. For those who don't know much about her life and who haven't read the book, it's well worth taking some time to see who this woman is and what her story says to our students.

There isn't anyone who reads her story that isn't inspired to think about ambition and goals and support and the ways in which people with determination make things happen for all the right reasons. That's the message to our students. Wherever you're from, whatever your background, those are assets, those are not liabilities. You come here, you bring that identity and we'll help you be who you need to be, who you dream about being. So the school year's almost here. It's days away in some ways and I think most of us are ready.

White:    That's Michigan State University provost, June Pierce Youatt and you can keep up with all she's working on at provost.msu.edu. I'm Russ White for MSU Today.

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.

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