The new president of Texas A&M University-Commerce, Dr. Mark Rudin, stopped by the studios of KETR during his first week on the job. Classes for the Fall 2018 semester at A&M-Commerce began today.
Rudin spoke with KETR News Director Mark Haslett about his time as Vice President of Research and Development at Boise State University, as well as the challenges facing A&M-Commerce as well as higher education in general.
Rudin: I received all my degrees from Purdue University. Ended up studying health physics, which is the study of radiation protection and control and so forth. I got my PhD there because Purdue was one of a handful of schools that offer that type of degree. I graduated from Purdue and actually went into industry immediately and spent four years at the Idaho National Lab doing work in that area. I really enjoyed that and it really benefited me having that industry experience. There was a point there where there was a job opening at University of Nevada-Las Vegas in health physics. They said they wanted someone to come in and start a health physics program, a master's program. I applied for that job and received that job and went to UNLV and started that program, and started to coalesce an academic department around that.
And (I) worked my way through being a faculty member and a department chair and doing research and so forth. I was asked to be Associate Vice President for Research at UNLV. Eventually, became the Vice President for Research and Graduate Dean at UNLV. Saw the job opportunity at Boise State. Saw an opportunity to grow something there. They were looking to bring someone in to increase their research. After 13 years at UNLV, took the job at Boise State. Found myself in this ... not only in the research role, but also the liaison role between the university and industry and businesses. My job became, after a bit, Vice President for Research and Economic Development. That's where I ended up closing out my time at Boise State in that capacity.
Haslett: What was your biggest challenge that you encountered while you were at that position? How did you engage that challenge?
Rudin: Yeah, I would say that the biggest challenge was Boise State decided they wanted to be this metropolitan research university of distinction. They wanted to grow the research. They wanted to grow the economic development. But we did not have the infrastructure in place to do that. When I came to Boise State, we had a staff of about four to five people. The charge was, "Grow it." And so not only was it the job entailing how do you engage the faculty and the staff to help them write grants and do the research, it was also building in parallel the infrastructure to make that happen: the compliance, the sponsored projects, the accounting, and those type of things. So both had to be grown. The faculty were ready to go. The business side of house, the compliance side of the house still had a little bit of work to do. So, that was probably the biggest challenge there.
Haslett: It sounds like you didn't inherit a whole lot and you pretty much built a department.
Rudin: Right. Actually, yeah, I did. There was actually of four to six people, there were some of those people that were part-time. A little bit of work had to be done there.
Haslett: Northeast Texas, it's a part of the state compared to the rest of Texas where people have less money and demographically, our population is older than in other parts of the state. The towns in our region suffer from the brain drain dynamic wherein young people who pursue a college education tend to leave Northeast Texas once they're done with school. Do you think it's part of the university's mission to help the communities of this region with issues like economic development, and if so, is there anything that a university can do?
Rudin: Oh, absolutely. I think that's what excited me most about this job. You know when you and I went to school, at least when I went to school, you're a little bit younger than I am, but when I went to school it was kind of for the universal good. Right? It was expected I was going to school. I went to school, did my thing. But nowadays, the students and the families are a little bit different. Right? It's a little bit less about this universal good and more about well, what is the value of me going to school? Tell me a little bit about why I should send my son or daughter to school. Right? Especially in the rural areas, I mean same thing in Boise. Boise and Idaho are not so different than Dallas, little bit smaller, but Dallas and rural Texas. Right?
Life goes on outside of school. People are ranchers or farmers or whatever that may be. I think it's important to know that if you try to take traditional higher education and offer that to students in the rural and urban areas, that doesn't always translate. You maybe have a student that's in rural Texas that says, "You know what? My school year really ... or my semester isn't from August. When I'm available to study, it isn't from August to December." It may be after the growing season where it's maybe November, December, into April, but then I got to get back out in the field. Working parents, their semester or their work day, their school day maybe not be from eight to five. It may be from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. after the kids are in bed. Higher ed is interested in trying to recruit, incentivize these students to come and pursue a degree, but higher ed can't use old models to do that. We have to figure out how we became not providers of education but partners in education. I think that may be the trick.
Haslett: Talking about staffing. In higher education, many universities are spending more and more money on administrative salaries and less and less on faculty salaries. Increasingly, universities are relying on adjunct instructors to teach classes. What is your view of this situation and how might your view translate into budget priorities at A&M-Commerce?
Rudin: Well, first of all I'll address the faculty versus adjunct. You know I think traditionally in higher ed, you have a lot of adjuncts that kind of tend to teach the freshmen, sophomore levels. The faculty tend to ... and this is a pretty broad brush here, Mark ... tend to teach the upper division, graduate programs. But I think there's studies that show, and I think at my previous institutions we have done this. I'd like to explore that here at Commerce is that what's wrong with taking your best and brightest faculty and day one they're teaching a freshman class, and setting that tone. Right? And bringing your best and brightest to these students that are new to the university and trying to find their way. I think there's something to be said in that regard.
I understand universities are constantly struggling to find resources to offer courses and so forth, and just deliver education. Adjuncts are an important piece of that. I would offer that if done correctly, adjuncts are extremely valuable to the university. Not just a body that fills the course, but if you have a course that you're offering in robotics, I think it's a great situation to bring someone in from industry, from the robotics industry with a adjunct title to teach that class. Right? Who may bring 15 to 20 years of experience. That's not a bad thing. Same thing in English or whatever the major is.
I think that it isn't just a simple matter of we need, we have a section that has 20 students in there. We don't have anyone to teach it. Let's throw an adjunct at that class. I think we can be much more strategic on creating the best experience we can in the classroom regardless of who's teaching the class.
Haslett: I'm not going to ask you about long term goals, because that's not really fair because you just got here. Tell me what you think your short term goals might be here? What would you like to have done a year from now?
Rudin: Yeah, I would say there's a couple of areas I would really like to focus on from the get go. They both center around this whole theme of student success. One of them is how do we incentivize students to come to Commerce? I would say both the university and the city. The competition for these students is very keen right now. We have to be able to distinguish ourselves and create distinction programs that do indeed incentivize these students to come to us. The tuition and the students that are at our program are kind of the financial lifeblood of the university. Now, that shouldn't be the only reason why we do this. This should be actually low on the list, but we're interested in educating Texas citizens. How do we get those Texas citizens to Commerce? That's what I'm interested in.
Also, on the back end of this, Mark, what are we doing to properly prepare our students to have the necessary skills to graduate and take employment? You know? I hear so often from - in my role of interacting with industry in the name of workforce development that these companies say, "Listen, I know you guys are producing great accountants," or whatever the major may be, but what about the 21st-century skills that they bring to the table? Back in my previous institution I was heavily involved in discussing with companies what are your expectations and what kind of skills do you want these graduates to have. Of course, they always landed on the we want the accounting skills, in this example, but they also said things like how can you help us instill a sense of integrity? Show up to work on time. Work hard while you're here. Those type of skills. Be able to communicate, be able to write, be able to speak, be able to tell the story, tell me what the data says and so forth.
I think there's really an opportunity here. One of my interests are how do we properly prepare students to be successful employees. Not only learn the skills of their discipline, but what other skills can you learn beyond the major. And don't necessarily let the courses and going to classes get in the way of your education. There's much more that the universities can do to expand that experience for the students.