Questions & Answers
Nicolas Goodman is vice provost for undergraduate education and professor of mathematics. He joined the university faculty in 1969, and has been vice provost since 1994, after serving in an interim capacity for a year.
What's the most significant change in undergraduate education since you became vice provost for undergraduate education?
This summer's creation of a College of Arts and Sciences, which brings so many things to fruition that I and others have worked on for years. Perhaps you remember the Council of Arts and Sciences Deans, which consisted for most of its time of Kerry Grant, Ross MacKinnon, Joe Tufariello and me, with the help of Peter Gold. We implemented John Thorpe's Undergraduate College general-education curriculum in the Arts and Sciences. We opened admission to the majors in the Arts and Sciences, so that there were no longer hundreds and hundreds of upper-division students in good academic standing but unable to get into any major program. We took important steps toward the implementation of departmental advisement, usually provided by faculty. Grant created a student services center in Arts and Letters that began to provide students in that faculty with an academic home. Later, Mark Kristal took similar steps in Social Sciences. But all of this effort remained fragmentary and, I suspect, vulnerable in the absence of an administrative unit that could provide central leadership and support. We now have a framework that can serve general education, advisement, and recruitment as a unified effort, that can provide a default academic home for lower-division students not yet committed to a particular major, and that can help those students make a smooth transition into upper-division work in their major and perhaps on into master's or even doctoral studies.
What is the most important thing UB can do to make the university an attractive place for undergraduates?
Even though I am a strong advocate of increasing the use of technology in our instructional programs, and even though I think it is essential that our student services be responsive to student needs, I still think that successful and satisfying undergraduate education comes down to affective relationships between students and faculty. I think learning, genuine cognitive change, is painful. I think we all resist it. In order for it to happen, the teacher has to be able to involve the student's emotions. If you will forgive the jargon, I think there has to be a transference in the Freudian sense onto the teacher. I think that UB will succeed in undergraduate education to the extent that our faculty increase their involvement with, and their commitment to, their students. If the students feel that their instructors care about them, then they will think that UB is a good university. It is striking to me that when alumni of any university remember their undergraduate education, they think above all of the faculty who influenced them. And those are usually faculty with whom they had some sort of interaction in which they, as students, were not merely passive. We need great lecturers, and we need state-of-the-art student services, but what makes a university attractive to its students is caring teachers.
What would you say to convince a student interested in the arts and sciences, who has narrowed his/her choices to UB and Binghamton, to attend UB?
That's easy. We have more distinguished scholars and scientists. We have more to teach. We can bring students up to the current state of knowledge and show them how they can contribute to advancing human knowledge. We create the knowledge that will go into the textbooks that others will teach from in a few years. Why settle for hearsay, when you can talk to the source?
How do you counter the argument that UB is more interested in graduate education and research, and is not as user-friendly a place for undergraduates, particularly those interested in studying the arts and sciences?
Well, first let me say that I think your emphasis on the arts and sciences is a little exaggerated. Yes, the Arts and Sciences provide the core of undergraduate education, especially in the first two years. But almost half of our undergraduates end up pursuing professional and pre-professional programs. Much of the appeal of UB to prospective students is in our wonderful programs in engineering, management, architecture, and the health sciences. Let's not forget those programs.
Having said that, though, let me concede that there is a tension between graduate education and research, on the one hand, and undergraduate education on the other hand. As President Greiner has emphasized many times, we cannot think of ourselves as having to make a choice between those missions. We have to do both of them well and we have to make them contribute to each other's effectiveness. There is a good deal of talk nationally just now about involving undergraduates in research. We do a lot of that, and I think we do it quite effectively. Related to those efforts, in my view, are our extensive internship programs, which enable students actually to experience the application of what they have learned in the classroom. But I do agree with your imaginary interlocutor that we have a way to go in making our university welcoming to undergraduate students.
How do you expect that the new computer access plan will affect undergraduates?
My hope is that it will facilitate student access to the infrastructure of education. Looking a couple of years down the road, I expect that students will access the full range of student services through the Web. They will access an enormous variety of information through the Web, including much information that simply would not have been available to them in the past. They will use computers to write papers, to do routine computations, to keep class notes, even to conduct their social lives. But all of that, I think, concerns tools. In the final analysis, as I suggested above, education will always come down to personal relationships between teachers and students.
How has undergraduate education changed since YOU were an undergraduate?
Surprisingly little. There is more use of technology. Universities make less of an attempt to control the moral lives of their students. We are no longer in loco parentis. But the essence has not changed at all.
I was an undergraduate at Harvard College in the late 1950s. At the time, my father was teaching German at Ohio State. He and I often discussed the similarities and differences between what I experienced at Harvard and what his students experienced at Ohio State. So I think I have a good sense of what undergraduate education was like at that time in the larger universities, whether private or public. And I think it was pretty much the same then as it is now. There were the same struggles about general education. The same disagreements about remediation. The same tension between teaching and research. The same sense that the students today are just not as good as the ones we used to have. The same sense of frustration that students come to college wanting to be prepared for a job, whereas we want to offer them an education. The same disagreements about whether the traditional lecture format is pedagogically effective. Even the same quarrels about Division I athletics. Nothing essential has changed.
You started out at UB as a member of the math faculty. What is the biggest difference between being a faculty member and an administrator?
My experience is that research in mathematics is a lonely business. It involves long hours of solitary study and thought. I think I would have been a more successful research mathematician if I had been less dependent for my emotional well-being on social contact. Administration, on the other hand, is an intensely social activity. Administrators make a living by going to meetings. In that way, they resemble teachers. But, by and large, teachers are in control of what happens in their classrooms. At least that is true of the old-fashioned pedagogical style that I have always practiced. Administrators are never in control of anything. When I used to teach, I would work out in August what material I would present in November. Today I am not even sure what I will be discussing tomorrow.
What's the most common misperception about the study of mathematics?
That mathematics is dry and without factual content. Actually, doing mathematics can be an intense aesthetic experience and a satisfying mode of self-expression. It is an art form, like music. At the same time, as I have often argued in print, it is a natural science, like physics. It is not merely verbal. It gives profound insight into the world in which we live. To convey to students the aesthetic and intellectual richness of mathematics is challenging. Most of us rarely succeed fully. But only when we do are we teaching mathematics well.
What's something people don't know about you and should?
I am far from being a mainstream mathematician. I am trained in mathematical logic, which is an interdisciplinary field about one-third mathematics, about one-third computer science and about one-third philosophy. My professional scholarly interests have always been more philosophical than mathematical. I am close professionally to what often is called cognitive science. As I am sure some of my colleagues in the Department of Mathematics would be quick to point out, some of my most successful scholarly publications are quite devoid of mathematical content.
What question do you wish I had asked, and how would you have answered it?
I wish you had asked something about my values, about what I think the goals of undergraduate education should be.
Earlier I mentioned my father, to whom I was close. His father, my grandfather,
worked all his life in a steel mill. My father, as he saw it, escaped from
that narrow prison into the wide intellectual and cultural world of the
university. My father saw it as his role to help young people follow in
his footsteps, to lead them from a life whose most exciting cultural experience
is a football game to one in which they would have access to literature
and art and science. I am deeply committed to that conception of public
higher education. I often say that a university like UB, insofar as we are
discussing its undergraduate programs, is above all an instrument of upward
social mobility. UB makes it possible for young people to have economic
and social opportunities not available to their parents. I believe that.
But what I think is even more important is that we make young people aware
of the enormous richness of human culture and open to them the opportunity
to participate in that richness. We offer our students the greatest gift
that any institution could offer them-the human past and the human future.