College of Natural Sciences dean discusses faculty, TA positions

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Photo courtesy of Kim Willis.

Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a series of Q-and-A’s with the University’s deans. Linda Hicke has been dean of the College of Natural Sciences, which has the largest enrollment of any college on campus, since 2012. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

DT: Could you start by telling us about the college generally... what sort of students it attracts and what sorts of projects it has going on? 

Linda Hicke: One of the things we’ve done recently is start the CNS Cornerstone, and that’s built on some of the other small communities that we had already happening in the college. Right now all incoming freshmen are part of a 20-person Cornerstone unit where they have faculty or an adviser working with every unit and also a peer advisor. They break down into communities of about 20 students and take a lot of the same classes with them, and we think that’s going to start to provide a strong sense of community and help the success of those students, particularly those who come from smaller, more rural backgrounds.     

One of the things I’m always very excited about is the Freshman Research Initiative. I always say that when I am reincarnated, I want to come back to UT as a freshman and be a part of the Freshman Research Initiative because it’s something that gets freshmen involved in exploring in the sciences and investigating independent research problems right off the bat before they have to memorize or learn a lot of content. It tends to get students really engaged in the sciences and keep them interested. 

DT:  Last semester there were a lot of concerns, especially among physics graduate students, about TA positions being cut. What’s happened since then? 

Hicke: Finances are tight across the University. Having said that, we are looking very carefully at the courses we offer so that the undergraduates are getting the courses they need to graduate… That’s our highest priority in terms of offering courses. The graduate support, the TA support has to align with what we need in our undergraduate education courses. What we’ve been doing is trying to again, look at the TA allocations not from the perspective of, “This is a good way to finance the graduate program,” but “This is what we need to support our undergraduate classes.” We have been working with graduate programs to find different ways of providing the financial support that graduate students need so that we can decouple the graduate students as this body that we need for teaching and supporting TAs from the optimal graduate student training experience.

DT: Could you say more about how you’re achieving these changes for graduate students? 

Hicke: There have been new sources of money that have been put into graduate student support. A lot of our programs are looking at how they can raise the stipends for their graduate students and keep the TAing so that graduate students have some semesters where they don’t need to TA and can concentrate on their research. In some cases that means that graduate programs are deciding to somewhat shrink the size of their graduate programs so that they can have fewer students but students that are supported at a higher level and in a better way. 

DT: How important do you find fundraising to be? And how much is that a part of your job? 

Hicke: Super important, obviously. I would say I spend 20 to 25 percent of my time doing that, and we have a very robust and active development and external relations office in our college that has been doing great … It’s a very important part of being a dean, and it’s great not just for raising funds, but to have people understand and appreciate what is happening at the University of Texas. 

DT: What does an average day look like for you?  

Hicke: Today, for instance, I came in and composed an email letting everyone know we are raising our TA stipend, which is part of our initiative to support graduate students. I then went to the Women in Natural Sciences Group about what it’s like to be a woman and have a career in the sciences and how did I get where I am. I’m visiting you guys … Being dean, you have to pivot about once every hour to focus on something different. There isn’t an average day. On any day, I would say I interact with students, faculty, external friends and donors, president, provost, other deans. 

DT: How do you balance the competing interests of all the different stakeholders in the college? 

Hicke: The hardest part is saying no, not because there are programs here that aren’t of good quality or good ideas, it’s that there are too many good ideas and too many great programs and we can’t do them all… In terms of balancing, when we did strategic planning, we got together as a college and decided what our priorities would be. I have a copy of that on my desk and it’s very well thumbed. When I’m deciding how to allocated resources, where to put time and attention, I pretty much go back to that and refer to that … I try to stick pretty closely to what the college believes it’s mission and values are for the next couple of years. 

The three things we consider to be our prime objectives are: providing optimal training for future scientists and mathematicians, making sure we are discovering new knowledge that is high-impact and ensuring that we are communicating the impact of what we are doing. Part of our strategic plan has a large communication component to it because it’s really important for us to make sure that Texas, the nation and the world understand not only how cool science is but why what we are doing is important. 

DT: The college has had trouble in the past attracting a diverse faculty. Why?

Hicke: The biggest problem is there aren’t very many folks who are coming through with Ph.D.s in the sciences who, for instance, are of African-American or Hispanic descent. It’s possible to hire people with diverse backgrounds, but it’s hard to identify them as part of the candidate pool — they’re  such a small, tiny fraction. It requires the work of search committees and faculties tobe out calling their colleagues…You can’t just sit there and wait for the applications to come in. You have to actively go out and identify candidates…It’s mostly getting people behind the fact that this is something that’s a good thing to do and we need to do and be willing to do the extra work.