Q&A with the ISU provost

Elizabeth Hoffman is executive vice president and provost for Iowa State.

What is your favorite memory of college?

I loved almost everything about being in college. I went to a women’s small liberal arts college in Northampton, Mass., Smith College. What I probably liked most was an uninterrupted opportunity to learn as much as I could about as many things as I could cram into my schedule. I still remember and reread many of the books I read in college.

What is your favorite thing about Iowa State or Ames?

I like the friendliness of the people, the ease of getting around and the beautiful parks in Ames. I like the fact that students, faculty and staff at Iowa State are serious about both learning and having fun. Most people walk around with smiles, and I love that.

Where is your favorite place to eat in town?

Probably the Cafe in Somerset, but most of the time I eat either on campus or at home.

How was your freshman year?

It was exciting, eye opening and hard. I was used to getting As and Bs in high school without really working very hard. I was a National Merit semi-finalist and graduated almost at the top of a distinguished class of students. But, I struggled to get Cs my freshman year. I ended the year with one A, one B and the rest Cs. That shook me up, but didn’t make me like college any less.

What was the most embarrassing moment of your freshman year? Did you make any silly freshman mistakes?

Just my grades.

What advice would you give to incoming students?

This is the time in your life to explore your passions in life and what you are really good at doing. You may know exactly what you want and pursue it right through. If so, that’s great. But, you may find out that there is a disconnect between what you love doing and what you are truly good at doing.

I love music, but I discovered I was not cut out to be a music major. I’m good at math and science and I’m good a learning new ideas, but it took me a long time to discover that doing research in a particular kind of economics, experimental economics, and teaching economics were what I loved doing and was particularly good at. Both eventually led me to academic administration, which has an element of applied economics and applied psychology.

So, take the time to find who you really are. And, take advantage of all that Iowa State has to offer, both in the classroom and through the many extracurricular leadership and learning opportunities available.

When did you know what you wanted to do with your life? When did it click, when did learning become fun?

Learning has always been fun for me. I can’t remember when I didn’t love to learn new things. But, it took me until my late 20s to discover what I really wanted to do in life. You might even say it took me until I was 40, when I started my administrative career, to really know. I finished college with a bachelor’s degree in history and went straight through to a doctorate in history.

But, during my first year teaching history, I got a unique opportunity to attend Caltech as part of a new doctorate program in social science. That first year, I discovered I loved economics, even though I had only had principles in college. So, as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans” — that’s from “Beautiful Boy.”

Describe your job. What are your duties?

I am the chief academic officer and budget officer of the university. All the deans, as well as two vice presidents and the chief information officer, report to me. All academic programs, all academic appointments and promotions and any academic reorganizations have to be approved through my office.

As chief budget officer, I chair the University Budget Advisory Committee and make recommendation to the president’s budget cabinet on all aspects of the university’s budget. I lead the budget development process. I also represent the academic aspects of the university to the Board of Regents through the Council of Provosts, which I chair.

How did you get where you are now in your career?

I had a very traditional academic path, but I moved around a lot. From Caltech, I started as an assistant professor of economics at Northwestern. Three years later, I moved to Purdue, and was promoted to associate professor with tenure two years later.

For family reasons, I moved to the University of Wyoming after four years at Purdue. I was promoted to full professor shortly after moving. After a short stay in Wyoming, I was recruited to the university of Arizona, which was then the best place in the world to do the kind of research I did.

While there, the dean of the college of business and public administration recruited me to be associate dean and director of the MBA program. Four years later, Iowa State recruited me to be dean of liberal arts and sciences and four years after that, the University of Illinois at Chicago recruited me to be provost. Three years later, the Regents of the University of Colorado recruited me to be system president, a post I held from 2000-2005, when I stepped down over a first amendment controversy that later earned me Champion of the First Amendment from the Greenlee School. In 2006, I was recruited to return to Iowa State to be provost, starting January, 2007.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

I like solving problems, both personnel-related and budget-related. I enjoy the process of strategic planning and implementation. I also like the fact that I see all academic aspects of the university. I like to know about all the research and intellectual activity.

What was your proudest accomplishment of the last year?

Getting us through one of the worst budget times in history with a strong university, record enrollment, record research funding and a balanced budget.

What is your biggest goal for next year?

Getting the new strategic plan through the Board of Regents, beginning implementation and continuing our positive momentum in tough budget times. I’m also recruiting a new dean of veterinary medicine and a new vice president for extension and outreach.

What do you think is the biggest issue currently facing students? What can we do about it?

I think the economy is the biggest problem. The recent economic decline and current uncertainly affects the university budget, and thus our ability to recruit and retain faculty and provide the programs students want. It affects the affordability of college, both because parents and students may have financial difficulties and because of tuition and fees. At the end of college, it affects students’ ability to get jobs.

What are you most looking forward to in the next year?

I always look forward to new students and faculty coming to campus in August. Every year there is a sense of renewal as students and faculty return and new students and faculty get oriented. I also always look forward to graduation. Graduates are always excited about their new lives, even in these tough economic times. I hope we will have a year without further budget cuts.

What are your must-do and must-see things for students? What does a student have to do before they graduate, before they finish their freshman year?

Wow, there is so much. I certainly hope students will explore the campus and really get to know how beautiful it is. I hope out-of-state students get to see some of Iowa and appreciate the beauty of the state. I know that alumni particularly remember the Campanile and Veishea.

I would encourage freshmen to get involved with a club or some extracurricular activity early and get to know their fellow students and their professors. There are so many opportunities to learn leadership skills that every ISU student should find something to shine in.

There are so many ways that students can participate in planning for and carrying out Veishea activities, Dance Marathon, greek activities, the solar car, engineers without borders, music or theater groups, undergraduate research and so many other meaningful projects.

I would hope that students do at least one meaningful internship, participate in a service learning opportunity, volunteer to help others and spend some time in another country. There is no question that studying hard and going to class are important. But, it is equally important to get involved.

Studies show that freshmen who are connected to the life of the university in meaningful ways are more likely to stay and more likely to graduate. We want all ISU students to stay with us, experience as much as possible, and graduate with degrees that fit their passions. And, if you do experience academic or personal difficulty, seek help immediately. Your professors, advisers and student affairs professionals are there to help you. We want everyone to succeed.