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In the thirty-ninth episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Mardell A. Wilson, Provost at Creighton University. Wilson begins by detailing the charisms that define the Jesuit order and how those charisms informed the long-standing investment the Jesuits made in higher education in the United States. Wilson then explores how those charisms translate into a full understanding of truth as expressed in the curriculum as well as a full understanding of what it means to be human as expressed in whole person education. Ream and Wilson discuss Wilson’s upbringing on a farm in central Illinois and how the approach to work exemplified by her parents impacted her approach to work as a college administrator. They then discuss how Wilson’s own search for meaning in education led her to embrace service as a dean at St. Louis University and then as the provost at Creighton University. Ream and Wilson then close out their conversation by discussing the importance of healthy communication and the impact such communication has on the ability of students and faculty to thrive. While faculty, in particular, often come to campus with a firm foundation for success in their respective fields, what they also need—especially in those early years—are clear, consistent visions of the academic vocation that weave together teaching, service, and research in light of an institution’s mission.

Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Our guest is Mardell A. Wilson, Provost of Creighton University. Thank you for joining us.

Mardell Wilson: Thank you for having me.

Todd Ream: Would you please begin by offering a brief history of the Jesuit investment in education in the United States, and in particular, the Jesuit investment in establishing and sustaining Creighton University?

Mardell Wilson: Certainly. Well the Jesuit order, which is formally known as the Society of Jesus has had a long and distinguished history and investment in education. In fact the Jesuit mission in the United States was established as early as 1634 in Maryland and then also Georgetown was founded in 1789 in Washington, DC. And so that is the oldest Catholic Jesuit institution of higher education. 

The Jesuits really embrace the whole concept of education. We’ll talk probably a little bit today about some of the Jesuit charisms, but truly embracing the whole, the whole person, mind, body and spirit. There are 21 AJCU schools in the country, and Creighton was founded in 1878. So one of the earlier institutions, but certainly, many of our sister institutions throughout the United States. So it touches both a coast as well as through the Midwest. 

And really a wonderful group of colleagues, both the provost gather annually. In fact, we get to host them here at Creighton this coming year and just a great group. As provost, sometimes that place can be a little lonely. So it’s wonderful to know you have wonderful colleagues who share the same mission and goals and really values. And it brings out great camaraderie as well as great work, especially as we face similar challenges throughout the country, especially now.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Most Catholic colleges and universities in the United States were established by religious orders such as the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits. And part of what makes those orders and in turn their institutions they sponsor unique are their charisms as you just mentioned. Can you say a little bit more about the charisms that define the Jesuits broadly?

Mardell Wilson: Well, certainly we focus on you know, about six of those charisms here through our Jesuit education and magis, meaning more. And oftentimes sometimes you’ll hear folks refer to, oh, I have to do more with less. And that’s not at all what magis means. Magis means how we do it with more.

And it’s, it’s one of those aspects when you think about— our core curriculum is referenced as the Magis Core Curriculum. It’s what creates an individual, it’s that foundation and an institution that is complemented both by undergraduate programs, which were rooted in the liberal arts and also a very robust health sciences portfolio. It’s the thing that we would say is quite distinctive. 

Another charism are men and women for and with others, and certainly sharing gifts, pursuing justice, having concern for the poor and the marginalized, is really focused on that service mindset. Many of the students who come to Creighton already have a strong interest in service and justice, and so the things that they do with their time and energy and how we provide those opportunities for formation in that area are quite important.

I’ve already mentioned a little bit about cura personalis, which is care for the individual, the whole individual, mind, body, and spirit as a child of God. And God’s creation is certainly something that is referenced often, and I would say felt often. 

And then unity of heart, mind, and soul. So as I just mentioned, as well as to the greater glory of God. So how do we serve to the greater glory of God? And then also one thing that we find distinctive about our graduates is that we are forming and educating agents of change. It is one thing to have the education, but to prepare individuals to go out into the mission field and really think through how do you practice with passion and compassion. Oftentimes we talk about that with our health professionals, how important that is. 

And certainly as Creighton was founded, and just to kind of go back to that question a little bit in 1878, it was really the, the product of two sisters, and Mary Lucretia was married to Edward and when Edward died, she made a commitment to bringing a an institution of higher education here. Long story, Mary and her sister were prominent philanthropic, provided prominent philanthropy throughout Omaha. 

And then in working with the Bishop the Bishop is the one who brought the Jesuits. And so thinking through how can we care because truly, Mary Lucretia and Sarah Emily cared for the community of Omaha greatly at that time and often referenced, in fact, we have a saddle in our archives where they would ride through the city’s streets and provide to the poorest of the poor. 

And so really thinking through how we create individuals who are interested in business, history, nursing, et cetera, that really have this foundation of charisms, is quite unique and really something I’m extraordinarily proud of.

Todd Ream: Thank you. They sound like amazing individuals and helped the found, established the university and help have lived on through how it flourishes to this day. 

If I may ask, you’ve mentioned the health sciences already a couple of times. Can you talk briefly about Creighton’s relatively unique investment in health sciences and where those investments are also made?

Mardell Wilson: Sure. Well so as I mentioned, we’re an institution of a slightly south of 9,000 students and we’re equally distributed between undergraduate students, as well as our graduate and professional school programs. We have a full, I’ll say, comprehensive portfolio of the health sciences programs with a medical school and a dental school here in Omaha, as well as nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, PA, a pharmacy. And so quite a portfolio. There isn’t dietetics yet. I always say as a dietitian, but certainly something that we recognize as an interprofessional opportunity. 

Creighton made a commitment, actually has, have been in Phoenix for over a decade. And we had M3 and M4 students who went to Phoenix for that experience and was really invited to come and bring a campus for our health professionals to Phoenix. And so we opened that campus just three years ago and graduated our first class actually in a couple of weeks ago and so excited for that group of occupational therapists and next year we’ll actually have all of the programs. So it really is restricted to our health sciences programs. 

Knowing that, the southern valley in Arizona was really ranked quite low on the number of physicians, et cetera, that were coming into the community. And so how can we help with physicians and all health care providers there? So it’s been a unique experience for us, an outstanding experience just growing as a campus. 

And as I oftentimes feel, even though it’s quite a different climate it is not a different climate when you walk into that campus back to those Jesuit ideals, those charisms, they are central and are the primary tenants. It doesn’t matter where you put us, those are the things for which we approach our education. 

Todd Ream: And also provides a nice place to go do a visit potentially in January in the Phoenix area or February in contrast to what winter may offer.

Mardell Wilson: It’s not bad. Yes, it not bad but it’s also a place where we have to visit in July and August and that is the equivalent of February in Omaha.

Todd Ream: As the number of Jesuit priests serving Jesuit colleges and universities has unfortunately declined over the course of the last 50, 60 years, what practices, if any, have lay leaders developed to ensure those charisms, as we’ve been talking about, continue to be woven into the culture of Jesuit colleges and universities?

Mardell Wilson: Well, we are blessed on the Creighton campus. We actually just opened. I can look out my window and view a beautiful new Jesuit residence where we have a significant number of Jesuits who are in residence here at Creighton. Unlike some other campuses, which have a lower number. 

What I’ll say about that first, I’ll talk just a little bit about the Jesuits and even their new residence, that the design was, was really so that there would be a presence and people could feel that presence, even though it may not have the same magnitude as you have referenced has occurred over the years. But with that, then I would say understanding they’re not the only ones that provide the formation. 

And so our division of Mission and Ministry has been very intentional about the formation programs for students but also the formation programs for faculty and staff so that they are really provided the tools and opportunity to think through Ignatian pedagogy, a variety of aspects regarding how those central tenants are referenced. And again, it’s not about the faith identity of the individual, but really the foundation by which we base our education and support for our students. And so it is that robust programming or formation, I would say, that touches all aspects of the campus, whether you are a student, a staff member, a faculty member, that really allow the Jesuits to broaden their nets with lay leaders throughout campus but also it’s that compliment. 

The Jesuits are very visible on our campus and want to be even more even with their new residence, but find touch points in places that you know that they are there and you know that they are caring for you and are more than, more than proud to have you carry on the Ignatian values. And so certainly an important element for us to consider as we think about the number of men going into the order but a way that Creighton has been really thoughtful about its own programming to ensure that those traditions are carried forth, regardless of the number, I’ll say total number of Jesuits we may have on campus.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Yeah, that’s very helpful. Appreciate it. If I may make a transition now, I want to ask you some biographical details and vocational details in terms of your own life. Your teaching, research, and service, as you mentioned, is in the health sciences and in dietetics. Would you please describe your calling to pursue such a course of study?

Mardell Wilson: So, I grew up on a farm in central Illinois, a large grain farm. And we did not have the luxury— we lived about seven, eight miles south of town— did not have the luxury to participate in club sports and all the things that maybe other city kids do over the summer, but my parents were very very good about ensuring we had 4-H in our lives. 

If anyone’s familiar with 4-H, I would even challenge that the 4-H pledge and the Ignatian principles lineup very closely. That is where I learned a lot about, of course, agriculture was all around, but in terms of food preparation and then its nutritional value and was really, I would say, sparked through 4-H, but also I grew up with food all around, a large, large garden.

You talk about production in the heartland. You don’t see, of course, field corn. My city husband had to have a little schooling about what you, what the different types of corn are. But that is just an area of always just loved food but I always have loved health care and knowing what our bodies require. We cannot sustain health without them, good healthy diets. 

And so that’s really my interest grew as a young girl, quite frankly. My mother couldn’t get me out of the kitchen in many ways because I was just really intrigued and also health and food science. And so there were two tracks there. I was interested in the science of food because baking it is certainly a science. You can fudge a little bit when you’re cooking a salad or making a salad or cooking, you know an entrée, but baking, there is a fine art. 

And so all of those aspects and principles which were reinforced in 10 years of 4-H interested me. And so I went on in an undergraduate major in dietetics, and then that’s where my graduate program work is. And then my EdD is actually in curriculum instruction with an emphasis in family and consumer sciences.

Todd Ream: You mentioned your home and growing up on a farm and your mother and family’s experiences there. Were there any teachers or texts that had greater impact upon your calling than perhaps some others?

Mardell Wilson: So you know, certainly my 4-H leaders, they saw in individuals promise in certain areas and, and certainly encouraged us. You know, 4-H you also learn great skills, like you have to do demonstrations, there’s talks, there are records. And so I think even back to my career and all of the places where I learned basic skills in 4-H.

I will say in high school, I had a couple of teachers that were really quite influential. So I was top of my class throughout elementary school and junior high and high school, but I had this interest in food. And so I did take home economics the basic, some cooking, two of the cooking classes. I got a little flack from that that I wasn’t maybe taking the higher, highest end courses, but I knew that if I knew the science behind that. 

And so Mrs. Clark was the, at that time it was referred to as home economics, and she was tremendous about encouraging me not to be discouraged by the chatter around the courses that I was taking. I also was taking calculus. And she really expressed how important food is to individuals, to families, to social events. I mean, if food is an, is, is a primary language for many, in many ways. And so she was terrific. 

And then also just, of course, I think you, there’s just teachers and influencers throughout your career. And, and I had a couple of I mentioned another high school teacher, Mrs. Kurtz was an advanced English professor who was a tough cookie and I still have a paper where she wrote comments where you would be a pretty good writer if you didn’t use so many words.

And so just those kinds of things in life that you, people who really take interest and every paper she graded provided significant feedback. She cared for us as students. And I could say that throughout my undergraduate, my master, certainly my doctoral dissertation major professor, he was incredible to really help me better understand higher education.

You know, I had a strong interest to maybe go on for a PhD in nutritional sciences, but at the time I was in the community college. I was teaching a lot and I loved food and nutrition. I thought that was probably not going to do my students the best for them. Uh, and so I purposely did not pursue a PhD in nutrition, but instead an EdD in curriculum and instruction because I knew already a lot about food and nutrition and the chemistry and science-related. I did not know a lot about how to be the most effective faculty member. And that was really my decision to purposely pursue something that I was less familiar with so I could be better for them in my discipline.

Todd Ream: Thank you. If you were left with unlimited time, and of course, unlimited resources, too, we got to add that component here, to read, experiment, write, or perhaps given the context of our conversation here, cook too, that could be a possible option you could pick here, what would you pursue?

Mardell Wilson: Well, I think, and there’s many things already, individuals pursuing this, I, I am passionate about the fact that nutrition is probably one of the most violated health professions there is because everybody does it every day. And so therefore they believe they’re experts. And there’s a lot of people that imposter dieticians and the true experts, even some of my health, health professional colleagues.

So I think having folks understand that there’s nothing better than real food, right? And there is no, there’s no one magic bullet in terms of how you attain health, but you know, how do you use good food and enjoy good food? Um, so that’s just something, a passion I have personally. 

I think in terms of other items that I’m passionate about and would love more time reading and exploring is just really around the topics of that impact leadership and leaders and how important that can be to individuals. I always tell students, I tell young faculty, everyone has an opportunity to lead from where they are. 

You don’t have to have the title of provost or president or dean to be a leader. And so how do you instill good, solid leadership principles? And quite frankly, I think back to the Ignatian charisms and fundamentals that will enable us to go further together than on individual paths. And so those are the, just the personal things that I’m passionate about. 

And I always say I would like to spend a little bit more time going back and reading some of the classics, the things that we probably didn’t pay as much attention to because there were so many other courses and other distractions at the time. And so I probably need to spend a little, after being at a liberal arts institution, based institution for many years and having gone to a public institution in a very science-oriented field. And there are many times I’d like to take the opportunity to do our own Magis Core here at Creighton too, to go back and retake some of those things we may have not paid as much attention to at the time.

Todd Ream: Thank you. You served now in various administrative capacities starting your career at Illinois State University, where you served in assessment and finance before you were appointed the Dean of the Doisy College of Health Sciences at St. Louis University, a sister Jesuit school. Would you please describe the discernment process you underwent when making the transition between those administrative positions and eventually accepting the dean position at St. Louis University?

Mardell Wilson: Yeah, so I’ll talk just a little bit about even the transition from being a full-time faculty member into the first administrative position, which is oftentimes, right, the biggest step over the fence when people reference it. And I think a lot of this is my upbringing and when you grow up on a farm, you live where the work is all the time.

I never once thought that there wasn’t work to be done or work ahead. And quite frankly, the difference I think in administration versus being a faculty member, is, to promote yourself as a faculty member, you have to be very self-centric, right? It’s, it’s your discipline. It’s how your performance in the classroom, your research, your successes. And although I had some enjoyment from that, it really wasn’t how I was brought up or wired. 

You know, I had received tenure and actually was in a conversation at a Chili’s, quite frankly, having a drink with someone in a Chili’s, and they said, well there’s this position in assessment and as the graduate dietetic internship director, I had accreditation. I did a lot of assessment with that. You know, we really think you might have the skills to, to take the institution further. 

At that time, Illinois had mandated assessment, basically assessment performance appraisals for all degree programs so you had to have assessment plans. And I was like, oh, no, that’s I, I wouldn’t know how to do that, you know. And then I went home and I’m like, well, I don’t know. It’s kind of interesting. It’s stuff that gets me jazzed up, things that you can see you’re making a difference and share the results from that. And so, that was 19 years ago. 

And, and I know that because I was supposed to be the only internal candidate. There were two external candidates for the role. I was the only internal candidate. I was supposed to have an interview on a Friday, all day Friday. I went to the hospital on Thursday and had our second son and so I had to call on the way to the hospital and say I will not be there tomorrow, I’ll in 10 days. Because I knew with the second baby I knew that you didn’t get tired until day 15. And so I was successful in that search and that’s what started my administrative career. 

And so then I had the opportunity, I oftentimes share how does a dietitian become a budget officer? And I was told, parents and others that that’s what a good college educational get you, transferable skills. I was always, it’s important and oftentimes very important for women to know when to say no to certain requests, but I would also contend it’s important to know when to say yes.

And so I was asked by the provost at the time and was working in the provost office assessment and I’d done some things with summer and general education and she had a position that the finance director basically so the AVP for fiscal management, was out of the faculty because she was very interested that whenever you talked about finances, you could talk about it in a way that faculty understood and respected.

And I ran summer session and there was quite a bit of financial pieces that really sat outside of the regular budget system for fall and spring tuition revenue. And so she came to me and asked if I would be interested, she would be willing to put in what was called a search waiver. And I immediately said yes. 

And you know, there was a lot to learn and it’s been, it was one of the best jobs. I’ve loved everything I’ve done in higher ed. I have not ever had one role I did not love. And so then your, to your question about discerning you know, I was at Illinois State for seventeen years. I had, it was a great institution. I had wonderful family and friends close by. 

Um, and I had a dean who said to me Mardell, cause I was kind of feeling, I knew what I did impacted students and faculty every day, I just didn’t get to be very close to it. And she said that, this dean said to me how you approach your work every single day is absolutely in alignment with the Jesuit charisms. And she knew I was a woman of great faith. And she said, I think that there’s a position as Dean of the Health Sciences College at SLU, and I think you need to consider it. 

The rest is a bit of history. And she was exactly right. The way that I approach what I hope is my life and my work, there’s never any difference, right? You shouldn’t be a different person at work than you are at home or in Sunday services. She said, you get to talk about it out loud at SLU, where you don’t necessarily have that opportunity at a public institution.

Todd Ream: That’s great, thank you. Yeah, very generous supervisor. And, and yeah, looking out for the ongoing professional advancement and formation of the people that work, work there. That’s great. 

You were appointed Creighton’s provost in 2020. Would you please describe the discernment process you underwent for making the transition between serving as a dean of a school at St. Louis University, to then being the chief academic officer over the institution at Creighton?

Mardell Wilson: So, well, if you recall, we were all a little distracted in 2020. For the record, I was not sharpening my vitae out thinking, ah, I got this, I got this pandemic thing covered. I think maybe I’ll look for a job. That was not at all the case, but in 2017, I had the wonderful opportunity to serve on the higher learning commission as a peer reviewer. I’m a peer reviewer for them on the review team for Creighton.

And so as a sister of Jesuit Catholic institution, I got to learn a little bit more about Creighton and really just a terrific organization, got to feel, even in those short visits that you’re here as peer reviewers, really get to feel it, have a sense of the culture. 

And so I received the notification from the search firm about the position. And I remember responding back and saying thank you for thinking of me, but I’m trying to figure out how to put gross anatomy online. I’m a little busy. And they said, well give it some thought. We’ll touch base with you again. 

And I I chatted with my husband a little bit and I said, yeah we were all working day in, day out, trying to figure out what we were doing at the time. This was mid-spring. And then thinking about how we we would look for the summer. We had courses all throughout the summer and we taught, we did teach gross anatomy in the summer where our students took gross anatomy in the summer and then what fall would look like. 

And so I just said to my husband, I’m we have so much going on. We had freshmen at home. I had a freshman in college who had moved back home, of course, and freshmen in high school, not so you think about children and ages, maybe not the best timing for a transition as well. And so my husband said to me when they sent the second message, he said just schedule the phone call, just take the call.

And so I took the call. I did pray about it and thought as I, I, thought, looked at the portfolio, the excitement about the opportunity to think about adding the campus in Phoenix and the compliment I could bring. You know, for me, it’s what can I bring to the role? It’s not just who I am, but how can I help the institution?

And that was articulated to me by the committee. And so I put my hat in the ring and we arrived October 1st of 2020 so mid-semester, mid-pandemic, I sat right here at this desk and in a screen for many, many months. So it seemed to be many, many months, but met wonderful people and was delighted when I can meet them in person. And it’s been a wonderful opportunity for me and for our family.

Todd Ream: Thank you. With almost, as you mentioned, 9,000 students, Creighton is organized into nine colleges and schools and served by approximately 680 full-time faculty and approximately 330 part-time faculty. No small organization. As the chief academic officer, what practices prove most effective when communicating with that many students?

Mardell Wilson: So in terms of the students, I think again, first of all, oftentimes you just have to educate them what the provost is. And so giving opportunities for them to learn and understand what my responsibility is to them. I do a lot of that, quite frankly, I try to participate as much as I can in our admitted student days, as well as, in our preview programs. You know, freshmen students coming in and then various ways of the opportunities to intersect with our professional school programs. 

If I think about just communication in general, whether it’s regardless of the audience, I think authenticity and what I call predictable transparency. So that they understand, they don’t have to ask for the transparency that they might seek but they know it’s going to be there and that there’s a name and a face as associated with that. 

I do a few things to ensure that they recognize that I am here for them. And I always say my full job is for the students and the faculty. I work for those two groups, I work every single day for and so I participate in— we have late night breakfast that we serve during final exams. That’s open up to any student. I participate in those. I try to say yes to as many, either guest speaking opportunities at student organizations. I work with our Creighton Students Union, both their executive committee and as well as opportunities to intersect with the student groups there.

I am a runner. And so on reading day in the spring, we have the provost fun run. And so I had the luxury, I had three young ladies who were graduating seniors who ran it all four years. And so we captured a moment this past spring and, and that’s been terrific. 

So just always an explanation and understanding that my job is to make their experience nothing short of fantastic. I would say that is the exact same job I have for faculty. My job is to ensure that their career as a faculty member is nothing short of fantastic. 

Todd Ream: You mentioned faculty. Faculty knows who the provost is. Faculty knows what a provost is. Faculty, though, depending upon the group, of course, may be even harder with whom to communicate than students at times. What’s proven most effective in terms of communicating with faculty members?

Mardell Wilson: Same things I said before, I think with authenticity and predictable transparency, and I think that predictable transparency creates more trust. And so the things that you can do to show that you say what you’re going to do, you do what you said you were going to do and you repeat.

And that has to be true in when you’re making decisions that are maybe faculty favorable and when you have to make decisions that may be more questionable and that you actually genuinely listen and explain that the role here and try try to educate accordingly on this, on the most simplest of things, what I would say we believe is simple because we, we live in you know, breathe it every day. 

So what is a tuition discount? What does that mean to revenue? How does that offset what we’re doing in terms of building? How do capital projects, how are they funded differently? So just give them as much education because I said what happens regardless of the audience, or when you don’t understand something, you either make it up or you ignore it.

And so I would say in the academy, faculty probably are more favorable to number one. So if I don’t fully understand what’s happening, I’m just going to create my own narrative. It’s my responsibility to help them not have to create their own narrative if I can help better educate them and include them in the discussion.

And so you know that there are little things that I do. I have a monthly newsletter called the Provost Digest that just highlights important aspects. One of the things, and that was started before I came here, and just to ensure that the letter I have to that really speaks to them, acknowledges them, encourages them to participate in certain activities. But even with the content, I’m oftentimes surprised. I actually have one of the highest open rates emails on campus, our folks tell me. So I think it opened in the 80 percent range, which that’s pretty, pretty good. I always sometimes say it’s, I’m not, I didn’t know it was that exciting, but then I, oftentimes, have the opportunity where folks will send something back, just thanking me for including.

And one of the things I have the luxury, very much the luxury and privilege of having the full provost portfolio. So I have student life, student success, our enrollment management, as well as all the schools and colleges within the umbrella of the provost research and course and sponsored programs. And so ensuring that there’s sort of fair representation within the provost digest and really getting a good comprehensive understanding of what, what the great work that’s happening among faculty and staff at campus. 

And so I think just always being available for conversation, trying to be, again, an exceptional listener, but also understanding what and reinforcing what our fundamental cares are at the institution, which we all intersect around students. And if you can bring the conversation back to how this impacts our students, that’s where you have the most common ground.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Thank you. Appreciate that. As a faculty member, I will say I have never filled in details when I didn’t understand something. But there, I may be taking some license there too. So yeah, I would say that you’re-

Mardell Wilson: It’s an honest, it’s an honest path.

Todd Ream: Yeah. Yeah. No, we’re, we’re, we’re very proud of the fact we’re, we’re bright people and thus we must be able to figure it out.

So yeah, no, that’s yeah, that communication, the regularity of that, and the consistency of that, I’m sure, is very beneficial, very helpful. What dimensions of your job as Creighton’s chief academic officer do you then find most rewarding?

Mardell Wilson: You know I really enjoy every aspect of it. But I think the things that you do, the improvements that you can see that are impacting again, as I mentioned earlier, my role is to ensure that both faculty and students have tremendous careers. Students have tremendous opportunities here. And I would say the staff that support them have an equally rewarding experience, to see maybe advances or modifications, changes that impact and and help to support a wide audience. 

So I have the luxury of sitting out and up abroad, to look at things and how it’s going, how certain changes are happening or how we approach things. One of the pieces people will reference around here when I came, I talked a lot about my attempt to create a frictionless experience, both for students, faculty, and staff. So whether that’s our system doesn’t let the little things get in the way of, quite frankly, where we started our Jesuit charisms, right?

Like don’t let, don’t let how we operate prohibit us from really flourishing and advancing. And so it’s those pieces there are really challenging, complex problems that can happen. And the fact that how we use our team and that’s something I have really emphasized here, institutions have a long history and sometimes supported by budget models that create siloing. I think moving forward in higher ed, if we are not working across boundaries and with interdisciplinary ways, you will not be successful. So I have, that is something I’m passionate about. 

I have a tremendous group of deans who are embracing this. You know, how do we, how do we not create our own one off experiences in each school and college? And that gives me a lot of great joy is to see what that, the outcomes of collaboration can be and that’s truly what I think is what, where higher education, that’s the only place you can flourish in the future.

Todd Ream: Thank you. For individuals, then, who are discerning whether to embrace comparable responsibilities as a chief academic officer, follow a path comparable to the one that you followed to this point in your career, what advice would you offer?

Mardell Wilson: Well, first of all, I’m a recovering Type A, I say because I have always been a bit of a I think people don’t get in these roles. I would used to say dieticians didn’t even know there was a box you could think outside of because we’re kind of wired the same. 

First of all, the first thing you have to feel comfortable with is you’re never going to get the work done. There’s always more work than time. And so if you only get satisfaction by checking off the things on the to-do list, I think you have to put that away a little bit because there are things to do and there’s lots of things you can see progress on, but there’s always more work than time. And so you do have to build up a comfort zone to that.

I think the other aspect is you have to feel like, I mentioned it earlier, that you can be the same person wherever you are. There’s no difference to who you are and how you approach your work, your life, and your authenticity about wanting others’ success. 

And then what I talked about is that’s probably the hardest challenge for many faculty. And this is why some people make tremendous faculty their entire career. I will tell you, my contribution to higher education, my vocation, my calling, in my opinion, I can contribute much more as an administrator than a faculty member because I was not very good at that self-centric piece that you have to be. 

Even in my lines of inquiry were oftentimes impacted by the master students that I had and their interests and instead of keeping everyone focused only in my particular areas of research. And so you have to be willing to understand that it’s not the things that show up on your vitae that equal success, it’s the things that show up on everyone else’s. And so if those are the things that give you great satisfaction and joy, then these are the kinds of roles that can be really fulfilling. 

There is a demand in terms of time and energy. I know we had eight commencement ceremonies and people will say to me over a few day period, and one of those now in Phoenix. So seven in Omaha and one in Phoenix. And they start on a Thursday and it ended on a Sunday. And people would say, oh, aren’t you tired? I’m like, are you kidding me? That’s like eight Super Bowls for me. Like who gets to have eight Super Bowls? 

And so, because there’s nothing more gratifying than the success of our students, which is achieved by the success of the faculty sitting behind us on that stage party. So if those are the things that really fill your bucket, these are tremendously great roles.

Todd Ream: That’s yeah, great advice and beautiful perspective. I got hung up thinking how many hands did you shake over eight commencement services?

Mardell Wilson: Well, the best thing about the provost job is that the provost is oftentimes at the mic. The president is the one who has to shake all the hands or the deans. So my hands are in good shape. I just have to know where I’m at in the script at all times.

Todd Ream: As our time begins to become short, I want to make sure I ask you a couple of questions about how you understand the academic vocation. For you personally, how do you understand that and define that as your responsibilities have grown and changed? But then how do you understand that in relation to your colleagues who serve at a Jesuit institution such as Creighton?

Mardell Wilson: So the academic vocation that I would say the fundamental principles that many of us oftentimes reference is the discovery of new knowledge and its dissemination. You know, our responsibility as faculty scholars, teachers scholars is to develop a line of inquiry that aligns with our disciplinary interests. And how do we add that back into our discipline, as well as, how do we, how do we bring that to the classroom? 

And I’ve worked at only places really that have a teacher scholar model. I went to, of course, a very large public R1 institution as an undergrad, and I saw the difference when, when it was really the different reward structures. I probably didn’t know it at the time as a 19, 20 year old. But in looking back those are the things which have their place. They have a tremendous outpouring of discovery, but the complement of the teacher scholar model is one that I really take great pride in and in terms of what it brings to the students and to the profession.

I think at a Catholic Jesuit institution, so if you think about those fundamental charisms that we talked about how do we consider, as we advance healthcare, advance law professions, advance business leaders how do we think about how they approach their, their discipline and their topics as those agents of change in ways that are in, in a, in what we know is, can be and is currently being exhibited of a very divided world, in a place where you can say, how can I ensure that we are men and women for and with others? And those are the pieces of the aspects of the academic vocation.

It’s one thing to instill knowledge. It’s another to build character. And I think here we do a wonderful combination of both, and it’s those skills and abilities that we really do hope those will be the individuals making change and serving as leaders. And again, from any position that you’re at, whether it’s a leadership identified role or one that you are seen as a leader.

Todd Ream: Thank you. For our last question then today, I want to ask you, in what ways, if any, is the university responsible for developing this understanding of the academic vocation in faculty members, especially those who come new to the campus, out of doctoral programs, terminal degree programs, and perhaps haven’t thought really yet about this sort of broader understanding and have been sort of focused on just finding their feet as a scholar?

Mardell Wilson: So I think really talking about what is the profession of a faculty member is an important conversation to have. Part of our new faculty orientation, and then really part of that formation that I mentioned, we have a, and all of these programs are voluntary, but we have a program called the Novice Program here that has ran out of mission and ministry.

And it really sort of takes faculty through different areas. You get to learn about what’s the provost role and responsibility and I have a really terrific, embarrassing story about when I was a very young faculty member, colleagues, we shared offices and a colleague of mine, I was at the community college, we had a two-plus-two program with a four-year institution that had an engineering program. And I remember these two faculty members were talking about this, this meeting they were going to have with the provost at this particular university. 

And you could tell it was, there was a lot of, I’ll say good intention and, tension around, around this meeting. And I had to go home and look up in the dictionary, what is a provost? So I was one of those people as well. But to understand what, what is, what is the, what is the vocation in terms of not just your one piece of passion, but how do we take those Jesuit ideals and charisms and match it to the things you want to do with your students?

And so really walking with them and understanding that even through the promotion and tenure process, how do we help them develop and come along? Oftentimes, in many roles in the academy, and I’m just as guilty as others, we dump people into the role and we forget that they’ve never done that thing. And so, just as I mentioned in my own career, like I was, I had a lot of nutrition knowledge. I knew nothing about how to be a successful faculty member. 

And so how do we ensure we are bringing those tools into their toolbox as well? Because oftentimes they’re the, the discipline section in their toolbox is well refined and has all the right pieces. And how do we support them? And really provide good feedback. 

And those are, those are things we’re improving in the academy. We have not found the right, in my opinion, we don’t have the, the perfect formula and how you give formative assessment of faculty and really bringing them along in their own career. So a place that we can all do better.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Thank you very much. Our guest has been Mardell A. Wilson, Provost of Creighton University. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and your wisdom with us.

Mardell Wilson: Thank you.

Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).

One Comment

  • The educational ecumenism represented in this series is refreshing. Though I’ve been to various AJCU schools, this was a pleasant reminder that 21 exist in the U.S. The story of Mary Lucretia and her sister reminds me of the founding of Houston Baptist, and Westminster College, Cambridge. Creighton seems about as mission-centric as any school. It would be interesting to sit in on a Creighton recruiting call (if high school students know what “charism” means, and the draw to such an emphasis. The 4-H overlap is refreshing (an as a rural Hoosier, can relate). The fit with Omaha culture seems fortuitous. During her talk on the high profile of nutrition, I wondered if she has “Balance of Nature” products in mind–that is, good or bad. At the least, would have been interesting to hear her expertise on this cultural phenomenon in the health arena. The emphasis on “work” is engaging. That is, the “self-centric” necessity of faculty pursuing tenure, etc., v. administrative help for community. Knowing “when to say yes” is golden. The “approach” to work daily has legs for all of us. The metrics of Creighton imply a 13:1 faculty/student ratio with fulltime, and likely 10:1 when loads of all part-time faculty are included. This is considerably better than the NCES report of 18:1 national average (though lists the top ten with staggering rates from Cal IT at 3:1 to J. Hopkins at 6:1; and as long as their 7 % acceptance rate reflects no shortage of the student funnel, they’ll be okay with their endowments, but programs like JH’s education department recently had to downsize a lot of faculty as that program was seemingly out of balance even beyond their 6:1 rates and perhaps too few of the 7% committed to Ed.).
    “Frictionless experience” is brilliant. “Being the same people wherever you are” is helpful. Her annual run likely is endearing–an endearment I’ll never have with my colleagues. 🙂 Eight commencements is daunting. Although IWU has as many annually–not all in 3-4 days!