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Vice provost Steele: This is a critical time
for undergraduate education
April 27, 1998

The last time Susan Steele lived on the East Coast, winter came as a shock. It was the 1970s and Steele, a native Californian, was a postdoctoral fellow in linguistics at MIT. "When it got to be December, I didn't know how to keep warm. I had no socks, I barely wore shoes. So I got in my car and drove to Stanford..

Steele joined UConn in January as vice provost for undergraduate education and instruction. While she's thankful for this year's mild winter, Steele vows says she's here to stay no matter what the weather does.

With a number of initiatives planned or underway to enhance the undergraduate experience, and a heightened focus on academic excellence, Steele says it's a critical time for undergraduate education at UConn..

"We want to create a learning environment where students take responsibility for their own education," she says.

It's an approach she hopes will draw more students to the University. "We want to be much more the institution of choice to Connecticut students," she says.

Since her stint at MIT and the completion of her postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University, Steele has enjoyed an outstanding career as both an academic and an administrator at the University of Arizona.

A specialist in the morphology, or structure, of the Native American language, Luiseno, Steele holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California-San Diego. She has published five books and has taught for 20 years at the University of Arizona.

After progressing through the stages of her academic career, from assistant to associate and then to full professor, she was looking for a new challenge and turned to administration. In 1990, she became associate dean of arts and sciences at the University of Arizona, then associate vice provost in 1994, and associate vice president in 1996.

Steele says she enjoys the challenges of administrative work. "Administration has an immediacy to it. There are a bunch of constraints and you have to try to figure out the best course of action.

In the past eight years, the University of Arizona has made major changes in its approach to undergraduate education and Steele has been at the forefront of those changes. The general education program has been transformed from a college-based program to a university-wide structure, to offer greater flexibility to the roughly 50 percent of students who are undecided about their major. The university also restructured the general education courses to provide separate classes for students finishing their major and for those with little or no background in the subject.

A third change was to improve the way academic information was delivered by creating an electronic resource that would provide up-to-date, accurate information. "Everything else flowed from that," says Steele. "We no longer updated the catalogs, pamphlets, and booklets, we updated the resource and the publications were generated off that.

Steele says she was attracted to UConn because of its research mission and its size. "UConn is relatively small, as research universities go," she says. With 2,200 freshmen and 500 transfers, compared to the University of Arizona's 4,500 freshmen and 3,000 transfers, UConn seems more manageable, Steele says.

She also finds the political landscape appealing. "There is more possibility of this institution having more control over its destiny than Arizona," she says.

In Arizona, as in many other Western states, almost all the higher education is public. "That means there's a lot of public concern and scrutiny of public education.

"The issues in Arizona are very much the same issues that could come up here, but we have a chance in Connecticut of addressing them before they come up, instead of reacting constantly.

And that's the task Steele faces - to be out in front of the educational game.

Although she has only been at UConn a short time, Steele says she is developing a vision for the University that involves establishing instructional excellence, improving the quality of the student body, and integrating research with the undergraduate experience. "We ought to be making research a centerpiece of the undergraduate experience," she says.

And beyond that, her goal is to be prepared for whatever the future may bring. "We don't know what higher education is going to look like 10 years from now. I wouldn't be surprised if it is dramatically different from now," she says. "The big thing is trying to be prescient about where higher education is headed and how we can position ourselves in that environment."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu