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Talking with Fordham Provost Dennis Jacobs

Dennis C. Jacobs, Ph.D., started last July as the University’s new provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. 

He comes to Fordham from Santa Clara University, where he served as provost and vice president for academic affairs for eight years. Jacobs led Santa Clara’s strategic planning process, recruited all of the school’s current academic deans, helped faculty launch the first three online degree programs, and created a new office for diversity and inclusion. 

As a chemistry professor for many years, Jacobs conducted research on reactions relevant to semiconductor processing in the microelectronics industry. In 2002, he was named the U.S. Professor of the Year for Doctoral and Research Universities by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

In addition to his role as Fordham’s chief academic officer, Jacobs is a painter, a father of three adult children, and a brand new grandfather.

In a Q&A with Fordham News, Jacobs speaks about his early inspiration and outlines his goals and plans for Fordham.

What inspired you to become a scientist? 

My father was a fifth-grade teacher, and he would bring home materials from his class. He stored a whole boxful of things in my room when I was quite young, maybe 8 or 9. I went through the box, trying to figure out all the stuff: circuit boards, batteries, lightbulbs, wires. I started connecting them to see if I could make them work. I would make burglar alarms and small robots. If I clapped my hands, the door to my bedroom would automatically open. 

I would also plug things into the walls in my room. Some of them would spark, taking out the power to the whole house; other times, small fires would start. But every time, I learned more and more about how the world works. And I realized that although I thought I wanted to be an inventor, really what was driving me was curiosity. It was asking the question, why? 

You’ve lived on the West Coast for most of your life. What drew you to Fordham?

Given the location Fordham has in New York City, this global gateway, this mecca around everything from finance to fashion to media, how can this Jesuit university at Fordham be a real guiding light and partner in this region, and in the world? There are very few universities in the country that can do what Fordham can do, given its commitments and its location, and so what attracted me is to come and be a part of that. 

You’re the provost and senior vice president of academic affairs. What does that entail?

The provost is the chief academic officer. I’m responsible for ensuring that the student experience fulfills the promise of a Fordham degree. It includes things like international study, what happens to the library, undergraduate research, and the ability of our students to interface with the arts here at Lincoln Center. Whatever it may be, if it shapes the academic experience, it is the responsibility of the provost. 

You’ve attended many student research symposiums here, including this year’s Calder Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium. What strikes you about their work? 

You can see a student on fire. I mean, you can see students lighting up because they’ve found something where they can make a difference. Whether they choose to do it for the rest of their life or not, it is a transformative moment for a student to be able to say, I worked on tackling this issue or problem.  

It’s also important that our faculty are engaged in advancing the frontiers of knowledge in their respective disciplines. We create knowledge through research, we share that knowledge, we disseminate it in our teaching. Research plays a vital role in Fordham’s mission.

One of your goals as provost is to improve undergraduate retention and graduation rates. How do you plan to address these things? 

Intentional programming that meets the full and comprehensive set of needs of students is part of helping students feel very early onsometimes even in their first six weeksthat they belong here. We’re going to take a deep dive into looking at how we can do better in that regard at Fordham. 

Another goal of yours is to better integrate the academic programs and communities across the Lincoln Center and Rose Hill campuses. Can you elaborate? 

I think what brings us together is often when we think about large problems or challenges that can’t be solved by a single discipline or unit. That’s when collaboration across units makes even more sense. 

One of the things I’ve been working with the deans on is thinking about these bigger areas where we want to make an impact. Imagine urban inequality. It would certainly involve economics, but it would also involve understanding sociology and anthropology. Understanding educational systems where inequalities often exist involves understanding the law and social services, creating a response that’s holistic in a community or serving a need. All of a sudden, you ally units—students, faculty—around those kinds of problems. 

The geographic divide between Rose Hill and Lincoln Center is yet another challenge. But it gives us two very different local environments in which to live and work. As an urban campus, we’re also situated better than many to have authentic relationships with our neighbors and partners and address across a broad swathe of challenges and issues spanning from the Bronx to Manhattan. 

The University is creating a faculty space with 3-D printers and virtual reality gear, where they can try out new technology that might be used in their classrooms. It’s one of several planned projects under the Continuous University Strategic Planning (CUSP) Committee, of which you are a co-chair. Tell me about that. 

Yes, there’s a renovation underway in the lower level of the Walsh Library to create the LITE (Learning and Innovative Technology Environment) space for faculty to experimentusing cutting edge technology, virtual reality, and other thingsand create a new learning environment for our students. In other words, we’re creating a place for faculty to come together and think and reflect on how their teaching practice can change and adapt to better meet the needs of students. 

Our students come to us today with a very different mindset than 10, 20, 30 years ago. They’re digital natives. They interact with each other and the world differently. And higher ed is changing very rapidly now. For Fordham to get ahead on that, I think we have to create opportunities for faculty and administrators to reflect on where our students are, what their needs are, and how we can best teach them. 

We’ll have a kind of a maker-lab type of space for faculty to experiment and try new and innovative things—pilot them, assess whether they have benefits or not, and to the extent that they do, then support and scale them up. We’re waiting for the contractors to start renovation on the space.

Lastly, what’s something that many people—particularly new members of the Fordham community—don’t know about you?  

I paint paintings and I play the piano. My art is eclectic: everything from surreal to abstract to landscape. It all depends on my mindset at the time. (See Jacobs’ paintings on Instagram @dcjacobs2.) 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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