Linda Hicke

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.  

The College of Natural Sciences will be offering about one-third fewer courses in summer 2015, according to the college's dean, Linda Hicke.

Last week, the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost announced that it is cutting the Summer Enhancement Program, which was designed to expand and improve summer course offerings of colleges at the University.

“After several years it became clear that the program did not have the desired campus-wide impact and it has been discontinued,” Gregory Fenves, executive vice president and provost, said in a statement. “We are looking into alternative solutions to enhancing the instructional budget that better meet the needs of our students and achieving our goals for graduation rates.”

Fenves said colleges may still continue to fund their own summer courses necessary to support their degree plans, but budget constraints may make this a challenge. Hicke said enrollment in the College of Natural Sciences has increased about 25 percent over the last six or seven years, while the amount of money in the college’s budget has remained the same.

“It is a challenge to change those budgets when enrollment increases significantly,” Hicke said.

She said shifts in college budgets usually occur when there are significant changes in population, but it takes time to receive more funding to reflect the population growth. Hicke said cutting the amount of summer courses should not impact graduation rates.

“We are being as efficient as possible across the entire college; we make every effort to have classes available for students to graduate on time,” Hicke said.

Arturo De Lozanne, molecular biosciences associate professor, said he thinks decreasing the number of courses offered during the summer semester will make it harder for students to graduate on time.

“Some students have to take courses in the summer in order to be able to complete their degrees,” De Lozanne said. “That means, if a student cannot take those courses, they will have to wait and register for the long semester and therefore delay their graduation.”

Biochemistry senior Kathryn McElhinney said she thinks many students use the summer as an opportunity to take fewer, more difficult courses.

“A lot of students take those more difficult courses over the summer so they don’t have to try and balance five courses along with this really hard subject,” McElhinney said. “Instead, they can dedicate all their time trying to study it.”

The cuts could potentially decrease the number of teaching assistant positions, according to De Lozanne.

“I was very puzzled by it because it seems very clear that it will affect many students — not only undergraduate students but also graduate students — because that means fewer graduate students will have TA positions in the summer,” De Lozanne said.

The Texas Memorial Museum is the main exhibit hall of the Texas Natural Sciences Center. Faculty Council met Feb. 17 to addressed concerns regarding new ways to fund the museum.

Photo Credit: Zoe Davis | Daily Texan Staff

A recent budget cutting decision by the College of Natural Sciences would not only impact the budget of the Texas Memorial Museum but are instead targeted at the entire Texas Natural Science Center, which the museum is a part of.

According to its website, the Center works to create awareness and appreciation of biological diversity, especially in Texas. In addition to the museum, the Center oversees both vertebrate and non-vertebrate paleontology labs, as well as the Texas Natural History Collections. 

Edward Theriot, integrative biology professor and director of the Texas Memorial Museum, said the Center will be organized out of existence starting next fall. 

Theriot said different parts of the Center’s collection have already started moving to other colleges, including the paleontological collection, which moved to the Jackson School of Geosciences last fall. 

“What I have been told about the collections is as of the last discussion I had with [Linda Hicke, dean of the College of Natural Sciences], there was no plan at this time to cut the
operational funding for the collections,” Theriot said. “Technical, web and administrative support will become the responsibility of existing resources at the other entities.” 

Theriot said, as of right now, more than $600,000 will be cut from the Center’s budget starting next semester. Theriot said the center had an operational budget of over $1 million before the paleontological collection was moved. 

At the Faculty Council meeting last week, a resolution was passed that encourages the museum to find independent funding for its community outreach programs. 

William Beckner, mathematics professor and chair-elect of the Faculty Council, worked with the Faculty Council executive council to write the resolution. He said they wrote the resolution after Mona Medhy, cell and molecular biology associate professor, emailed him and asked Faculty Council to consider the museum’s situation.

Beckner said the goal of the resolution was to encourage the museum to look elsewhere for funding. 

“I recognize the financial constraints on the University’s operating budget,” Beckner said. “The goal was to support the museum but not to tell the University how to fund it.”

Medhy said she reached out to Beckner in order to promote discussion about potential solutions to the museum’s position. 

“My point was: Is there any way to help this museum financially, at least in the short term?” Medhy said. “I felt that it was important for our faculty, or anybody who is interested in this topic, to see what the University could provide besides relying simply on the College of Natural Sciences.”

Theriot said he appreciates support from the faculty, but the resolution did not change the museum’s financial situation. 

“Honestly, it puzzles me,” Theriot said. “It doesn’t mean anything to us because that’s what we’ve been working toward since October, when [Hicke] told me that we were being cut. My life and the museum’s life was the same the day before the Faculty Council resolution and the same the day after. It has had no effect whatsoever.”

Theriot said he is currently working on developing a business model to establish a new source of revenue for the museum. He said the museum’s general infrastructure will have to be adjusted to remain fiscally solvent.

“I think the museum and what it does and the services it provides are going to have to be rethought from the bottom up in order to get a good grasp on what sort of recurring funding we’ll have, which should come from admissions,” Theriot said. “The first thing we need to do is get it off of life support and get through this admissions phase, [and] then see where we can go from there.”

Linda Hicke, the newly appointed dean of the College of Natural Sciences, said she is looking forward to just about everything that Austin has to offer.

“The scope and activities and the happenings of the University are fundamental and exciting,” Hicke said. “I’m looking forward to Austin itself and I’ve heard tremendous things about the town.”

Hicke, who currently serves as associate vice president for research at Northwestern University, was appointed to the position of dean of College of Natural Sciences Tuesday afternoon. She will be taking over the position of Mary Ann Rankin, which has been filled by interim dean David Laude during the search for a new head of the college. Hicke said her first goal when she gets to UT is to learn everything she can about the college, which she said will require interaction with the faculty, staff and students.

“It’s a very large place, there is a tremendous amount going on and I want to spend a reasonable amount of time just learning about what people think is working really well at the college,” Hicke said. “I want to know what the strengths are, where are their opportunities to really leapfrog and grow, and what are some of the issues that need to be addressed,”

Hicke said she wanted to approach the issue of teaching large, introductory science classes at the University, which she said was going to be one of her challenges.

“There is a lot of research, and new approaches that have risen in the last decade or so,” Hicke said. “UT is at the forefront of many of those, but we need to implement those so we fundamentally make science classes super engaging and take advantage of everything that we’ve learned about how students really deeply engage with science.”

Hicke said she was ready to work around the budget cuts UT had been facing by focusing on the college’s priorities.

“One thing that I found that I think people need to do is think hard about what the top priorities really are,” Hicke said. “I think it is still possible to do a lot of budget cuts without fundamentally affecting the quality of research and education that is happening at the University.”

Chemistry professor Peter Rossky said Hicke had energy and an appreciation for modern interdisciplinary research.

“I think she can further accelerate the growth of the college and the participation of the scientist in the college and the frontiers of research,” Rossky said. “I also think that she has full appreciation of the importance of the undergraduate education, including undergraduate research, and the education of an individual going into modern science and medicine.” 

Printed on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 as: Dean of CNS addresses goals, future challenges