News Wheaton

Reflections with Interim Provost Karen McCormack

By Emma Kiernan and Moira Sankey 

As this academic year comes to a close, Provost Karen McCormack is finishing her one-year interim provost position. After spending the past three years working in higher education administration as an associate provost and interim provost, she will return to the Wheaton faculty this fall. Provost McCormack was more than happy to share her experiences from her time in Park Hall, reflecting on the growth of academic affairs while she has been in office and the new perspectives she has gained while serving in an administration position. 

The Wire: What is your day-to-day like as provost?

Karen McCormack: Each day is quite different as a provost. Since we are a small school, there are not a lot of layers between the leadership and faculty, staff, and students. On any given day I might meet with a member of the Board of Trustees, a student, a faculty committee, staff members working on an initiative, etc. The work ranges from big strategic challenges like our accreditation or reimagining academic departments to external partnerships like working with other colleges to develop new opportunities to work with students, staff or faculty about a new idea that they would like to implement or a challenge that they are facing. I can honestly say that I learn something new every day.

TW: What role have you played in the expansion of new programs and faculty?

KM: Before I was the provost, I was involved in the development of the Compass Curriculum as co-chair of both the design and implementation teams. As an associate provost and now as provost I have worked with faculty to help create some of our new majors; often this work takes the form of providing support and trying to make the process of creation as easy as possible. As provost, I am able to work with department chairs and program coordinators to help plan for the implementation of these new majors not just in the first year but as they grow and change.

TW: What are some of your biggest accomplishments as provost? What are you most proud of?

KM: I want to say first that everything has truly been a team effort. I am quite proud of the work that the faculty has done to reorganize academic departments because it will create opportunities for more collaboration and increase Wheaton’s ability to meet students’ needs more effectively in everything from scheduling of classes to the development of new majors. We also launched 5 new majors this year alone–FIVE! While there are some growing pains, students now have more choices and the first year of these programs went quite well because a lot of people worked very hard. 

 There have been many other substantial improvements from Academic Affairs, including the work done by the Registrar’s Office on course credit and improving the transfer experience, the work in Advising to better support students on academic probation, the implementation of Canvas for all classes, and the new WheaGo program just to name a few. 

TW: Are there any upcoming changes to Wheaton you helped create that you are excited to see implemented this fall?

KM: I am particularly excited about the launch of the new Life and Career Design Institute (LCDI). While LCDI will be in the division of Student Affairs under the leadership of Dr. Darnell Parker and the new AVP of LCDI, Sean Schofield, it is truly a cross-divisional initiative between Student Affairs, Advancement, and Academic Affairs. I am a huge proponent of Life Design (some of you know this from orientation and MAP day workshops) and the focus on holistic well-being. The promise of LCDI fits so clearly with Wheaton’s motto, “That they may have life and have it abundantly,” and I am excited for the whole campus to work with the new AVP to help shape what LCDI will become.

TW: Do you feel that your experience as a professor influenced your role as interim provost in any way?

KM: Absolutely. Student success is at the core of everything that we do. I have had the opportunity to work with Wheaton students for more than a decade. I’ve done research with students, traveled to conferences with students, published papers with students. I have always felt privileged to work with Wheaton students and the opportunity to serve in this role allowed me to try to put structures in place to further support students, staff, and faculty.

TW: How has serving as provost and professor allowed you to see different sides of the Wheaton community? How has it changed your perspective?

KM: Each role has given me new insight into the challenges and possibilities of a residential liberal arts college. Seeing things from these varied perspectives has helped me recognize that, most of the time, people are striving to make the community better. We might disagree on the tactics and we might identify the problems differently and we might get frustrated with one another in the process, but that’s largely because people care about each other and care about Wheaton. That knowledge helps me to keep moving forward when the work is challenging.

TW: What has been your favorite experience of the Wheaton community or what are you looking forward to during your remaining time as provost?

KM: I don’t have a singular favorite experience but I do enjoy commencement every year. Being in the provost’s office has demystified the work of putting on such a large event and I’m so grateful to all of the staff who make this happen.

TW: What will you miss about being provost?

KM: There are a number of things that I will miss, but probably none more than working day-to-day as a part of a team to address the biggest issues and opportunities facing the college.

TW: How do you think your experience as provost will affect your teaching/return to teaching?

KM: This is an excellent question. Now that I have a bigger lens through which to see teaching and learning on our campus and beyond, I look forward to trying out many new techniques that I have learned from so many wonderful colleagues. I’m also much more attuned to what students will need when they graduate and will work to better incorporate experiential learning into all of my classes.

TW: What did you miss most about being a professor? What are you excited to get back to?

KM: I missed working closely with students; I had the opportunity to teach an Inside Out class with Professor Riggs Romaine in fall of 2022. This course was held inside a correctional facility with 8 Wheaton students working alongside 10 incarcerated students. Luckily I’ve been able to work with students while in an administrative role and I look forward to getting back to this and many other ways to create new opportunities for students.

I have also missed the opportunity to start each semester anew. It’s hard to see when you’re in it, but not many people get to organize their work lives with a fresh start every 4-5 months. I’m reminded of being in primary school where I’d have all of my pencils sharpened and notebooks clean and organized in September, sure that the year ahead would be better than the last. Graduate school and then faculty life continued largely in this way. Now that I’ve stepped outside of that for 3 years, I will better appreciate the rhythm of academic life.