At the beginning of the year, University President Sarah Mangelsdorf announced UR would have a new Provost effective July 1. The current Orrington Lunt Professor and Dean of the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) at Northwestern University, David Figlio, will be UR’s Provost and Chief Academic Officer.
Figlio has spent more than a decade at Northwestern University, holding positions that involved a vast array of responsibilities and levels of student interaction. In 2008, Figlio was named the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy. While continuing his professorship, in 2012, Figlio started as the Director of Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, ultimately resigning as Director in 2017 to focus on his newest appointment as the Dean of the School of Education and Social Policy — a school consistently ranked in the top 10 schools of education according to “US News & World Report.”
As Dean of SESP at Northwestern, Figlio implemented a program called “Dine with the Dean,” which served to increase student-dean interaction and establish a welcoming environment for open communication. Current SESP students could communicate the issues they faced over a meal, breaking the power hierarchies amidst breaking bread. “Think of it like office hours, but with food,” Figlio said.
Elaborating on his passion for the program, Figlio noted that “every single student should have the ability to interact with the Chief Academic Officer of the university. And so my goal is to try to find as many opportunities as possible, [for] people [to] do that in ways that feel intimate and comfortable. Because I don’t think the answers are big 200-person town halls […] that’s me talking at you. There’s a purpose for that, but that’s not how I’m going […] to learn what’s on students’ minds.”
Figlio went on to explain the importance of an easy method of communication by saying, “I need to be accessible […] I need to listen to what people’s aspirations are and what their pain points are, so that we can create the conditions through which we can facilitate the aspirations and ameliorate the pain points.” Further adding, “I need to earn your trust, so that I know that you’ll be able to tell me what’s on your mind.”
While Figlio has been an administrator within academia for over a decade, he is still eager to interact with aspects of student life he has never engaged with before. “I’ve never dealt with ResLife,” Figlio says. “I’ve never dealt with campus dining. There are certain aspects of student life that I haven’t experienced yet.” But he asks for honest grace in his transition.
Figlio, transitioning from Dean of a school with around 700 undergraduate students to a university with over 12,000 students, mentions that some of the programs and traditions he has built up with SESP will translate to UR rather seamlessly, while others will not. But he notes almost everything that is bugging students at UR has come up before with SESP, just not at the frequency with which he expects to experience them as Provost. Acknowledging that “we all screw up from time to time,” Figlio promises to own it when he screws up and adds, “I’m going to […] try to be as smart as I possibly can to avoid making mistakes to begin with and when I do make […] mistakes try to make it right.”
Beyond our bubble of Blue Lights, Figlio is excited to work with the greater city of Rochester community. “I frequently like to talk about how universities ‘do to, do for, and do with the community.’ And I think we shouldn’t be ‘doing to,’ and frankly, I’m not a big fan of ‘doing for’ either, because even that suggests […] we have all the answers. It’s kind of an arrogant way of thinking about the world. So [at Northwestern] I’ve worked to build structures […] and partnerships with members of the community that are deep and mutualistic, that make Northwestern better and make our community partners better […] That’s something that I feel is important at every university, and I look forward to finding ways to ‘do with’ the city of Rochester at [a] broader scale.”
Additionally, Figlio is excited to come to UR due to the incredible diversity of its students’ backgrounds. “I’m thrilled that the University […] has such a large international population because there [are] going to be so many new perspectives that I get exposed to.”
When recalling his fondest memories during his tenure at Northwestern, Figlio discussed his creation of the “Economics of the University” class, which served to educate students on how to best advocate for change. Figlio created this class after noticing students make demands for change within Northwestern and SESP that often made sense but were ineffectively argued. He stated, “I realize that actually, a lot of requests that students would make were things that [made] a lot of sense […] But often there was this disconnect between the thing that I think students wanted, and the specific things that they were asking for, or alternatively, a disconnect between the things the students were asking for, and what was possible, given the way a university works. So I decided to develop and teach this class, largely, as a way of giving students the tools to make my life a little more difficult.”
Figlio went on to say, “I am looking forward to University of Rochester students making it hard for me. […] It’s not hard for me to disappoint somebody when they’re asking for something that’s ridiculous. It’s hard for me to disappoint somebody when they’re asking for something that’s completely reasonable.” Figlio mentioned that he hopes to teach a course similar to the one he created at Northwestern within a couple of years, saying, “I’m hoping to be able to figure out a way to be a professor [at UR], to help our students to be effective at advocating for the things that they really want. Even if it makes my life a little harder.”
Figlio ended the interview by stating, “We have an obligation to create the conditions through which every single student not just survives, but thrives and leads.”