Q and A with new Secretary of the Faculty Vin Steponaitis

Vin Steponaitis
Vin Steponaitis

Vincas P. Steponaitis came to Carolina in 1988 to be the director of the Research Laboratories of Archaeology in the College of Arts and Sciences. When Faculty Council reconvenes this fall, Steponaitis will have a new role, as the first new Secretary of the Faculty in 20 years, following the retirement of Joseph Ferrell. In that position, Steponaitis will also be an ex-officio member of 10 standing committees, keep minutes of council meetings, conduct elections and maintain records for honorary degrees and special awards.

As Steponaitis joins the Office of Faculty Governance, Deputy Chair of the Faculty Anne Whisnant will be leaving. Effective Aug. 15, she will accept an appointment as Whichard Visiting Distinguished Professor of History at East Carolina University for the 2016-17 academic year.

We sat down with Steponaitis recently to ask him about his new role.

What does faculty governance mean to you?

In essence, it’s that faculty members have a say in how the University is run. It’s very critical for recruitment and retention. Faculty are more attracted to places where they know they’ll have a say in the way the institution operates. When you look around the country, faculty governance is not as strong everywhere as it is here. It’s not something we can take for granted.

Does strong faculty governance attract a different kind of faculty member?

I don’t know that it’s a different kind of faculty member. A strong role in governance certainly helps the reputation of the University faculty nationally. Once faculty get here and they realize that their voice matters, I think that’s a powerful incentive to stay. Salary is important, but equally important are the more intangible things about a place—your colleagues, the institution’s values, and whether you have a voice.

Why did you want to become Secretary of the Faculty?

I can’t replace Joe [Ferrell]. He is a tough act to follow. But this gives me a chance to give something back to an institution that has sustained me for almost 30 years. I feel very strongly that institutions need care and feeding to remain strong and to get better. When Joe decided to step down, I felt I was in a good position to help.

q-and-a-icon-21619How do you see your role?

If you imagine faculty governance as a ship, the chair of the faculty is like the captain. He’s the one who sets the course. The role of the secretary is like the ship’s engineer. I have to make sure that the ship works. The two roles are complementary. If this were the Starship Enterprise, Bruce Cairns would be Captain Kirk and I’d      be Scotty.

What are your priorities and your vision as the first new secretary in 20 years?

My priority is to keep faculty governance strong and to make it stronger wherever I can. Challenges always arise and you have to adapt. For example, over the time Joe Ferrell was secretary of the faculty, he transformed the Office of Faculty Governance into a very active place, with a small but energetic staff. That has really made a difference in how faculty governance works.

I come in with fresh eyes. I’m going to pick up every piece and look at it from every angle. Some pieces I’ll look at and I’ll put them back down exactly where they were. Other pieces I’ll look at and say, “I really think this should go over here.” With Anne [Whisnant] gone, it will be a challenge, but I hope to get some temporary help in place. There’s a small silver lining, actually, in that the gap left by Anne’s departure lets me see more clearly the many contributions she made on the job while here. And I think that will help me as I go through the process of rethinking how this office will be structured.

What challenges in higher education do you see on the horizon?

One of the big challenges is to find ways of addressing the loss of confidence in the liberal arts. What makes American universities strong is their focus on the liberal arts. We’re not just training specialists in their narrow fields at the undergraduate level. Our students learn how to write, they learn how to think, they learn how to communicate and these skills serve them in good stead, no matter what they do in life. And they do amazing things.

The other challenge is defending the importance of basic research. We just have to understand that not all research will immediately translate. Universities create an ecosystem where basic research can happen, where different scholars pursue their ideas. Some of those ideas may lead to dead ends. Others, 30 years from now, may lead to amazing breakthroughs. We don’t know in advance which ideas those will be. 

A third thing is that we have to work to maintain the kind of flexibility and agility that universities have traditionally had and to decrease red tape. There’s a tendency in large organizations to keep adding bureaucratic processes and to micromanage from above. Often that doesn’t work out well. Yes, we have to be accountable, but we have to find ways of being accountable that don’t waste time and stifle creativity.

 Interview by Susan Hudson, University Gazette