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John Frederick
John Frederick

UTSA Spotlight: Provost John Frederick appreciates UTSA's advances and looks ahead to more changes

By Marianne McBride Lewis
Director of Public Affairs

(July 14, 2008)--John Frederick joined UTSA on Feb. 18 as provost and vice president for academic affairs following six months as a senior fellow at the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges and 19 years at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Beginning as an associate professor of chemistry in 1988, Frederick advanced to become UNR's executive vice president and provost, a position he held for six years. He recently shared his thoughts with me about the first four months on the job and his return to his hometown of San Antonio.

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MML: What was it like returning to Texas after so many years away?

JF: I really began to understand how time is the fourth dimension. Geographically, San Antonio is much the same, but there is an indefinable change. The passage of time changes our environment, and this is what I have noticed the most. On the personal side, I have been able to catch up with old friends, which is very nice.

MML: I have read that you are a theoretical chemical physicist by training. In layman's language, what does that mean?

JF: It is the use of mathematics and computer modeling applied to problems in chemistry. It often involves developing mathematical models and utilizing computer simulations of molecular events -- in my case, examining how molecules move in response to their absorption of light.

MML: What led you to teaching versus a career in the private sector?

JF: It started in college when I tutored math in engineering study hall. Teaching gave me a deep sense of personal reward when I was able to explain complicated things. So, in retrospect, this was the first "handwriting on the wall." I knew I would probably teach but thought I might major in history -- despite liking numbers like I do -- but soon realized there were fewer students in chemistry, so I gravitated to that instead.

MML: How did you become interested in research?

JF: Actually, UTSA played a fundamental role. In the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I took physics at UTSA in summer school. I worked in a chemistry lab with another student, a psychology major who was taking organic chemistry because he was getting ready for medical school. I had my first taste of doing research in an academic environment. I had flexible hours, freedom to work on projects at whatever hours of the day or night I wanted to work and do work I enjoyed doing.

MML: Do you see any similarities between the University of Nevada, Reno and UTSA?

JF: In the late 1980s, Nevada was undergoing a transformation from a predominantly teaching institution to a more comprehensive research university. UTSA is now going through a very similar transformation.

MML: And differences?

JF: The student profile -- Nevada is not as diverse, or as multicultural. Thanks to my years growing up in San Antonio, I find diverse environments to be stimulating. I am thrilled to be at a Hispanic-serving institution. Also, UTSA is a university of opportunity and I think that is exciting.

MML: What is it that you enjoy most about higher education administration?

JF: One great side of this job is getting to be around very passionate people ?- people who are excited about what they do. To interact with them within the context of the things that most interest them is a real joy.

MML: What would you share with our faculty readers?

JF: First of all, I would emphasize that my agenda is shaped by the president's vision to become a premier public research university -- a desirable outcome for both UTSA and the city of San Antonio. But, it will not happen overnight; we will have to take it one step at a time.

Some of the changes may seem mundane -- aligning policy, stabilizing the core of non-tenure track faculty so that our tenured and tenure-track faculty can engage in scholarship and creative activity, and so forth -- but they all help us achieve the goal of becoming a premier research university.

In terms of my style, I am very data driven -- it's the scientist in me -- I listen to all sides of the story. I won't overreact, so if I appear calm, I am not disinterested. On the other hand, if I am passionate about something, I have really thought hard about it.

I would ask faculty and staff to provide me with their good ideas and be understanding as we make changes. There may be some hiccups, but I will do my best to address them. And, I think we will all be happy with the results in the end.

And, for the longtime faculty, as they look back in time, they have all seen a lot change at UTSA. I encourage them to take great pride in the changes because had it not been for the work of faculty over the past 20 to 25 years, we would not be where we are today.

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