Provost candidate Lourdes María Alvarez impresses faculty


Mike Rundle

Senior Vice President and Provost final candidate Lourdes María Alvarez addressed members of the Columbia College Chicago community Feb. 7 at Film Row Cinema, 1104 S. Wabash Ave.

By Knox Keranen

The first of two final candidates to be Columbia’s next provost, Lourdes María Alvarez, visited campus Feb. 7 and impressed faculty by deftly discussing sensitive issues, including the need for improved communication between faculty and the administration, the part-time to full-time faculty ratio and low faculty morale.

“Front-line people best know what’s going on and maybe have the most elegant solutions to problems,” Alvarez said. “That dialogue, that communication, is really key.” 

Alvarez said it would be her goal as provost to help the faculty and administration feel comfortable sharing their views. 

President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim was reluctant to acknowledge a potential gap between the faculty and administration, yet he talked about the importance of a provost being able to translate between groups. 

“Faculty and administrators, even when they are talking about the same thing, [sometimes] use different language,” said Kim in an interview before Alvarez’s presentation. “I think it’s important in the role of the provost [to have] someone who is fluent in all different ways of expressing things,” he added. 

Alvarez started her professional career in 1993 as an assistant professor of Spanish at Bard College in New York. 

She left Bard in 2000, but not before she was promoted to director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Latin American and Iberian studies. After Bard, she spent a year in Rabat, Morocco, as a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow. She was then hired in 2001 as an associate professor of Spanish at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. 

After 10 years at Catholic University of America, the University of New Haven hired Alvarez as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 2012. She stepped down as dean in December 2017 and is currently on sabbatical. 

Alvarez illustrated her upbringing as the daughter of two Cuban refugees to an auditorium of Columbia faculty and administrators at Film Row Cinema, 1104 S. Wabash Ave.

Graduating high school at 15 and paying for her own tuition at the University of California, Berkeley with what she earned from a cafeteria job, Alvarez became acquainted with the struggles of fiscally-strained students, she said. 

“Those experiences definitely fuel my commitment to today’s students, too many of whom are food insecure, as I was, too. Many are making tremendous sacrifices in pursuit of their dreams; too many have a hard time asking for help,” Alvarez said. 

Periodically, she had to take semesters off to work full-time and save enough money to go back, she added. 

Associate Professor in the Science and Mathematics Department Beatrix Budy asked Alvarez about her early perceptions of another precarious issue: faculty morale.

Morale is a problem that would certainly be one of the tasks that I want to urgently address,” Alvarez said.“You all have endured budget cuts that are demoralizing, and they are even more demoralizing if there’s a perception that there wasn’t a discussion about how best to implement those,” she added.

During an interview after the presentation, Budy said, “I was more impressed than I expected to be. I want to know more, but she sold me today. She managed to talk about hard things in a positive way.” 

Adjunct Professor in the Business and Entrepreneurship Department Robert DiFazio told Alvarez that the part-time to full-time faculty ratio at Columbia is 70 to 30 and asked Alvarez about her thoughts on the role of part-time faculty. 

Alvarez said she did not have a blanket answer, but recognized the plight of some adjunct professors. Some institutions rely on adjuncts as purely a cost-cutting measure, but other institutions have adjuncts who are professionally engaged in a variety of ways and are part-time by choice, she said. 

“The response that I received … made me feel that that was a very sensitive person who cares about peoples’ feelings,” said DiFazio. 

Kim expressed excitement for the potential provost, citing her administrative experience and creativity. 

“[That] combination to me is really compelling, someone who not only has a lot of ideas but has had to do things with them to help an institution advance,” Kim said. 

Alvarez is attracted to Columbia because of its distinctions, such as diversity, inspiring student work and the vibrant, urban setting. These distinctions are integral to its identity and future success, she said. 

“We must strive to rekindle the curiosity and wonder that so many students have lost in this time of fear, careerism and [being forced to be] money-driven,” Alvarez said. 

The next candidate, whom Kim and other faculty have said has a vastly different style than Alvarez, is scheduled to visit Feb. 14 from 3–4:30 p.m. at Film Row Cinema. Details about the second candidate will be shared next week.