Meet Provost Jean Morrison
BU’s chief academic officer keeps a close eye on teaching and research standards.
By Andrew Thurston
Photo by Vernon Doucette
When they were in day care, you made surprise visits. In high school, you got parent-teacher nights. With your son or daughter away at college, you might feel a little out of the loop when it comes to keeping tabs on the quality of your child’s education. You needn’t worry. Jean Morrison has it covered.
Provost Morrison’s office is, as she frankly puts it, “ultimately responsible for the quality of academic programs Boston University offers.” The Office of the Provost helps run everything from study abroad opportunities to audits of academic programs; you can think of it as your surprise visit and parent-teacher night rolled into one.
Morrison, who joined BU in January 2011 after a distinguished career as a teacher and administrator at the University of Southern California, spoke to Parent about how she’s making sure your children get the best education available.
Parent: When you speak with parents, what questions do they usually ask you?
Jean Morrison: The one that’s commonly asked these days is about student debt: are our students going to be able to absorb the debt they incur by completing a BU undergraduate education? We work very hard as a university to ensure that the total debt our students take is not an impossible burden; I think we do very well on this point. If you take our Class of 2011 as an example, a relatively small 57 percent of those students took out loans to finance their degrees. The students who’ve chosen to borrow in the federal loan program, we have been proud to see, have had a default rate of less than 1 percent. We are very mindful that this is a difficult time for families, and so the University devotes considerable time and resources to help make these costs more manageable. This year alone, undergraduates are receiving $189 million in BU scholarships.
The other thing parents are concerned about is the quality of the education and experience that students receive. We have a large number of very different kinds of offerings and, with programs as diverse as engineering, theology, and communications, there’s really an extraordinary breadth of opportunities for students at BU.
Many parents may also be concerned about how well a BU education prepares students for today’s difficult work environment.
Students go on from Boston University to a whole range of different next steps—some go right into the workforce in a variety of different careers and jobs; many go on to graduate school. I think students who’ve attended BU tend to have a lot of real-world experience: they’ve lived in Boston and navigated life in the city, and many have had international experience as part of study abroad programs. Finally, a lot of our students have internships while they’re undergraduates and that’s critical. Oftentimes the internships lead directly to post-baccalaureate jobs; if they don’t, the experience is almost always extremely helpful to students when they go to look for a job.
What checks do you have in place to make sure BU continues to offer the best education possible?
One of the initiatives I’ve launched is the academic program review. This is an ongoing effort to assess the quality of all of our academic programs. I think that will pay real dividends as far as parents are concerned because it will help us identify the strengths—and the weaknesses—in our academic program and give us the opportunity to fix things that need to be fixed and grow some of our strengths.
What other initiatives have you introduced since joining the University?
One that’s in the planning stage right now is a University-wide arts initiative to ensure all of our undergraduates have a substantive experience or interaction with the arts. I think one aspect of being a well-rounded and well-educated citizen is having a real appreciation for the arts, and the University-wide arts initiative will provide that kind of exposure to our students and also enhance the recognition of our outstanding arts programs and those of our city. We hope to launch that effort in the next academic year.
What has excited you most about BU?
The University is so intimately intertwined in the city of Boston, and we have really extraordinary faculty doing exciting things. The intellectual work that characterizes the University is exceptional, and I think we’re on a really important trajectory to increasingly being recognized as a very strong, high-quality research university. It’s exciting to be involved in continuing efforts to improve the quality and the stature of BU because there’s such a strong framework in terms of the quality of the faculty and the depth of the research and scholarship that’s already going on.
There are many opportunities for undergraduates at BU to be involved in some of that research. How important—and unusual—is that?
The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) is one of our absolute gems; it’s a program that’s funded by the Office of the Provost and it provides research opportunities for our undergraduates in a range of disciplines, from science and engineering to political science and history. One of the reasons to choose a large research university over a liberal arts college is the chance to be involved with faculty who are creating new knowledge through research and scholarship, so the opportunities students have when they participate in UROP are comparable to the experiences that any graduate student would have in an advanced doctoral program. They work closely with our very best faculty and are involved in state-of-the-art research and scholarship. Students who had a good undergraduate research experience often go on to be researchers and scholars themselves, so it’s a critical opportunity for an undergraduate student to see if these kinds of intellectual experiences and activities around discovery of new knowledge are what they want to pursue. ■