By Su Byron
In October, Suzanne Sherman, Ph.D. stepped in as New College’s provost and vice president of academic affairs. Those lofty titles don’t begin to describe her.
This multifaceted individual is also a chemist, scholar, teacher, problem solver and people person. It’s a rare combination. Sherman’s work for New College draws on all of her strengths. And it was the people of New College who drew her here.
Call it the human factor. On her first day on campus many years ago, while being interviewed for the position of assistant professor of chemistry, Sherman felt an instant connection to the place and the people of New College.
Judging by Sherman’s scholarly career, you might be surprised. She studied the mysteries of molecules, not human psychology. She earned her doctorate in inorganic chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and received a post-doctoral National Institutes of Health (NIH) fellowship in inorganic chemistry at Harvard University. In the second year of her post-doc, Sherman’s job search was an odyssey across the United States to interview at research universities and liberal arts colleges.
When Sherman gave her research lecture during her job search at most of these schools, only faculty asked her questions—not graduate students, and certainly no undergraduate students asked her questions about her research. Sherman’s New College experience was different. Here, the College’s students asked the questions.
Their questions impressed her. So did the students themselves.
“They were incredibly smart and asked amazing questions,” Sherman said. “I was stimulated by their energy and curiosity.”
Sherman felt a similar rapport with administration and faculty, and she joined the faculty as an associate professor of chemistry in 1989.
Before long, Sherman began sharing her rigorous scientific knowledge in the classroom. She never stopped teaching in the years that followed. But she also took on administrative duties. That included a three-year term chairing the Natural Sciences division (from 1998 to 2001), and another stint as faculty chair (from 2013 to 2016).
That sounds like paper pushing. Sherman disagrees.
“I enjoy teaching,” she said. “I also enjoy the administrative side. It’s not bureaucracy. It’s all about meetings students’ needs.”
That’s a serious responsibility. But Sherman could handle it.
In 2018, Sherman became associate provost. She took on even more responsibilities. But she didn’t change her style.
“I generally had an open-door policy as a professor,” she said. “And it stayed open when I became associate provost.”
Sherman hit the ground running in her new position. Her early track record as associate provost was impressive. Working closely with the dean of students, faculty colleagues and other offices, Sherman developed a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) to help new students transition to New College, and to meet the college’s requirement for reaccreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
New College submitted that plan last February. The pandemic hit a few weeks later. That’s when Sherman’s trial by fire began—a trial she shared with everyone else on campus.
The pandemic wasn’t just a monstrous problem. That hydra-headed monster created many problems—and struck at the heart of New College’s open, humanistic ethos.
Students were thrown into uncertainty. Some were isolated on campus; others returned home and neglected their own studies while helping younger siblings keep up with online schoolwork. Off-campus students often lacked Internet access and other necessities.
Unprecedented problems. Sherman and campus partners responded with creative solutions.
They eliminated academic dismissal in the spring semester. They extended deadlines for senior thesis submissions. Off-campus and on-campus students got a boost of economic support.
Sherman is proud of these solutions. But she always shares credit. She never said, “I did it.” It’s always about what “we did.”
“It has been an incredible team effort,” Sherman said. “We all knew we needed to help our students get through this crisis. Everybody on campus worked hard to figure out how. Collaboration is key.”
In October, Sherman became provost after Barbara Feldman, Ph.D. stepped down. Sherman is still working hard, with a new set of collaborators.
Has anything really changed? Sherman laughed.
“Well, as associate provost, I had one person reporting to me,” she said. “Now it’s closer to 20 people.”
While Sherman hasn’t changed, she envisions great changes for the College. Her goals as provost are nothing less than ambitious.
Simply put, Sherman wants to retain New College’s existing students, attract new students, prepare every student for graduation—and prepare them for the rest of their lives.
“I want to make sure our graduates are ready for what comes next,” she said. “We do a great job preparing our students for grad school. Our focus has expanded to also prepare them for the world of work.”
Lofty goals. What would she ask for if a magic genie offered to make her deepest wish come true?
“I’d ask for 300 intellectually curious students who are excited about what New College offers to show up at my door tomorrow,” she laughed.
But Sherman said she doesn’t really need a genie to make her New College wish list come true. Her “amazing” collaborators will make it possible. They include Damon Wade, Ph.D., the vice president for enrollment management; Anjali Cadena, the director of student success programs; the creative minds in the Academic Administration Council; and the supportive dream team at the Student Success Center. And so many more.
For Sherman, it’s all about the human factor.
“People make it happen here,” Sherman said. “Having worked with the New College community for so many years, I know that for a fact. Our wonderful students and faculty have proved it to me, again and again.”
Su Byron is the communications specialist for the New College Foundation.