10 Questions with Susan Singer

The new vice president for academic affairs and provost discusses her goals, learning the Rollins culture, and the role of STEM in a liberal arts education.

Rollins College Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost Susan Singer Rollins College Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost Susan Singer It’s 4:55 on a Monday afternoon in late August, and Mother Nature is about to give Susan Singer a warm, wet welcome to (not so) sunny Central Florida.

Dashing out of her office, she hops on her bike to make a 5 p.m. appointment just down the road. Minutes later, the heavens open with one of our trademark afternoon showers.

Talk about literally immersing yourself in the culture.

This time of year, it’s beautiful in Northfield, Minnesota—where Singer spent the past three decades on the faculty at Carleton College. Here in Winter Park, well, now that she’s almost done dodging the obligatory summer thunderstorms, at least Rollins’ new vice president for academic affairs and provost won’t be shoveling mounds of snow in a few months.

Singer, who started August 1, recently finished nearly four years of directing the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation. She led a team of 50 with an annual budget of more than $300 million, helping 14 federal agencies collaborate to increase their collective impact on improving undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. Her primary field of study is plant evolutionary developmental biology, with an emphasis on genetics and genomics.

In her new role, Singer will administer the College’s educational program; make faculty appointments; coordinate academic activities; oversee institutional and faculty research; facilitate budgetary and institutional planning; assure institutional effectiveness and assessment for improvement; and maintain academic standards.

Rollins360 recently sat down with Singer—right before that aforementioned weather event, in fact—to learn more about what she has in store for academic life on campus.

What attracted you to Rollins? Why take the job?
“I wasn’t looking to move, but I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. Rollins has such incredible potential in terms of being an exciting model for 21st-century liberal arts education. The College really embraces the liberal arts tradition but has room for the whole practical aspect of learning, as well. And who wouldn’t want to work for Grant Cornwell, right?”

What do you see as Rollins’ strengths?
“Beyond an incredibly talented, vibrant faculty, the senior leadership team is unusually good. You have to be part of a team that believes the world can be changed for the better and has the capacity to do so—and I’m honored to be part of that. This institution has a clear sense of its mission and where it’s going.”

What do you hope to accomplish in your first year?
“I want to help an exceptional faculty become even more exceptional. I want us to leverage the fantastic work that’s already underway to educate the whole student, integrating the curricular and co-curricular dimensions of their life. I want to support the new governance structure that we have, the new committees we have, to create the best possible Rollins. I want us to sort out how we best support and retain the talented student body that comes here.”

Students participate in a roundtable classroom discussion. (Photo by Scott Cook) Students participate in a roundtable classroom discussion. (Photo by Scott Cook)

Where is your energy currently focused?
“I want to deeply understand this culture, so I’m meeting with every department and tenured and tenure-track faculty, holding listening sessions around themed topics with faculty and students, fully immersing myself and addressing pressing problems that need attention, and developing a strategic plan.”

What role does STEM play in a liberal arts education?
“It’s not science and liberal arts, it’s science as a liberal art. It’s the context, the approach, the integration, cohesion, the way of knowing the world. It’s about thinking critically, problem solving, having an open mind, being curious, and the ability to clearly articulate and argue the case, based on evidence that’s domain specific. The way you construct an argument in philosophy or history is distinct from the way you make a case in physics, but they’re all rigorous ways of seeing, knowing, and understanding the world.”

Students work together in a lab inside of the Bush Science Center. (Photo by Scott Cook) Students work together in a lab inside of the Bush Science Center. (Photo by Scott Cook)

Do you see new partnerships arising between Rollins and the National Science Foundation?
“I’m no longer working for the NSF, but I’m happy to support people seeking federal funding for their work—and I’ll be their biggest cheerleader when it makes sense for what they do. But my goal is not to make this the Rollins College of Science, though. When it comes to NSF grants, I’m more interested in finding ways to leverage that money to support more students who want to major in the liberal arts.”

Have you visited Rollins’ greenhouse yet?
“Of course. I went there my first day. I feel incredibly fortunate to have a place that feels so much like home. Partridge pea and chamaecrista are nearest to my heart, so we’re going to have to find a way to get some of those in there.”

A student works on a writing assignment inside of the College's greenhouse. (Photo by Scott Cook) A student works on a writing assignment inside of the College's greenhouse. (Photo by Scott Cook)

Outside of work, what do you do for fun?
“I love to bike and do yoga. I’m from the Adirondacks, and I sail for fun. I also like to canoe, and I’m determined to learn to kayak. I love to garden, so I’ve got to figure out how to do that in Florida.”

You’ve moved to a great city for fine dining. Got a favorite restaurant yet?
“I love Hamilton’s Kitchen. What’s not to like about eating and doing good at the same time? That’s such an inspirational model.”

Any final thoughts?
“Mostly, I really want people to know how much I value everyone here and how excited I am to help everyone actualize our shared dream of Rollins. It’s such a unique and wonderful opportunity to be part of something so forward-looking and positive.”

A student paints in an art class. (Photo by Scott Cook) A student paints in an art class. (Photo by Scott Cook)