Q&A with Alan Houston

Alan Houston, provost of Eleanor Roosevelt College and current chair of the Council of Provosts, will serve as UC San Diego’s Interim Vice Chancellor – Student Affairs beginning July 1. Houston joined the UC San Diego faculty in 1989 as a professor of political science and has served as provost for the last three and a half years. In this interview, he talks about his 25-year tenure on campus, his passion and excitement in being involved in UC San Diego’s strategic planning process, and recommendations on improving the student experience.

What initially drew you to UC San Diego and what’s kept you here for nearly 25 years?

Photos by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

What initially drew me to UC San Diego was a position as assistant professor in the department of political science. What’s kept me here over the last quarter century? The sheer quality of the people who make up UC San Diego. They are curious, lively and engaged. And fiercely talented.  Every day, I am challenged in the best possible way. It might be teaching a class or discussing my research; it might be working with a student organization or contributing to a committee.  Wherever I go on campus, and whatever I am doing, I find myself engaged with extraordinary students and colleagues. It is, quite simply, delightful to be a part of this vibrant community.

How has your experience as a provost prepared you for your new role as Interim Vice Chancellor – Student Affairs?

Students Affairs is responsible for a wide range of important programs and activities, from recruiting new students to helping ensure their health and well-being. As provost, I have had the opportunity to work with students and staff in all aspects of undergraduate life, including housing and dining, core curricula, creating new student organizations, working with student leaders, and helping individuals navigate personal and intellectual challenges. Our colleges are integrated living-learning communities dedicated to “the whole student.”  As the Interim Vice Chancellor, I will be involved in this same work (and more!), though at a broader campus level.

Also, as chair of the Council of Provosts, I have represented the colleges in the strategic planning process. I will bring those experiences – from holding student town halls to deliberating with members of the Chancellor’s Council – to my work in Student Affairs.

What do you look forward to most in your new role as the Interim Vice Chancellor – Student Affairs?

When talking about UC San Diego’s strategic planning process, Chancellor Khosla recently summarized the university’s mission in eight words: “student-centered, research-oriented, service-oriented, public university.”  Under Chancellor Khosla’s leadership, we have the opportunity to refine and develop the university in ways that will add new richness and depth to the student experience. I am thrilled at the opportunity to contribute, as part of the Chancellor’s leadership team, to the fulfillment of this mission.

What do you think UC San Diego can do to improve the student experience?

At a strategic planning town hall for over 200 college RAs that I led earlier this year, I asked students to rank a series of actions that have the potential to improve student experience. The top choice was tuition stabilization; the resources of students and their families are often stretched to the limit, and as a public university we must work to ensure access. The second-highest choice was smaller classes and more contact with faculty. Strengthening and supporting the student educational experience is key to satisfaction, and an essential part of the mission of Student Affairs.

Both undergraduate and graduate students have also expressed interest in greater opportunity to build bridges between “school” and “career.” Innovation in this area has the potential to significantly strengthen student experience. In my experience, students thrive when they are recognized and supported. This is a special challenge for a large and diverse public university.  The more we can do to make each and every student feel welcome and engaged, the stronger the experience will be for everyone.

What advice do you have for incoming students and also students who have just graduated?

I would encourage every student, whether incoming or graduating, to pursue life with passion, intelligence and curiosity.  New opportunities present themselves every day. In my experience, the good life – a life that is meaningful and rewarding – combines commitment and a strong sense of purpose with openness to change. And since we are talking about UC San Diego students, I would also encourage them to be active members of the community. As a professor, it is clear to me that learning does not happen only in the classroom. In fact, classroom learning often builds on skills and talents developed outside the classroom, in student organizations, on the athletic field or in the workplace. Time on campus, as a student, is the start of a rewarding lifetime of learning and living.

Fun faves:

  • Favorite place at UC San Diego:  Fallen Star
  • Favorite place on Earth: London
  • Favorite UC San Diego tradition: Commencement
  • Favorite food:  Anything Italian.  And I love to cook!  (I do all the cooking in my household.)
  • Favorite hobby:  Cycling.  The hills and roads of San Diego County are glorious.
  • Favorite course to teach: Political Science 13, “Power and Justice.”
  • Favorite course in college: “Modern Religious Thought, 1600 – 1800.”  The professor – who remains a friend 30 years later – taught me to think and write with clarity, rigor and creativity.  He remains a model for my own teaching.
  • Favorite book: A toss-up. I’ve spent over a decade studying the life and writings of Benjamin Franklin, and have even had the opportunity to read the original manuscript of The Autobiography.  On the other hand, for sheer pleasure, there is nothing like Mark Twain!

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