Citizen Staff Writer
RENÉE SCHAFER HORTON
Meredith Hay couldn’t have won a popularity contest this past year at the University of Arizona even if she had wanted to – massive state budget cuts made sure of that.
But Hay, 47, never assumed she’d be the most popular UA administrator when she accepted the job of provost a year ago.
“We don’t make decisions based on popularity,” the Texas native said in a recent interview. “It’s not about a popularity contest. It’s about advancing the university.”
As second in command at Arizona’s primary research university, Hay is UA’s chief operating officer, the holder of the purse strings and the person at whom faculty and staff – right or wrong – pointed accusatory fingers as she spearheaded UA’s largest reorganization.
Since September, Hay has been the face of hard choices at a university besieged by a plummeting economy and state budget cuts. She’s championed higher tuition, college mergers, program elimination and a general call to identify and build on UA’s strengths and “set aside” programs no longer useful to UA’s mission.
It hasn’t been an easy job – the decision to pursue a tuition surcharge of nearly $1,100 in the fall has been particularly difficult, Hay said, but she has no regrets about taking the position.
“Heavens, no,” Hay said. “I am thrilled to be here, thrilled to be part of the UA team. . . . It’s a crisis in the economy, but it’s also an incredible opportunity for the University of Arizona to position itself strategically to be stronger than it ever has been before. It’s a thrilling opportunity.”
President Robert N. Shelton announced his plans to end business as usual at UA last September. He charged Hay with overseeing what she christened “the Transformation Plan,” an attempt to shore up UA academic excellence while reducing costs.
Hay took the challenge and asked – some say demanded – that deans and department heads find ways to transform their units to reduce overhead and raise revenue. She was firm in her timeline, wanting full proposals developed in less than three months and changes implemented by spring.
It wasn’t a popular move among academics used to months of planning for something as small as a course-name change.
At town halls held across campus to discuss the Transformation Plan, faculty accused Hay of creating a climate of fear, and staff employees said she was out of touch with their role at UA.
No one was denying the need for change in light of state budget cuts of nearly $80 million. But many in the UA community seemed to think Hay was moving too quickly.
Faculty Senate leaders called for all the transformation steps to be vetted through normal Senate processes and, so doing, slowed Hay’s timeline somewhat. That minimal slowdown – mergers and consolidations were indeed announced this spring – has caused some of the early push-back to Hay’s processes to wane.
Most deans, department heads and leading faculty contacted did not return phone calls seeking comment about the provost. Many of her critics would not speak on the record.
“She’s doing what she has to do, but there are others who might have done it differently,” Maurice Sevigny, dean of the College of Fine Arts, said when announcing his retirement last week. Sevigny’s college is being absorbed into a mega-unit called the Colleges of Arts, Letters and Sciences, the most prominent result of the Transformation Plan.
Faculty Senate Chair Wanda Howell, who works closely with Hay as mergers and consolidations make their way through the Senate’s approval process, concurred.
“It’s a stylistic thing,” Howell said. “She had some issues related to her communication style at first but she’s learned very rapidly about our specific culture. The bull in the china shop just doesn’t work here.”
But Hay works and works, completely focused on the mission Shelton gave her nearly nine months ago.
“She never sleeps,” said Shelton, Hay’s biggest supporter. “Her first year has been nothing short of spectacular. She has led a number of complicated, thorny processes that were extremely difficult to do. Meredith is decisive and I like that. We have to get things done.”
Strong academic credentials
At 6 feet tall, Hay can be intimidating just by standing in a room. Her academic credentials are also impressive: internationally known for research in cardiovascular neurobiology, a member of advisory committees for NASA and scientific organizations, vice president for research at the University of Iowa. And when she launches into one of her no-nonsense, change-is-coming speeches, it is easy to see how feathers can get ruffled.
“I will admit I have raised expectations and I think I make my expectations very clear,” Hay said. Pausing briefly, she conceded there may have been rough spots, and if she could clone herself, her other self would be assigned solely to communication.
“Because every time I think I’m communicating enough, I need to double my efforts,” she explained. “But that’s always true: You cannot communicate enough in an environment this complex. If there’s anything I always tell myself, it’s ‘Are we communicating enough? Are we communicating the right messages and are we making sure everybody’s voices are heard?’ And it’s a process because we’re all human beings.”
A town hall Shelton hosted for faculty to discuss the Transformation Plan last October illustrated those communication difficulties.
One after another, faculty stood and confronted Shelton and Hay about what they perceived as a race to leave no department unmerged.
They also cited a fear of retribution created by rumors that Hay had told deans they needed to offer programs for closure or she’d choose for them.
Hay protested those assessments at the town hall, saying that every voice was valued, that suggestions had been solicited through the Transformation White Papers process and that there was no predetermined number of mergers.
“Provost, we must be living in a different university because that is the message that is getting communicated and we are all planning that way,” said Gary Rhoades, then director of UA’s Center for the Study of Higher Education.
Rhoades took a year’s leave in January to become the general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.
While the original impression might have been that Hay was on a different page than the rest of the UA community, Randy Livingston, president of the UA’s Staff Advisory Council, said that perception changed with familiarity.
“We had to learn how to understand her and the situation she was brought into and she had to learn a lot about us,” Livingston said. “She came in at a tough time and had a mission to do and it was a little rough at first, but it seems to be a smoother road ahead.”
That smoother road may have as much to do with the economic reality of Arizona as it does with Hay being a quick study on UA shared-governance processes and communication styles.
“If you think about it, we started this Transformation Plan before the crash of the world economy,” Hay said. “When we set the stage, there was a little bit of skepticism. But as the economy came into focus, I think there was a reality-facing amongst the entire university that we have got to change the way we do business.”
For people who share Hay’s sense of urgency, she’s a breath of fresh air.
“She makes decisions; everything is not a long-term study,” said Jeffrey Goldberg, interim dean of the College of Engineering. “But I like that. I like people doing stuff. So, OK, if you’re going to actually do things, you’re going to tick some people off.”
Student body President Tommy Bruce also said he supports Hay’s assertiveness.
“She’s a powerhouse,” he said. “Yes, there’s a certain culture at UA and she had to learn that, but a lot of provosts take forever to get something done. The definition of time is different for her. She doesn’t believe in dilly-dallying.”
The changes are already being launched, and by the fall, UA will look markedly different. There will be new schools and departments created by mergers and consolidations, and – courtesy of those massive state cuts – larger class sizes and more graduate assistants filling in for unfunded faculty lines.
UA leaders say the mergers will save at least $3 million in overhead and administrative costs as fewer business managers, secretaries and advisers are needed. Also, by leveraging and combining resources across units, the newly created schools and colleges become more competitive in the search for millions available in federal grants.
While Hay may be known for her results-oriented manner, she will backstep if needed, as she did in October after informing deans that available departmental budget balances from state funds would be swept into a centralized fund. That action shifted spending authority over those previously allocated state dollars from individual colleges to Hay’s office.
Deans protested and a story in UA’s student newspaper focusing on the money swept from the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture brought the action to everyone’s attention. Hay reversed the decision within 48 hours with a campuswide e-mail that said “Deans and Vice Presidents will manage the savings drawn from their reporting units.”
Brooks Jeffery, associate dean for the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, cited that action as evidence of how Hay has climbed the learning curve with historic speed “in the most challenging of years.”
“She’s been very respectful of our college, understanding the autonomy of units like ours,” Jeffery said. “To her credit, she’s a quick study and picks things up and understands it. She is laser-focused on the mission of the university and makes sure the colleges understand their role in that mission.”
Shelton said there were a few bumps as Hay adjusted to UA, but that is normal for new administrators. And he emphasized that he and Hay are in agreement where hard decisions are concerned.
“It is true of anyone that they have to learn the culture of the institution and how projects get done,” he said. “Each locale has its own dynamic, but I view the president-provost relationship as us being on exactly the same page and that’s how it is with Meredith. There was no one saying to the deans, ‘I’ll force you to do this,’ while the other one was saying, ‘Poor baby.’”
Supporter of the arts
Hay was born in Houston, the middle of three children who loved to explore the great outdoors.
“I was always interested in figuring out why things work,” Hay said.
As an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, she had an epiphany that sealed her fate in science – figuring out how the brain works.
“I took my first course in neuroscience and in the textbook was a photograph of an action potential, which is a recording of the electrical activity of a single neuron or brain cell,” she recalled. “From that point I was hooked and knew I wanted to spend my life understanding how the brain works.”
Her father, a dentist, died when Hay was 10, but her mother still lives in Houston and she goes back to visit as frequently as she can.
“For me, what keeps you going are those things that keep you centered,” she said. “And what’s really important? It’s the people. It’s always been about the people in your life that make a difference.”
At UA, Hay said, it is still all about the people.
“Getting to tour laboratories or studios or seeing HarpFusion last night, you’re just overwhelmed by the creativity of the faculty and the students,” she said. “And it’s in those moments that you know everything is going to be all right, that the world is going to keep turning, that the university is going to be fantastic because we have some tremendous people, students, faculty and staff.”
HarpFusion is the largest touring concert harp ensemble in the world and is based at UA’s School of Music in the College of Fine Arts. Speaking about the group, Hay lit up, enthusiastically proclaiming that science and technology might advance and improve human life, but “it’s the arts and the literature that makes it worth living.”
Hay’s zeal no doubt comes as good news to the half of campus not dedicated to the “hard sciences,” a contingent that has privately worried that a university led by two scientists in the midst of massive budget cuts would leave non-science programs particularly vulnerable to dismantling.
Hay said she understands the concern, but it is unnecessary.
As evidence, Hay said she created the Provost’s Advisory Council on the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences last week to bring together select faculty to “ask the big questions.”
“Where can we be world class? Where should we move forward? It’s an exciting conversation,” she said.
That question – where can UA be world class – is what drives the entire Transformation Plan conversation, and Hay herself, at this point.
“We are going to protect those programs that we are truly world class in,” she said. “Our ranked programs are going to be protected and advanced. Those programs that, with some investment and some protection could become world-class, we’re going to invest in those areas. And then the really hard decisions are, ‘What are the things that we’re not going to do anymore? What are the things that the University of Arizona, given the current (economic) situation, we cannot afford to enter the market and be world-class?’ If you can’t be the best, if you can’t be world-class, we shouldn’t do it.”
‘She never sleeps. Her first year has been nothing short of spectacular.’
Robert N. Shelton,
Title: UA executive vice president and provost
Family: Hay calls her two horses and eight dogs her “adopted/rescued children.”
Education: B.A. in psychology from University of Colorado; masters in neurobiology and doctorate in cardiovascular pharmacology from University of Texas-San Antonio.
Academic highlight: Internationally known for her research in cardiovascular neurobiology and the role of sex differences in hypertension development.
Currently reading: “Audition: A Memoir” by Barbara Walters, and “The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism” by Ron Suskind.
How she recharges: Riding her horse, Cody, and hiking in the Tucson Mountains
Biggest surprise this year: “Other than a 26 percent cut in the general fund? I think that qualifies as a big surprise.”