Full interview with Denise Battles, incoming college president

The Lamron staff conducted the following interview via email with Denise A. Battles, incoming college president and current provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of North Carolina Wilmington on Jan. 28. The State University of New York Board of Trustees appointed Battles on Jan. 13, and her tenure as college president will begin on or around July 1, 2015. The interview has been lightly edited for formatting and clarity.

Read the full article discussing Denise Battles' presidential appointment and reactions from the campus community here.

The Lamron: What prompted you to apply for and accept the presidential appointment at Geneseo?

Denise Battles: I was nominated for the position by a colleague who felt the presidency was a good match for my experience, values and interests. After being contacted by the search consultant and reviewing the Presidential Profile that outlined the position, I arrived at the same conclusion. The public liberal arts college model is one I have always admired. It provides an affordable and accessible education of the highest quality, rooted in the fine tradition of the liberal arts and sciences.  Small class sizes taught by dedicated faculty, opportunities for students to engage in faculty-mentored research, service-learning projects and study abroad experiences and a supportive learning environment fostered by a committed faculty, staff, and administration are all attributes that resonate with me. I found both the college and the opportunities that were described in the Presidential Profile to be compelling and my on-campus visit more than confirmed that perception. Everyone I encountered was warm and welcoming, communicating to me that Geneseo is a special place. Moreover, as a native of upstate New York, that place felt very familiar. After that experience, it didn’t take much to convince me to accept the role as the college’s next president.

TL: In your opinion, what are the most important qualities that an administrator at a liberal arts college should possess?

DB: I have always felt it important that there be a strong alignment of the person’s priorities and values with that of the institution he or she represents. There is increasing emphasis in our society on higher education as a vehicle for job preparation for the individual and economic development for the community––these are certainly important outcomes. I hope, however, that the benefits of a liberal arts education are broader than that, equipping our graduates with the knowledge, skills and habits of mind to thrive in a rapidly changing world.  An administrator at a liberal arts college needs to be able to articulate those loftier outcomes and exhibit them him or herself. Among those attributes will be critical thinking, communication and interpersonal skills, analytical and problem-solving abilities, a commitment to civic engagement, intercultural competence and unquestioned integrity. It is no less important for that individual to work effectively, transparently and collaboratively with the campus’ stakeholders to develop a compelling and shared vision for the college, and to rally enthusiasm for pursuit and attainment of that vision.

TL: Do you have any goals or areas of focus in mind for your presidency as of yet? What are your priorities?

DB: My immediate goal as Geneseo’s incoming president is to engage in deep learning about the college. I did substantial research in preparing for my campus visit in December and learned a great deal from the visit itself––which I consider a good start––but it’s no substitute for immersing myself in the environment.  I want to meet and engage with the college’s people––the students, staff, faculty and administrators––as well as friends and supporters of the campus including alumni, community residents and members of Geneseo’s governing and advisory bodies. Such learning will be important to identifying our goals and priorities going forward.  That said, some opportunities to advance the college are clear. An example is the need to continue to tell Geneseo’s story––perhaps in new and innovative ways––in order to enhance its visibility and reputation as an exemplar of the public liberal arts college model.

TL: What sorts of challenges do you perceive facing Geneseo?

DB: Public higher education has changed significantly in the past decade, presenting a number of opportunities that come disguised as challenges. Among them is the shift in the funding model toward decreased investment by the states, which has increased student costs and the need for campus efficiencies. There is heightened competition for quality students particularly with private institutions with substantial endowments, requiring greater reliance on philanthropic support by alumni, other friends and partners. The demographics and needs of college-going individuals are changing rapidly, placing different demands on institutions and requiring them to be more nimble. And, as I noted earlier, there is increased focus on college as a means of job preparation rather than preparation for an informed, engaged and successful life. All of these challenges are applicable to Geneseo and we will develop, as a community, a vision for addressing them while affirming the values that make the college distinctive.

TL: Geneseo’s previous president Christopher Dahl came from a background in literature, which he utilized in his presidency both by teaching courses and expanding the college’s focus on humanities. Do you plan to utilize your science-oriented background in your presidency?

DB: While I earned my degrees in a science discipline––geology––I am the product of a liberal arts education at Colgate University and have a solid appreciation for the breadth of disciplines represented at Geneseo, including those in the two professional schools. At the time I entered college, I was drawn equally to majoring in the creative arts as I was in the sciences.  I chose the latter, yet derive much satisfaction from endeavors at the intersection of specific fields. For example, I once worked with an art educator colleague to develop and teach an introductory art appreciation course that explored the connections between art and geology and, for that matter, a variety of other disciplines along the way. It is more likely that people will observe in me a tendency to bridge the disciplines and view matters from a variety of perspectives, rather than one that is identifiably “scientific” in nature.

I will attribute to my science background a passion for faculty-mentored undergraduate research experiences that I discovered through my own participation as a geology student. My department was very strong in that regard and I was honored to serve as an undergraduate research assistant, preparing geological samples for my professor and performing geochemical analyses on high-end instrumentation that I was entrusted to run. At that time, it seemed far more common for science students to have such undergraduate research experiences than those majoring in other fields. Happily, these days, the opportunities for such faculty-mentored scholarly and creative experiences are seen across the spectrum of disciplines. Geneseo’s GREAT Day is a fine example of that commitment and I look forward to fostering the continued development of such experiential learning opportunities.

TL: What are you most looking forward to about assuming your new position?

DB: Higher education is somewhat unusual in the long lead time associated with recruitment and transitions. As of this writing, my official start date is more than five months distant; my husband Michael Mills and I are really looking forward to our arrival and the opportunity to interact with the campus and its many constituents: exceptional and enthusiastic students, dedicated faculty, staff, administrators and the college’s friends and supporters. In many ways, heading to Geneseo feels like we are coming home.