NORMAL — Universities can't afford to be complacent in a time of changing demographics and declines in enrollment and state funding, a finalist for vice president of academic affairs and provost at Illinois State University said at a public forum Monday at Bone Student Center.
Abbey Zink, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, is the fourth and final candidate for the position to visit ISU.
President Larry Dietz is expected to announce his choice in March to succeed Janet Krejci, who left at the end of December 2016 for Marquette University. Jan Murphy has been serving on an interim basis since then.
Zink, who has been in her current position for eight years, said, “If you ask me what is the biggest challenge facing higher education, it's complacency.”
In the past, universities didn't have to do much to attract students or convince people that a higher education is “worth it,” she said.
As that has changed, institutions need to do a better job of telling their story, said Zink.
ISU has not been complacent, otherwise it would not have been able to weather the state's budget crisis as well as it did, added Zink.
“You're starting from a strong foundation,” she said.
ISU's strategic plan and recommendations from its Campus Climate Task Force, which deal with matters of diversity and inclusion, are “two excellent road maps,” said Zink. “Diversity and inclusion are very important to me. It's a passion for me.”
Among her suggestions for maintaining academic excellence and moving forward were to expand interdisciplinary opportunities, look for high demand and/or niche programs, explore corporate partnerships and strengthen relationships with community colleges and high schools through such programs as dual enrollment.
“Even in our crass, cynical times, I still believe universities are dream factories,” said Zink. "We are the place where transformation happens.”
As the first person in her family to graduate from college, Zink said she has a lot of compassion and empathy for other first-generation students.
Citing a need for strong orientation programs, she said, “In many ways, these kids are stepping onto Mars.”
Before her current position, Zink was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas A&M University at Kingsville. Her administrative experiences have included a range of fields, from liberal arts and sciences to fine arts and professional programs.
She also said academic excellence requires both strong teaching and research.
“In my mind those things go hand in hand,” said Zink. “You have to love them both.”
Zink has a doctorate in English from Northern Illinois University. She has worked on curriculum and budgetary matters and established a college diversity and inclusion committee.