Barbara Altmann has only been on campus in her new position as the University’s provost since Aug. 1, but after a mere five weeks in Lewisburg, she comfortably and confidently says, “I know I’ve found the job that I was looking for.”
The University formally hired Altmann, who previously held a senior provostial position at the University of Oregon, in spring semester 2015 after former provost Mick Smyer announced he was taking a sabbatical year.
Altmann emerged as the strongest candidate from the pool and brings with her a self-described “broad-based [academic] interest and wide-ranging intellectual curiosity.”
Among those broad-based interests was an early appreciation for medieval literature in her undergraduate career. Altmann holds her degree in medieval French language and literature and has also studied French culture and gender representation.
“I was always encouraged to follow my passions in the things that grabbed my attention, and medieval studies is a great field to come up through. It’s very interdisciplinary. I’ve studied all kinds of work: art history, social and political history, material artifacts, manuscripts, linguistics, and language,” Altmann said.
Clearly, Altmann is a champion of the liberal arts, and admits that her own undergraduate experience at a research-intensive institution was “unanimous.”
“I didn’t get much mentoring, so I had to find my own way. Having now learned about Bucknell University, I look backwards and I think how much I would have benefitted from this kind of environment, where you can explore with good guides, with professors who will talk things through with you so you’re not on your own,” Altmann said.
Altmann still pays great gratitude to her collegiate experience as an active researcher/writer, but she says the University’s enthusiasm and humanistic approach is one of the reasons she decided, very recently, to spend a piece of her career at a fine liberal arts school. Part of her new role as provost is to provide this insight to her students.
“The position of provost is unique,” Altmann said. “There is only one!”
While Altmann admits that the provost is a hard position to define, she says that the easiest catch phrase for it is that “the provost is the chief academic officer of the University. The academic side of the institution, the integrity of the students and faculty, are the responsibilities of the provost.”
While the president of a university these days is mostly “an outward facing entity,” the provost, in turn, “is more often turned inward.” Altmann jokes that a provost is doing her job if she is virtually rendered invisible.
“It’s one of those great jobs where you get to help people realize their potential,” Altmann said.
Altmann described her excitement of joining the University community and discussed the timing of her arrival on campus.
“Bucknell is at a really great moment in its evolution. It’s the richest year in terms of diversity of faculty and student body. Both incoming cohorts are really wonderfully diverse and mixed in their backgrounds, enthusiasms, and areas of expertise, so it’s a great time to land here. I’ve come right at a moment where we’re trying to figure out how to build a college of management, for example, and that’s legitimately a big, important, difficult task; it’s not something that can be done quickly or without a lot of careful thought,” Altmann said.
What Altmann tries to ask herself is “how do you do that well at a university with a liberal arts core?”
Altmann also touched upon her arrival in the midst of pertinent diversity issues, which surfaced last semester after disparaging racial slurs were made on a University radio station.
“Paradoxically, I was really proud to be joining an institution that just got right out in front of the issue and dealt with it publicly. There is insidious, damaging, hateful, racist behavior at every institution. I’ve had to work with students who have had to weather all kinds of nasty incidents, and faculty as well,” Altmann said.
What struck her, she said, was the enormous outpouring of support and concern on campus.
“I think it’s remarkable that within a couple of hours, people were talking about it publicly, rallying in numbers, and trying to put it in the context of Bucknell and large societal issues,” Altmann said.
If Altmann has any advice for her students, it’s this: “These are the four years that will set you up to make good choices, to think broadly, and to know that you can do anything you want to do because you’ve been well-trained. But, these years do not have to set you up for a particular professional trajectory. There doesn’t have to be a direct line between a major and a degree and we need to embrace that; you don’t have to have your life path chosen by the time you leave here.”
She uses her own kids as an example. “I’m worried about my kids even though they’ve landed on their feet!”
Altmann’s son, a French and Spanish major, is currently trying to make his living as a rapper in Los Angeles.
“I never could have predicted that for him,” Altmann said. “[But], he’s learned discipline, good analytical skills, the ability to communicate in several languages, all which makes him a much better writer and poet, so we’ll see what happens!”