The Rider News editorial board had a chance to sit down with the newest member of Rider’s administration, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs DonnaJean Fredeen, to ask her a few questions ranging from her goals for Academic Affairs to the best meal she’s eaten since moving to New Jersey.
TRN: Can you tell us a little about yourself — where you went to college and what you majored in?
DF: I went to college at a very, small school in Abilene, Texas. When I say small, the total student population was around 1,000, and if you walked the perimeter of the school you walked one mile, not a square mile, just one mile. I started out as a medical technology major. My father had a long discussion with me about that because he was a medical technologist. He convinced me to explore chemistry. I decided that when going to study chemistry, I was going to pursue a Ph.D. So I did my graduate work at Texas A&M University and married a Yankee. He’s from western New York, although his father grew up in New Britain, Conn. We ended up settling in Connecticut and spending 27 years there, 26 years at Southern Connecticut State University. I started there as an assistant professor in chemistry and worked my way up through the ranks. I became the department chair and then became the dean. I did not think I’d be a dean for 15 years. When I had the opportunity to come to Rider, I took it.
TRN: Since you are new to Rider, what have been some of your best experiences here so far?
DF: I think the community is one of Rider’s greatest strengths. All you have to do is look at the longevity of the faculty and staff here to know that there’s a real strong belief in the value of a Rider education. It feels like a family. I have to say that everyone has been very welcoming. I spent a weekend in Connecticut because my son plays football there, and I have to say that my only regret about leaving Southern is the fact that I know if I were still there my son would be popping in to see me two or three times a day. The only thing I’m missing is not being able to see him. When I sat down at my desk on Monday morning after a weekend in Connecticut, it just felt like home to me; it felt like this is where I belong.
TRN: In last week’s issue of The Rider News, there was an editorial that focused on minors and how some students have been experiencing scheduling conflicts and are unable to complete their minors in four years. Do you think minors are not treated with the same value as majors?
DF: I think we are in a process right now of trying to create the best schedule for our students. It’s a process that I think has been given a great deal of scrutiny over the past couple of years. We’re trying to figure out what we should be looking at in terms of data. We’re working very diligently to get to the departments the data they need to let us know in return what they need to be offering.
Going back to that very small undergraduate institution that I attended, we were all required to have a minor. I remember the first time I ever told someone I was required to have a minor, they looked at me and they said, “That’s a true liberal arts institution.” And so I think minors are really important, because while I believe in the depth that a major provides you, I also believe that a breadth of knowledge is important. So a minor allows you to expand a little beyond that major — where you’re really digging deep — so you have an understanding of other subject matters. That breadth allows you to understand perspective and how other people are going to think through a problem. Life is really about an unstructured problem. And I’m going to look at a problem as a chemist would. My first reaction when I look at a problem will be to look at the data. I’m always going to look for the trend and what the data is telling me. I’m going to think quantitatively first. But I think one of the luxuries I’ve had while being a dean of arts and sciences is that I’ve come to appreciate how others looks at problems and that’s allowed me to step back and look at these problems through different lenses.
So I think in that sense minors are very important. I’m working with the deans and chairs to make sure that we get schedules that allow students to complete their degrees in a timely manner — degrees that would include not only their majors, but the opportunities to have a minor or two connected to that major.
TRN: We have heard that there may be changes made to the liberal arts core requirements. Do you feel students should have input in regard to these changes?
DF: My understanding is that the dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences has been working with a faculty group to look at the core and has been discussing changes to the core. I think that anytime you can include a student perspective in a conversation like that is important. I would suggest that students at the very least be talking to faculty and I’ll let faculty know what you think about these core requirements.
TRN: You mentioned your son. Do you have any other children? Pets?
DF: I have an older daughter who’s 21 and a younger daughter who is a freshman in high school. My son is a freshman in college. I have a dog, a golden retriever. It was really funny, when my husband and I were talking about getting a dog, we were replacing a dog that was just a phenomenal pet to have and we waited a long time because it was hard to get over him. My husband kept saying, “I don’t want a golden retriever” because everyone had one, and I said maybe we should think about why everyone has a golden retriever.
First off, I’m convinced they were bred to see how quickly a dog could shed hair in one minute, because they shed horribly. So we got this wonderful dog and she chose us. When we went to look at the litter of puppies, they were jumping all over my oldest and they decided to run off and play. All six dogs ran off. One dog stopped, turned around and looked at my daughter and came back and crawled into her lap. I said “That’s our dog.” I have two cats as well.
TRN: What’s been the best meal you’ve had since moving to New Jersey?
DF: I’ve been exposed to a tomato pie at DeLorenzo’s. I’m gonna have to tell you, the jury’s still out to how it compares to Pepe’s in New Haven, Conn. But it was very good. We have been to Small World Coffee a couple of times in Princeton, which I have to say is the best cappuccino I’ve ever had. And our favorite restaurant would be Tiger’s Tale in Princeton. I haven’t had the time to explore many other restaurants other than Cranberry’s.
TRN: Is there something you think Rider students should know about you that they don’t already?
DF: Have you ever read the book or seen the movie Friday Night Lights? I went to that high school. I graduated a few years before that whole story that is highlighted in that book occurred, but I did go to that high school. My son as a football player was able to get some mileage out of that.
As a provost, one of the things I would want people to know about me is I’m very passionate about the opportunities that higher education provides for people in this country. And that social justice piece of education — not only in higher education but in kindergarten through 12 — is what sets this country apart from other countries in the world. People always talk about how we compare to other countries, but we need to keep in mind that other countries limit access to education. I’m sure all of you have stories about the transformative power of being at Rider and what it has done for you in terms of your growth as a person. I think that’s extremely important and something we need to work very hard to protect. It is something that is available to everybody, not just the most elite in the country.
TRN: Do you have any specific goals during your time as provost at Rider?
DF: I think we need to be looking at how we can take Rider to that next step, particularly from an academic point of view. So what are people looking for academically and how can we provide that for them? How can we take some of the challenges that the university is facing right now and turn them into opportunities, specifically, again, from an academic point of view, so that we can meet the needs of our students?