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Vice Provost Kara Van Dam Brings Holistic Approach to Faculty-Student Experiences

Dr. Kara Van Dam's LinkedIn profile notes she is fluent in both French and Spanish, but it's her inclusion of "English, Middle (1100-1500)," the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare, that really sets her apart.

"I've long been interested in how languages change over time and how, for example, if you look back at Old English from 500 or 600 AD, you might as well be looking at Latin or Greek," said Dr. Van Dam, UMUC's vice provost for the learner and faculty experience. "It looks completely different. As an English speaker today, you probably would not be able to pick out more than a word a page."

Even though she holds a PhD in linguistics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Dr. Van Dam says languages don't come naturally to her. "I'm one of those linguists who really has to struggle to learn new languages," she said, adding, "It's been nice to have a love that doesn't come easily."

Linguistics, she explained, is less about grammar and more about how, say, pathways are laid in the brain, which make someone sound like a native speaker to another native speaker. It's her strong analytical skills that allow her to figure out the patterns in languages, which she calls the heart of linguistics. Her background makes her "acutely aware of the power of language, specifically the power of communication," she said. Her research, which is ongoing, examines the intersection of language and identity in immigrant communities; in fact, she presented at a linguistics conference in August.

She believes her passion for linguistics helps in her role as a self-described "collector of potential last straws," working to address the day-to-day frustrations encountered by both students and faculty, which can be something as seemingly simple as duplicative paperwork. She talks enthusiastically about piloting a new promotion process for faculty—one that helps them reflect on and highlight their strengths as educators. The other pluses: the application itself is significantly shorter and faculty members don't have to wait as long to find out promotion status.

Whenever people communicate, they are always saying something about themselves, Dr. Van Dam says. That insight, along with an MBA from Kaplan University, where she served as vice provost for academic affairs before coming to UMUC last April, has served her well.

She enjoys trying to reduce the frustrations facing faculty every day. "Any one of those things is probably not going to be the thing that makes a faculty member throw up their hands and say, 'I give up. I'm done.' But if it's the 20th thing, or the 30th thing, it might. I want to make sure the path is clear."

And the same philosophy applies to students, "As I've said to the faculty: Let's save 'hard' for the content. Let's not make the process outside the class hard. Let's make it an open door for students to walk through and learn."

Dr. Van Dam is also working to address the challenge of offering a consistent experience across academic departments in a large institution that has more than 90,000 students and several thousand faculty members.

According to Dr. Marie Cini, UMUC's provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs, individual departments do an excellent job, but "we don’t always provide the unified experience we would like to. We want our faculty to spend their time helping our students learn rather than spending time navigating the university."

Dr. Van Dam, who has also been an adjunct professor, is working hard to meet that challenge. Provost Cini is behind her as well, saying: "Kara has a deep respect for the faculty role, and she understands what is needed to hire and retain the best faculty."