Tuesday, July 16, 2024

New UNCW deans address nursing shortage, cybersecurity, magnifying the arts

UNCW (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

WILMINGTON — Having passed its 75th anniversary last year, UNCW is entering a new era as its students embark on another school year Wednesday.

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According to three new deans, they are in a good position to begin the year, despite the challenge of standing up two new colleges. 

Technically, four out of five of UNCW’s colleges will be under new deanship this year, though one, Watson College of Education Dean Carol McNulty, is serving in the interim. She’s taking over from Van Dempsey who was ousted after speaking on Volety’s influence over a prestigious university honor awarded to Republican Sen. Michael Lee.

Jack Watson II is now the third dean of the College of Health and Human Services at a time when healthcare workers are in high-demand.

But perhaps the most pressure is on Stephanie Caulder and Ron Vetter, the founding deans of the College of Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Arts and the College of Science and Engineering, respectively. The two new colleges resulted from the division of the university’s oldest and largest academic subsidiary, the College of Arts and Sciences.

When the university was preparing for the split last year, many faculty members now in CHSSA, were wary the move was an attempt to divert more attention and resources to research activity in the sciences, which tends to yield more visual results but require more expensive materials. The separation also follows UNCW’s transition to R2, high research activity, status in 2018.

UNCW administration, particularly Provost James Winebrake, and a subset of staff from STEM programs argued the 25 departments under one dean were preventing each program from receiving adequate attention and visibility on campus.

Vetter, who was a professor in the computer science department and eventually moved to department chair over his 30 years at UNCW, was part of the STEM cohort pushing for its own college. 

“When I was department chair those five years, the dean was down the hall from me,” Vetter said. “We never met.”  

He said the dean had to prioritize departments that needed more help. Meeting with 30 department heads or program directors for one hour each week would total 30 hours, and with prep time, “all you’re doing is meeting,” Vetter explained.

When meeting with his nine department leaders in preparation for the school year, Vetter reported he could feel a difference in the room. For one, everyone could easily fit around a table, and Vetter said the conversations were more focused due to the similarities in the scientific departments.  

Vetter has also spent his time filling in personnel gaps, which involves two interim associate dean positions that will be permanently hired over the next few months. Support services were to be shared among the colleges as each built up its staffs, but Vetter said the college is only down two positions going into the fall semester. 

Over in CHSSA, Caulder also reported a positive status. She stated the university is “putting its money where its mouth is” when it comes to hiring needed staff; only one position is left to fill. 

“The university I think has really set us up well,” Caulder said. “They’ve really worked hard to make sure as many of the bases are covered as humanly possible.” 

Despite being a native Wilmingtonian, Caulder said she is still spending most of her time on a “listening tour” to understand what her 16 direct reports need and where she can promote student and community engagement. 

But her background has prepared her well; Caulder, also an accomplished oboe musician, led Radford University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and has worked in interdisciplinary governance as head of the Honors College. Caulder said that experience comes in handy when learning how to advocate for programs ranging from theatre to anthropology. 

“[CHSSA programs] have way more commonalities than we do dissimilarities,” Caulder said. “All of our disciplines speak to being human.” 

Dean Ron Vetter in his office at UNCW. (Port City Daily/Brenna Flanagan)

While Caulder may be easing into her new authority, Vetter’s approach, informed by 30 years at UNCW, is more of a cannonball. 

“The College of Science and Engineering generates the most grant dollars and I think we can actually do more now that we have more focus,” Vetter said.

A lot of that money is in support of research, of which Vetter said CSE contributes 60% of the entire university’s output. Vetter, using his experience as associate provost for research and member of the million-dollar club for garnering more than $5 million in external funding, is looking to double the research output in the next five years.

Accomplishing that, he said, will be finding funding in emerging areas — typically guided by federal initiatives — such as climate change and beach erosion. UNCW’s location makes it a prime destination for such projects. 

Vetter also talked about fostering the extreme interest in UNCW’s cybersecurity program. When he wrote the program curriculum, the dean said he estimated 30 enrollees per year. There’s 130 students one year in; Vetter estimates the program to welcome 300 total in two years.

With that growth, Vetter expects the college will need a STEM building, potentially called the Integrated Sciences Building, within five years. His vision for the building would be bringing people together from different disciplines, not separated by academic programs. 

“The university has in a strategic plan more interdisciplinary programs,” Vetter said. “I suspect one of the reasons they gave me this job was because I created most of the interdisciplinary programs.” 

This includes information technology, cybersecurity, and intelligence systems engineering, which combine courses from the computer science department and the Cameron School of Business. Vetter also helped develop the coastal engineering program; next in the pipeline is software engineering. In conjunction with its former brethren in CAS, Vetter highlighted the digital arts interdisciplinary program.

Vetter envisions a more flexible structure for interdisciplinary programs, one where each department involved has a vote in how the program functions and professors are invited to teach courses in other colleges.

The dean said he sees potential with criminology and sociology, having worked with the department to bring the National Drug Court Resource Center to Wilmington. There’s also a lot of opportunity in health-related fields; for example, developing technology to record accurate bioinformation or designing systems to help hospitals run more efficiently. 

Dean Jack Watson II in his office at UNCW. (Port City Daily/Brenna Flanagan)

Dean Watson brought up healthcare informatics and artificial intelligence integration when he interviewed for head of the College of Health and Human Services. 

“There can be more technological development that we can implement and help advance to help with making sure that scheduling of appointments is done better to make sure that follow-up from appointments is done better, make sure we’re communicating with patients better,” Watson said. 

Aside from research partnerships, Watson is tasked with cultivating passionate students as they move into healthcare and related industries, which have some of the greatest staffing needs across the country. 

“Our college is going to play a large part of it and we’re gonna want to know exactly how we can engage best to not only help fill the voids that currently exist, but those moving forward as well,” Watson said.

The university’s new strategic plan specifically promotes the development of workforce-ready students in careers like health care and STEM.

“Nursing is the obvious one that comes forward, but it’s really all parts of the healthcare workforce and our college has so many of the programs that feed that,” Watson said.

As Watson noted, Wilmington is a regional hub for health care, with many traveling from more rural parts of the Southeast to access services. This is especially true for Novant New Hanover Regional Medical Center, the only full-service hospital serving a seven-county region. 

Since Novant bought the hospital in February 2021, it has struggled with maintaining adequate staffing, especially nurses and nurse aides. While this issue was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the hospital has undergone multiple investigations from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. One last year threatened the hospital’s ability to provide CMS coverage and another is ongoing.  

Watson argued while Novant is a major player in the local market, other practices are just as important to partner with. As far as the nursing shortage, he said the issue is much more complex than people think.

“Between Cape Fear Community College and here, we probably are producing enough nurses,” Watson said. “It’s not just producing more nurses, it’s producing more nurses that are going to stay in this region.”

He said UNCW’s cohort of nursing students is around 50% from outside Southeastern North Carolina, each with ties to their hometowns. While the dean said CFCC and UNCW are both still looking at expanding their programs, which includes more students and more instructors, it is crucial to bolster community connections. 

One way, Watson said, is to ensure there are enough clinical placements in local facilities so students can complete their course requirements and also build relationships within them. The dean said conversations with community stakeholders are already happening. 

While the pathways of where to guide the college next are starting to appear, Watson said he is helped by the strong foundation CHHS already has. 

“My own personal passion area — like education for me, comes down to student success,” Watson said. “It’s about making sure we’re recruiting great students that have the passion to do this work.”

It may seem like the College of Humanities is removed from some of the directions the other colleges are going in, and even some professors worried their departments might be left in the dust. Caulder stressed that is not the case. 

“This is a phrase that I borrowed from George Lucas in ‘Star Wars’: ‘You can’t have the how without the why,’” Caulder said. “And so the sciences are the how and the humanities and the arts and the social sciences are the why. I think I borrowed this somewhere, too, but technology alone can’t create a secure society. And health and well-being is not achieved by medicine alone.” 

Dean Stephanie Caulder in her office at UNCW. (Port City Daily/Brenna Flanagan)

Caulder noted the undervaluing of the liberal arts is a national struggle, but their place in academia is fundamental. 

“Our college has formed the nucleus of general education programs for decades and decades in the United States,” Caulder said. “There’s a reason why … and it’s because of the skills that we’re helping each other to do. We’re helping to understand each other and be able to express ourselves to communicate effectively.” 

The dean said she thought one area where CHSSA students could lead would be on issues of civil discourse, academic freedom and freedom of expression. 

Plus, partnerships between colleges, especially with CSE, are not being severed, she added, explaining there could even be opportunities for more. One of her strategies to highlight CHSSA’s research is demonstrating the impact on the community, which may not be as recognizable as the products of science projects. 

Some partnership examples include the FlowILM art event at Cameron Art Museum. The exhibition combines the talents of UNCW’s art and computer science departments. 

Caulder also plugged the sociology and criminology department’s work on food insecurity as another way to benefit the local area.

The community-focus aligns with a tenet in the strategic plan: garnering more support for sports and the arts, which the chancellor referred to as the “gateway” of UNCW. Caulder noted audience metrics for performances in the Cultural Arts Building and Kenan Auditorium — which CHSSA staff is vying to get renovations secured for — are already increasing post-pandemic.

Marketing will be important in boosting visibility and luckily, CHSSA houses students most suited to those pursuits; recruiting their help could also help student engagement, another of Caulder’s priorities. 

The dean is already out in the community making connections and plans to continue showing up to Seahawk basketball games, concerts and lectures, inviting anyone she can to come along and experience UNCW’s offerings. 

“It’s not just lip service that I want to be present; I want to be part of the fabric of the university,” Caulder said.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com 

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