March 31, 2009
St. John’s University, administrators work tirelessly to ensure
students receive a quality, affordable education that embodies our
Vincentian mission. In the following interview, Dr. Julia Upton
discusses her responsibilities as Provost and the challenges of
leading the University’s academic sector.
Q.: You’ve been with St. John’s for quite
A.: I actually grew up in Forest Hills, and I first came to campus
as a high school student in 1961 for a day of science. I remember
the only buildings were St. John Hall and the science building,
although the Vincentian residence was probably here too.
So my first glimpse of St. John’s was associated with my interest
in science. I came back in the summer of 1964 as a college freshman
to take my language requirement and the library was being built. I
returned again in January 1969 to start my graduate work —I have an
MA in English and an MA in Theology from St. John’s.
After college I taught at several schools in Queens and, in
1979, joined the Department of Theology and Religious Studies
at St. John’s. So I really have been around this campus for 50
Q.: And now Provost.
A.: I love being Provost. Most days I think it’s the best job in
the world. I never dreamed of being an administrator but I’ve
always been open to opportunities. I had always hoped to teach at a
residential college because I loved my college years and missed
that vibrant part of campus life. I didn’t expect St. John’s to
become a residential school just so that I could just stay!
[Laughs] To me that’s the biggest and most wonderful change that
has occurred in my years here.
Q.: The term “Provost” might be confusing for
some. Can you explain your responsibilities at St.
A.: When I’m introduced at Orientation, I always ask if anyone
knows what a provost is or does, and of course, no one knows. The
way I usually describe it is to say that I have responsibility for
everything that goes on inside the classrooms—the academics—and
what supports that, the libraries and the academic support
Q.: That includes overseeing the faculty
A.: Yes, and it’s an enormous process. I chair the University
Personnel Committee, the final stop before faculty appointments are
approved to go to the Board of Trustees. At St. John’s, until
faculty receive tenure, they must go to the Board every year for
It’s not that way in every institution but having survived the
process here myself, I think it’s a good process because it keeps
people active, doing research, publishing. And I think if you are
in a department where people remain active, then you’d be more
likely to be the same.
Q.: Since you were named Provost in 2000, St.
John’s has introduced a number of innovative centers and
institutes. Can you talk about some of them?
A.: One that was created during my time is the Institute for
Writing Studies, which was really Fr. Harrington’s dream. He
envisioned that every student who graduates from the University
would be known for their ability to write. With the help of a
University donor, he put that together, realizing that the only way
to achieve that desired outcome would be with a full-time writing
faculty. So a core of full-time writing teachers was brought
These faculty have different skills from those of English teachers;
they have MFA’s in Writing, they’ve actually studied composition,
their skill is writing. After they were hired, it was pointed
out that we needed to give them a path to tenure so the Institute
for Core Studies was developed to give them that path.
For me, this institute has the greatest potential for
cross-discipline work for a faculty who are dedicated to teaching
in the core curriculum. They have the potential for being the core
that really supports the entering student. They work orientations,
so they have the ability to be “on the front line” with entering
students, and can begin to help them to develop the critical
thinking skills they need for a collegiate education, which is
different from a secondary education.
Q.: What have you learned about these
students of the new Millennium? How do we engage them?
A.: They are more visual learners than my generation was. We
learned mostly from texts usually accompanied by a picture or two.
They’ve been immersed in media their whole lives. And that’s what
they gravitate towards and that’s where they’re at home.
When I was a child, TV didn’t broadcast 24 hours a day, it wasn’t
in color, wasn’t as appealing as it is now. There were some
educational programs, but TV really wasn’t seen as an educational
tool until the Children’s Television Workshop created Sesame
Street. Now, there are so many different ways in which people learn
through media. I’m learning from my students how much they see that
I don’t see and what catches their imaginations.
Secondly, we were taught—and we learned—linearly and that’s not the
case anymore. For example, computers and hypertext take you from
one place to another and another quickly—it’s very distracting, at
least to me. For students, that’s the way it is. It’s almost as
though learning linearly is a skill that has to be developed.
Think of it this way: when I learned Latin in high school, we
learned some vocabulary, we learned simple sentences, all from a
book. We weren’t immersed in a Latin-speaking world as happens when
you learn your first language, when you didn’t understand the
language and had to make sense of it.
That’s almost how it is today in the Millennial world. I’m in that
world now and I can’t say that’s not the way to do it. I have to be
immersed in this world of technology—make sense of it and figure
out how I am going to use it to help express these ideas that are
Q.: You still teach classes?
A.: Yes, I teach a class every semester. Last semester it was Discover New
York and this semester I’m teaching a new seminar for freshman.
It’s an experiment we created because entering students have told
us they want more contact with faculty.
Unlike high school, where faculty are available from nine to four
and students can easily locate them, here faculty are housed in
places where you can’t easily find them. That’s one of the issues
students have. Thankfully, this will be alleviated to a large
extent when the new University/Academic Center comes on line this
So, we registered all those freshmen who don’t have majors—and
consequently don’t have an academic home—in seminars that meet in
informal settings with a full-time faculty member every other week
for an hour.
The seminars don’t have a set agenda but we do explore majors. I
teach them but I also use it as an opportunity to talk about how to
form an attachment to St. John’s and learn what’s hard for them
coming to the University. The one thing the students in my
seminar seem to have in common is that they all want study abroad.
So I invited a representative from Global Studies and he brought a
student who had studied abroad and we did a whole session on
Those are the types of things I try to do with them.
Q.: What’s next?
A.: I was a chemistry major in college and science is still my
first love. About a third of our students come here for the
sciences (including the social sciences) and I would like all of
our students to be science literate.
I’d like to see St. Albert Hall finished. It was originally
designed as an “E” but the middle wing was never built. We just
completed a $20 million renovation of St. Albert which provided the
basics and improved the flow in the building, but I’d like to see
either that third wing completed or even a new science
Fifty years ago, we were the first college to offer a bachelor’s
degree in Toxicology and now we have a Ph.D. specializing in
Toxicology. I want to continue to offer the best in science
education. Science is the solution to many of the world’s problems
and someone has to do the really basic research.