New Provost Looks to Strengthen USF


Three months into Donald E. Heller’s tenure, USF News sat down with the provost and vice president for academic affairs to talk about top priorities, what he likes about USFers, and guiding the university in an era of increasing competition.

Heller came to USF from Michigan State University, where he served as dean of the College of Education and professor since 2012. He holds a doctorate in higher education from Harvard University. He started at USF on Jan. 25. 

Let’s tackle the most obvious question first. What does a provost do?

Good question. About 98 percent of people I meet outside of academics have the same question. I like to say that if USF President Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J., is the university’s CEO, I’m the COO, or chief operating officer. I make things run on a daily basis and have responsibility for the academic side of the university. The deans report to me, among other aspects of academic affairs.  

Relocating to San Francisco from Michigan seems like a big transition. How was your move and how are you finding USF?

The first few months were hectic. Packing, moving, settling into new a house and all that involves, and getting started in a new job in the middle of the academic year, it was a lot. I haven’t even had time to decorate the walls of my office yet, as you can see [points and laughs].

I’m enjoying learning more about the university community. The people are incredibly committed to the institution and its mission. The morale is positive, and I’ve been really impressed with what faculty are doing in the classroom and with their scholarship.  

What are the USF advantages that attracted you to the job and that you feel you can build on? 

USF has many outstanding programs that are in high demand, as well as its core humanities programs. Students are taught by tenure-track faculty who get to know their students in small-classroom settings.

Then, there’s the city of San Francisco, of course. It’s a draw culturally, economically, geographically. It’s an economic powerhouse, it’s at the heart of technology and Silicon Valley innovation, and it's home to some of the country’s leading health care and nonprofit organizations.

USF is an urban university that’s close to great food, music, entertainment, and sports, but is situated on a leafy hilltop campus, and is close to beaches, parks, and green spaces.

You’ve had some time to get to know the university. What priorities are you focused on?

One is making sure that USF programs and students reflect the Jesuit liberal arts mission of academic excellence, diversity, and social justice to the fullest extent.

For example, the university is talking about starting a college of engineering. How could we do that in the USF tradition? How could we increase the number of women and minorities in the field, for example? What would it mean to teach engineering for the common good?

On the student side, how can we make sure that more, if not most, applicants have USF as their number one choice? That will help students succeed, and it will help the university succeed because our values and priorities will be aligned.

A second is finding ways to strengthen the university. Our facilities are nearly at capacity on the Hilltop Campus during weekdays. That means we need to strategically add programs at our regional campuses, add online programs, and perhaps add classes on the Hilltop in the evenings and on the weekend. I’m looking at those areas carefully.

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