Q & A: Nancy Brickhouse

"Baylor's provost talks about how expanding the University's research efforts will enhance teaching and learning.

Q & A: Nancy Brickhouse

Dr. Nancy Brickhouse (BA ’82) became Baylor University’s provost in May 2019. Since then, she’s wasted no time in helping the University move forward to achieve its long-range goals in Illuminate, its strategic plan. In this Q&A, Randy Fiedler, director of marketing and communications for the College of Arts & Sciences, talked to Dr. Brickhouse about how expanding the University’s research efforts will enhance teaching and learning on campus, as well as help discover solutions to societal challenges around the world.

Q When you were at Baylor as an undergraduate, you were a chemistry major. Did you have a love for science before you came here, or did you find it here?

A You know, I love students who come to Baylor not knowing what they want to do, and I really think it’s a wonderful time to explore. I was not one of those. I came pretty much knowing that I was going to major in chemistry. I thought I wanted to go into one of the health-related professions, and I knew that chemistry was a good way of doing that. Also, I was good at chemistry. I loved it. My dad was a chemist, so I grew up with it. He had his own environmental testing lab, and I grew up in the lab. It was an environment where I was very comfortable and where I knew I could thrive, and I did at Baylor. I loved it here.

Q Has the feel of Baylor changed?

A That feels very familiar. You know, people can change but the culture remains. It’s bigger than just the people. Most of the people that I studied with as a student are gone from here, and there’s been some change — we’re more diverse now, for instance, which is terrific — but it’s a still familiar culture.

Q When people outside the University hear that Baylor is committing people and resources to increase our research efforts and receive the top research classification — R1/T1 — from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, what would you tell them about the reason that Baylor is making such a big push to expand our research abilities?

I don’t want to get too wrapped up in the Carnegie classification, because I see it mainly as an indicator that the kind of scholarship that you’re doing is the kind of scholarship that’s of highest impact. When you’re in a Research 1 designation, it means that you’re operating at a different level and you’re able to attract faculty at the very cutting edge of their disciplines. We already have great faculty, but it would allow us to hire more of the best faculty in the country, and that’s going to trickle down to our students and the way they learn in class. They’re going to be better prepared to enter their professions and make a difference in the world.

Q If we achieve R1 research status, will we have much companionship there among Christian universities?

A If you look at R1 Christian schools, there’s Notre Dame, Georgetown and Boston College. You have essentially three Catholic universities in that category, with none that come from the Protestant tradition. Baylor is doing very well in terms of its growth trajectory, but this would make us the only university in the country with the R1 designation that comes from Protestant roots.

Q Is that important for our mission?

A I think it’s incredibly important for our mission. We need to be excellent at both being Christian and at being a university. One of the ways that you become a great university is not only through the undergraduate education you provide, but also by the new knowledge that you generate, and by being at the table for the great debates of the day. At Baylor we’re thinking about new technologies we can provide to give more hope for the world. What a great Christian witness it is to be one of the universities that are able to make those kinds of differences in the world.

Q I have heard you say that to elevate our research profile, we need to think bigger. What do you mean by that?

A I mean that we need to be looking at how research can address the big problems of the world. For example, I know that some of our Arts & Sciences faculty are working right now to increase the capability of providing clean water for the world. Wars are going to be fought over access to water, so that is one of the biggest problems on the horizon. Working to engage that problem is thinking big. Thinking small would mean only taking on problems that have a lesser impact.

Q So we need to have a broader viewpoint of where our research can go and whom it can serve?

A That’s right. Sometimes at universities we can get trapped inside our particular disciplines and focus our sights only on those problems that are significant within those disciplines. But our world is not divided up into academic disciplines, so we have to think broader when we think about the problems we want to take on.

Q Along those lines, is Baylor moving to more of an interdisciplinary approach to research and education?

A Absolutely. In fact, all universities are becoming more interdisciplinary, and there’s a lot of interest among Baylor faculty in working with their colleagues.

Q When you learn about new research, many times you hear about discoveries that come from the natural sciences. But, is it also going to be important for us to include new and better research in the humanities, arts and social sciences to raise our research profile?

A Oh, absolutely. In fact, these disciplines contribute as much to the R1 classification as the natural sciences. The thing that’s different is that in the humanities, you look at publications –– how many books and articles we publish –– as well as the number of citations of those books and articles. These are the types of research products you typically get from the humanities, and to some degree also in the social sciences. If you look at those criteria, Baylor is already at an R1 level. The reason why you tend to hear a lot about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at Baylor is that it’s the place where we’re lagging behind in research expenditures. We have humanities and social sciences that are already very involved in engaging foundations and other sources of external support. So they are very much in the game, and they’re also very much a part of our mission.

Q You mentioned the cost of research, and that’s of course a challenge that any university has in doing that. When we raise our level of research, it’s undoubtedly going to cost more. What is Baylor’s plan for paying for this?

A There are a couple of different ways we intend to pay for enhanced research efforts. One is with the proceeds from new professional and graduate programs. We have gone from essentially having no money being raised from professional and graduate programs in 2013, to about $10 million a year being raised from this today. So, we’re really ramping up our graduate professional programs, and I think that that will help a lot. Also, our donors and friends are very much behind this plan. They’re excited about Illuminate, and want Baylor to be able to have a bigger impact on the world. We have a lot of a very generous alumni and friends who are coming alongside with us and saying, “How can I help?” And that’s been huge.

Q In May of 2019, Baylor received a $100 million gift from an anonymous donor that, among other things, created a matching fund to launch the Baylor Academic Challenge. What impact will this gift have on research at the university?

A With the Academic Challenge grant, we will create new endowed chairs, and that’s very significant. It’s going to allow us to hire at a new level. Baylor has typically hired mostly at the assistant professor level, and this grant money is going to allow us to hire more senior-level faculty to come and lead some of these initiatives.

Q Will Baylor be able to stay true to its commitment to undergraduate education while achieving all of these advancements in research that we’ve been talking about?

A I just don’t see that being an issue. In a way, I see (enhancing research efforts) as helping us more completely fulfill our mission. There are a lot of Christian universities that focus on undergraduate education, but there aren’t so many that provide the opportunity for engagement in research. Let me give you an example. The field of data science is interdisciplinary, and is very important to both math and statistics as well as other disciplines such as computer science and information systems. At Baylor we’re now building programs in data science because we realize what an asset this would be for our undergraduate students to be able to get a degree in the field and get employed in good jobs very quickly. I’m not sure that this thinking would have happened if we just said we’re going to be an undergraduate institution.

Q You mentioned external partnerships. To assure the success of Illuminate, will we need to create partnerships with corporations, nonprofit organizations and other groups outside of Baylor that could come in and work with us?

A Absolutely. And you know, Baylor’s good at that. We do have partnerships already, and I think our faculty are very open to them and are very collaborative and collegial. We just signed an agreement with the Veterans Administration to be able to use their 3 Tesla MRI, which is an amazing instrument that’s going to help a lot in terms of our ability to work in the mental health space. And I think there are more opportunities for collaborations with them. We’re engaging with the Army Futures Command and looking at some ways in which we could work on some defense-related technologies. These kinds of collaborations are incredibly important.

Q The College of Arts & Sciences is the largest academic unit at Baylor. How important a role is the College is going to play in elevating our research status here?

A It’s incredibly important because it’s about half the university. We just can’t get there without Arts & Sciences. The College also has a number of departments that are great role models for the University in terms of how R1 departments should be run. I think that Arts & Sciences has a good idea of what R1 looks like.

Q Is there anything else about Illuminate or research at Baylor that you’d like to make sure our readers know?

A One of the things that we haven’t talked about yet are the arts and the performing arts. They’re very much a part of Illuminate. I think they are incredibly important to our mission in ways that we don’t always recognize. Baylor has long been strong in the arts, and the arts are such an important part of spiritual formation, of spiritual imagination and worship. Even if they don’t necessarily contribute directly to the R1 metrics, whenever your performing arts departments are excellent they are such a great front door for the University. Our undergraduates are able to do things here at Baylor that they couldn’t do anywhere else in terms of the arts and performing arts. They also allow us to attract great students and great faculty in the same way that externally funded research programs do. I want to be careful not to leave them out.

Q One final question. When someone 50 years from now looks back at Baylor, are they going to see this period in our history as an important turning point?

A I certainly hope so. I think one of the things that’s most remarkable about this particular time period is that under President Livingstone we have all the various parts of the University completely aligned. That’s an opportunity that doesn’t come easily. From the Board of Regents on down, everybody knows what direction we’re going in and that we’re staying the course. I think one of President Livingstone’s greatest strengths is that she provides a lot of clarity in terms of what we’re doing and where we’re going. We have people throughout the University going into their offices every day and making decisions that all lead to the same destination. You can move forward when you do that.