On July 1, 2015, Dr. Gail Simmons became Hofstra University’s new provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. Simmons, a geneticist, comes to Hofstra from Manhattanville College in Westchester, where she served as chief academic officer, as well as a professor of biology. Prior to her tenure at Manhattanville, Simmons was dean of the Division of Science and Technology at the College of Staten Island of The City University of New York (CUNY). She also served as founding dean of the School of Science at The College of New Jersey and as associate dean of the Division of Science at The City College of CUNY, where she began her career as a member of the faculty.
Q: What did you know about Hofstra before you began the process that led to your becoming our new provost?
A: I had several points of contact with Hofstra before I learned about this job. I studied biology at the University of Pittsburgh, and I did undergraduate research for two years under a professor, Dr. Fred Gottlieb, who earned a bachelor’s degree here. Then, fast-forward a whole bunch of years: My youngest son was studying ballet at the School
of American Ballet in Manhattan and he performed in The Nutcracker with the New York City Ballet, and we heard about a dance company on Long Island that was staging The Nutcracker and was looking for children for the show. So he ended up performing in their show, which was done here at Hofstra. And finally, after President Strauss came to Manhattanville in 2011, a year or two later, one of his sons decided to go to medical school, and he is actually now a medical student here.
All of those things put Hofstra on my radar … when I learned about the job and saw all the amazing things happening here, the strengthening and expanding of the institution, I thought, “Wow, this is a place that’s really on the move.”
Q: What are your chief goals for your first year?
A: A lot of it in the first year is getting to know the institution, the people and the culture of the place – learning about the faculty at the core of the institution and what their aspirations are, what their strengths are.
One of my goals will be to explore and enhance the internationalization of the campus. President Rabinowitz has already agreed that we should join an internationalization lab run by the American Council on Education. It’s a self-study (20 months) of how we exist as an institution in the international realm, and it will help us come up with a strategic plan for internationalization. In meeting with a variety of people after accepting the position, I heard there were issues around internationalization, particularly in graduate programs, and I think this is a great thing to get involved in early in my tenure. It has a lot of potential to pay big benefits for the University.
Q: What do you want the Hofstra community to know about you as you begin your new position?
A: I plan to be highly engaged. This job is all about the people. The institution is all about the people – the people who work here, the people who attend, the alumni, and the community members who support us. A big focus of mine is always on the strengths of the people.
Q: Name the accomplishment at Manhattanville of which you are most proud.
A: The creation of schools within the College. When I started there, Manhattanville had a School of Education and a School of Graduate and Professional Studies (GPS), but all the arts and sciences departments were independent of one another. It was clear that to strengthen the institution, these departments and the programs in GPS needed to be parts of schools and needed to have deans. So we brought in the first external dean for the School of Graduate and Professional Studies, and he worked very, very hard, and we were able to transform it into a School of Business. And we just hired the founding dean of the School of Arts & Sciences. So Manhattanville now has a School of Arts & Sciences, which is really the core of the identity of the institution, alongside a School of Education and a School of Business.
Q: You are a scientist by training, and that is clearly where Hofstra has sought to focus its resources in recent years. How do you see the liberal arts in the context of the University’s new emphasis on the natural and health sciences?
A: To me there is no conflict between the sciences, the health professions, or engineering and the liberal arts. The liberal arts are about understanding what it means to be human. You can’t understand the motivation for engineering something or for pushing the boundaries of health sciences without understanding the value of people and the human experience, and those understandings come from studying literature, history, philosophy – the liberal arts. Understanding the liberal arts is how people in any career, and in their everyday lives, learn how to communicate and to answer the question, “What is the value of the things I’m working for, supporting, researching or inventing?”
It’s a mistake for the larger community, the public, students and their families to think that somehow the liberal arts are less because they don’t click immediately into a career path. People’s careers are made up of the pieces of what people can do intellectually and emotionally and how agile their minds are. People who are successful don’t let themselves be defined only by what they studied.
Q: How did you decide to become a scientist? What led you down that path? And what led you to pursue a career in academia?
A: I loved science from the time I was in grade school. What really galvanized me were all my junior high school science teachers. In the eighth grade, I had Mr. Parker for Introduction to Physical Science. It was all hands-on experimentation. We did labs every week, we analyzed data. It was just enormous, enormous fun. I still have the notebook! Then, in ninth grade, I took Miss Paul’s biology class, and she had us do experiments with fruit flies, and that’s the basis of genetics. It just captured my imagination, and I was hooked on genetics.
When I got to college, I was initially pre-med, but then I took a genetics class and was sucked in again. Once I got back into the lab, I said – “I don’t want to go to medical school. I want to go to graduate school and keep doing this.”
What got me into administration was teaching a general education biology course at City College. The students I had were amazing; they worked so hard. They were sometimes not prepared for the work, but they really wanted to be in college.
It struck me that for many of them, this may be the last science class they take in their lives, and it’s really, really important that they understand it well. I got involved in an effort the dean launched to revamp all general education science, which meant I was collaborating with colleagues in different departments. After that, the dean asked me if I would consider becoming his associate dean. I thought that could be very interesting, so I decided to give it a try.
Q: Where are you from originally? How did your hometown shape your worldview?
A: I grew up in the suburb of Monroeville, east of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a great place. What I love about it is that it’s urban, but it’s small and friendly. It’s casual. It’s not a formal place.
Q: Do you have a favorite spot on campus yet?
A: Not yet. But what I love are the trees. When I realized that Hofstra was an arboretum, I loved that – the trees aren’t just landscaping; they are curated.
Q: Favorite book? Movie? TV show?
A: I have a real science fiction addiction, so I loved Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land. I also love mysteries, so Patricia Cornwell’s medical examiner mysteries. I also love Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody Emerson series about a detective-archaeologist who is married to an Egyptologist.
My favorite movie is probably Dead Poets Society, and my favorite recent TV show is Numbers – about a mathematician and professor who helps his brother, an FBI agent, solve crimes. Their father is played by Judd Hirsch.
Q: Fun fact?
A: Although I have never considered myself any kind of an athlete, a few years ago I bought myself an indoor rowing machine to stay in shape. I discovered an online community of people who did indoor rowing, and it turns out that
there are competitions. So in February 2014 I competed in an international competition for indoor rowing. I placed fifth in my age group.