Managing Editor Clinton Engelberger interviewed Eric Eisenberg about his transition into his new position as interim provost.
Over the summer, you entered a transition period as interim provost to help you smoothly enter your new role. What was this experience like for you?
It’s been overwhelming and exciting. I pretty much know how to be dean and I really have great familiarity with the College of Arts and Sciences. But I didn’t have as deep of familiarity as I needed to have of the other colleges and of the things outside of the colleges that a provost has to care about. And so it’s been a real real fast learning curve.
I knew all the people, but what I needed was to develop a deeper understanding of the areas outside of the college and that’s really what I’ve been doing.
Following your summer transition, you officially started as interim provost on Aug. 7. What have you had the opportunity to do in such a short period of time to prepare for this year?
Well, the first thing I did was graduation. And so I did my three commencements as provost, so that was exciting to be in that position. And then basically what I’ve been doing is I’ve been trying to put my team together, because it wasn’t just Provost [Ralph Wilcox] who decided to move back to faculty. There were a number of other key positions that did as well.
The vice president of student success left and went to UCF. Two of my vice provosts went back to faculty, so I had to hire new vice provosts.
And so basically, the way I lead is I always try to surround myself with a really strong team of people. And so I’ve spent the first few weeks trying to get that team in place and ready to go and oriented for the coming year. So that’s been one thing.
And then the other thing we’ve been doing is I’ve been working with the president very closely to look at our strategic plan as an institution and our performance aspirations to determine where we’re on a clear path for continued success, and where we have challenges that we have to sort of gear up to to address.
What do you feel you can apply to this new position from your previous role as a dean of the College of Arts and Sciences?
Well, I think it’s important to have the dean’s perspective because the deans and the chairs are closer to the students and to the faculty than the provost and the president are. I like to think that I bring a sort of appreciation for the student and faculty experience, and also some of the operational details like “What does it take to get financial aid?” “What does it take to change classes or to change majors?”
Because I never want to be in a senior manager position making decisions that don’t reflect the reality of what those decisions actually look like, when you’re actually trying to implement them. Even things like if you make COVID-19 policies, you respond to some of the political stuff that’s happening in Tallahassee that might affect our classrooms.
I think I bring a deep understanding of what the actual work of the university is, and I’m trying not to lose that as I move into this position.
What aspects will you miss the most from being a dean?
The team that I built, which I felt we had a very high level of trust and are very, very high performing. And now I just sort of have to rebuild that team here, which I think I will do and they’re fantastic.
But it is a bit of starting over again, in terms of getting them to know me and me getting to know each of them. I really try to build a work environment where people feel excited about coming to work. And so it takes time sometimes to do that. So I’ll miss that.
And of course I’ll miss the departments that I am most identified with. I love the humanities, I love the sciences [and] I love the social sciences. And so now I get to think about them but I also have to think about the arts and engineering and everything else. It’s exciting, but it’s bigger.
How do you balance your work life with your personal life?
Well, it’s really not an easy thing to do. Because as you know, most jobs these days are really 24/7 because of the accessibility that we have through media and things like that, and also the expectation that people have for responsiveness.
And so what I tried to do is I always put my family first. I tried to minimize the amount of time that I’m out on weekends and evenings, although in this job, it’s hard to do. And I tried to keep a sense of humor and keep things in perspective.
In other words, I think it’s sometimes in a complex leadership role, you can turn everything into an emergency. And somebody once said to me that there are a lot of things we do at a university that are not life or death, but we sort of turn them into life or death because they’re the urgent thing of the day. There’s just sort of this intensity of urgency.
And so one thing I’ve been saying to people is let’s see if we can really separate the important from the urgent. So, there’s the important, which are the things that really deserve our attention. And then there’s the urgent, which may or may not really need to happen this minute.
If you could give your college self one piece of advice, what would it be?
You know, I probably could have gotten involved in more co-curricular stuff than I did. I was pretty focused on my schooling and on music and on basketball, which I love. But I never joined any organizations or clubs or things like that. I always felt that the people who did learned some things that I didn’t learn so I think I really am a proponent now of that.
Also, I really wish I had studied abroad because I see what it does to people. And I did eventually start to travel. And I love traveling so much in terms of how it changes your perspective. I wish that I had done that back when I was in college.
What is something people may not know about you that you would want them to know?
Well, two things come to mind. One is that I’m really, really, really into music. I play music and I love [listening to] music. I think music is like the most important thing in the world.
The other thing is that I’m a first-generation college student in my family, which actually is true for a lot of people at USF.
Part of the reason why I love USF and I love public higher education is because I came up through the kind of family where I was first in college and my family gave me access to a whole different kind of career than anybody before me.
And I really, really think that that’s kind of the character of this university. I used to teach at the University of Southern California, which was the opposite of being a private college. Everybody was basically just going to college because their parents told them that they should probably do that. Whereas if you go to commencement here, everybody’s like, man, you know, I did it.
What advice would you give students who may feel overwhelmed either working toward a degree or job searching in these unprecedented times of the pandemic?
Probably the most important thing is to go easy on yourself and not assume that you should be feeling perfectly or that the people around you are necessarily doing better than you are. Because that’s part of the problem.
I remember being that age. You look around, you think everybody’s got their act together but me. Then when you get older, you realize that everybody was exactly as messed up as you. It’s just that some people hide it better, right?
You have to take the pressure off yourself, and then you have to avail yourselves of the range of help that you can get depending on what your issue is.
It can be anything from psychiatry to psychology to meditation to yoga, to taking an art class or going on a road trip. I think a lot of people, and this is true with men in particular, don’t ask for help when they start to struggle. And it’s like drowning. If you start to struggle and you don’t ask for help, it just gets worse, right? And then you start hiding the fact that it’s gotten worse and then eventually you just say, “Well, I guess I’m not cut out for college, right?”
And so all you have to do is ask for help. One thing I’ve learned in my life is that there are lots of people who are delighted to help you, and it actually makes them feel good to help you. I know that the college journey is really wiggly. And it’s like those one or two little interactions, like that one teacher that really takes an interest in you, or that one bad experience you have with a teacher can kind of throw you off. And so when you get thrown off or you feel overwhelmed, reach out and ask for that help. And then just get back on the path again.