There’s a tried-and-true answer to the common interview question, “What are you going to do your first six months on the job?” External candidates invariably answer with some form of: “I’m going to spend a lot of time listening.”
That will certainly be the case for her, said Diane Chase, UNLV’s new executive vice president and provost. But listening isn’t a quiet activity for her. A recent tour of campus radio station KUNV, for example, soon turned into a lively chat about the station’s operating model and how programming is integrated into the curricula at the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs.
You can expect her to ask conversation-starting questions to help her discover the context of any given situation, she said. “I use that word because I’m an archaeologist, and we always talk about context,” said Chase, whose prolific work along with her husband, Arlen, focuses on the Maya. “An item can have three or four different meanings depending on the context it is in.”
The lesson in that is particularly important after spending the past 32 years at the University of Central Florida (UCF), the nation’s second largest university. With 15 years in administration, she most recently served as vice provost for academic program quality there.
“It’s a dangerous trap for someone like me, who comes from a place with many of the same issues and opportunities, to start saying, ‘Well, at UCF we did this…’ But nothing is that simple.
“I think my academic background helps me avoid the convenience of taking a cookie-cutter approach. What I can do is draw on my past experiences to ask questions, to figure out how the subtly different pieces of UNLV’s particular puzzle fit together.”
A good thing to know about Chase upfront: Move your water bottle or coffee cup out of the way. “I talk with my hands — I can’t help it, I’m Italian.”
Chase grew up in Garden City, New York, where her father was a doctor. The family often took road trips to visit her mother’s family on farms in the Midwest, always stopping along the way at roadside attractions. “We did a lot of things, but to be honest, I only remember the museums and archaeological sites,” she said.
She chose the University of Pennsylvania for college in part because she knew that, as a large research university it would offer the widest variety of disciplines. “You name it, I probably took it, but I kept coming back to archaeology and anthropology,” she said. “Even in that day, people talked about getting a ‘practical degree.’ Archaeology wasn’t seen as practical because you had to get a doctorate to really pursue a career, but every time I’d try to follow another path, I’d come back.”
Her choice was cemented once she had a chance to do fieldwork alongside her professors. While she doesn’t discount the education that other types of institutions offer, she values the experiences that undergraduates get simply by being at a research institution. “I can’t convey how fervently I believe in the value of an education at a research university and in the importance of that experience in students’ lives,” she said.
“In fact, one thing that appealed to me about UNLV is that the Top Tier initiative isn’t just tied to the research metrics under the Carnegie classification system; it really is about student success. I believe their learning is enriched so much by engaging with faculty who are the discoverers and innovators and creators in their fields. Being around those professors as a 20 year old was life changing.”
After getting her doctorate, she built a prolific career in archaeology. She and Arlen Chase, who will join UNLV’s anthropology department this fall, focused their studies on Belize’s Caracol, one of the largest Maya archaeological sites. Together, they’ve directed the Caracol Archaeological Project since 1985, excavating the large city, its royal tombs, major centers of civic life, and an altar that helped the team explain the city’s rapid growth.
“When I graduated, it was more or less unheard of for women to be directing the fieldwork. They might go into the field, but they’d be in the lab” she said. “It was important to me that my peers accept me as a professor, a researcher, an archaeologist — so I set directing fieldwork as my goal.”
And that meant delaying having children until she’d established a national reputation and acquired all the experience needed to go up for tenure. “Today, I see less hesitation among women faculty to have children earlier — at least at institutions that work at truly supporting the careers of their faculty.”
Once the Chases had children, they didn’t hesitate to bring them along during field seasons, even when they had to pull the children out of school for a few months a year. “Having kids in the middle of the jungle is perhaps not the model environment — I mean you can’t childproof a jungle — but long term I think it was really beneficial. They think about other cultures; they grew up very independent. It became an essential part of who they are, too.”
Their oldest son, Adrian, is working on his doctorate in archaeology at Arizona State University. Their son, Aubrey, is a software infrastructure engineer in Virginia. And daughter, Elyse, is a mechanical engineering undergraduate with minors in anthropology and art at her parents’ alma mater.
Fifteen years ago, Chase took on her first administrative role as coordinator of UCF’s interdisciplinary programs. That led to positions of increasing responsibility until 2010, when she was named executive vice provost for academic affairs. “I got snockered into doing administration,” she said. “It just wasn’t something I planned, but it turned out that people saw something in me that I didn’t initially see in myself.”
As UNLV’s executive vice president and provost, Chase will oversee the university’s academic programs, ensuring that the programs are serving the needs of students while advancing UNLV’s Top Tier mission. UCF went through a similar change as it quickly evolved from an engineering school into a comprehensive research university.
She credits effective communication and collaboration for that school’s rise. “The policies and procedures were established, at least over time, in such a way that there was real clarity about what people needed to do, could do, and should do to advance both their careers and the institution’s aspirations,” she said. “UCF’s strategic plan galvanized the university community to move in the same direction, and I see that happening (at UNLV) already.”
Her best advice for anyone is to keep an eye on the greater goal. “We often worry so much about the thing we think we want to be rather than what it is we want to do. I didn’t know my path was to become a provost but it turned out the things I wanted to accomplish — things like fostering the creation of new knowledge, aligning our academic programs to serve our community needs, ensuring our students come out the other end as resilient creative thinkers — those are the things that a provost does.”