Inside Voices: “Achieving Academic Excellence,” with Cindy Price
Vice Provost of Academic Affairs Cindy Price talks about preparing for the upcoming school year and the best way help the college-aged people handle change.
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert. And this is my producer, Kyle. Say hi, Kyle.
Kyle: Hi, Kyle.
Amanda: Today we sat down with Dr. Cindy Price. She’s the vice provost for academic affairs at Seattle Pacific University and has served in this role since 2014. Dr. Price oversees academics and curriculum, institutional accreditation, institutional research, and library services. Basically, if it’s about learning, she is involved. Prior to her role in Academic Affairs, Dr. Price taught sociology (and my husband was one of her students) at Seattle Pacific University and the University of Washington. Cindy, thank you so much for joining us today.
Dr. Cindy Price: Glad to be with you today, Amanda.
Amanda: Well, let’s start just by reading the list of things that you oversee. I feel a little tired and anxious myself, there’s so many things that you’re in charge of, help us understand what a typical day looks like for you.
Dr. Price: Well, typical is probably the operative word because I really don’t know if there is a typical day. One of the challenges, and also one of the joys, is to solve the problems that come my way. So my job really happens on two levels as I think about that. The first level is really thinking about how we do education at Seattle Pacific better, more effectively, meet our students’ needs, how we think about today and the future.
The other part of my job is the task of solving problems. It’s really like a jigsaw puzzle some days, and I like puzzles. How do we put the pieces together to accomplish what we want to accomplish? One of the joys too is there’s never a dull day. It changes every single day. It could be a student issue, we could be designing curriculum, we could be trying to figure out how to register students, it could be a student who’s really struggling. It changes every single day so you wake up never knowing what the day comes. There are some days that you feel like you make a lot of headway and there’s other days where you feel like you don’t, so that happens in that kind of job all of the time. But day in and day out, I really love what I do.
Amanda: Well and having come from teaching in the classroom, so you have one-on-one relationships with students, so now this big, we always use the term the 10,000 foot view, looking down on everything, do you bring that experience with you? Do you still deal one-on-one with students a lot?
Dr. Price: I do, but to be honest, most of the times I get to deal with students is when they’re struggling or challenged, and so we’re often helping, in my world, students when they’re not often at a good point. But what I like about that work too is that it’s a teachable moment. So whatever we do in my office, as we think about students, it’s really thinking about to help them be on a better footing going forward.
“Whatever we do in my office, as we think about students, it’s really thinking about to help them be on a better footing going forward.”
Up until last year, I taught a freshman seminar on race, class, and gender, which truly is in my wheelhouse as a sociologist, and I loved, loved, loved working with students to help them start thinking about the implications of those three topics: race, class, and gender. I always told them that regardless of the background they came from and regardless of the challenges that they would experience, they were all in that classroom, they were privileged to be there, and that we would encourage them to think about how the various identities that they brought to the school, which shape and form them, but also the responsibility they had to move forward to change the world.
So I do bring it with me. I don’t get to teach as much as I used to, and I miss teaching. I do not miss the grading, which I think most would understand, but I do miss being with students on a daily basis and really enjoy the time when I do get to work with them.
Amanda: Well, you mentioned a puzzle as a metaphor for what you do, putting all these pieces together, can you tell us about a time that either with a program or maybe with a specific student that you were able to use the metaphor fit in a piece that you weren’t sure was going to fit?
Dr. Price: Well, I think that the most recent of those experience would be the last four or five months. I had a colleague of mine, Jenny Tenlen in biology, we were talking about working through the pandemic, and I told her, “I feel like it’s a big jigsaw puzzle” and she sent me a picture of a jigsaw puzzle she had just completed. It was all white, there was no shading, no contrast, and I said, “That’s what it’s like right now, you know that there’s a frame, you’re pretty sure you have all the pieces, not always sure, and now it’s your job to fit it together so that you can move forward.” So the pandemic has really been an interesting challenge. As hard as it’s been, it’s actually been very engaging because there aren’t many times in our lives or our careers when we get to try to solve problems that have never been solved before.
On a more intimate level with students, where you solve those is when you get students who are in your office, and it can be any student, but at that moment in their life, they’re challenged. So to help them own and think about the abilities that they have in their own life to move forward, to help motivate them, to help them see their own future, it’s really satisfying. So you’re not there to be a parent, but you’re often like their parents’ age, but your job is to sit behind them or walk alongside them to help them move forward on their own two feet, to help them figure out how they’re going to move forward in the world. So whether it’s a student level or whether it’s institutional, it’s awful lot about problem-solving.
“Your job is to sit behind them or walk alongside them to help them move forward on their own two feet, to help them figure out how they’re going to move forward in the world. “
Amanda: That makes a lot of sense. I know having college students myself, it’s very difficult not to lean over their shoulder and put the pieces into their puzzle for them, but instead to help them learn how to finish that puzzle themselves. Because like you said, it’s all white right now, the shape may not even be quite what you think it is when it’s all finished.
Dr. Price: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s walking alongside. Really the goal is to almost put your hands behind your back metaphorically and help them to do it on their own. It’s so easy to want to jump in and solve it for them, but I think I’ve been in education long enough that I know that my job is this: it’s the last time often in a student’s life when they have the netting, the support net, where they can fall back and fail and stumble and then pick up and figure out how to move forward. So our job is to, as I used to say when I did parent orientations, to provide our students with teachable moments where they can learn and they can stumble but also figure out how to solve problems.
Amanda: Yeah. That safe place to fall is so important in those years of really learning how to adult. Because so many students, no matter how old they are, when they’re going through the education process, there’s a bit of learning how to be a new you at the same time as just learning information.
Dr. Price: And why not engage it? Why not try to find that identity that you want to be and then form a future around it? I’ve always thought that, but the older I get, the more sacred of a responsibility it is. I mean, I really feel like we walk on sacred ground and we have the sacred trust to help transform these young people into something they want to be.
I talk about young people, but we have our graduate students who are embarking on careers, we have more older students, and they come to us wanting to change and be different and learn. So really our job, particularly as the demographics of students change, is to really say, how can we enter a student’s place, their space, and help them be something that they want to be?
“Why not try to find that identity that you want to be and then form a future around it?”
Amanda: Absolutely. Yes. I know that you also have gone through the process of being a parent of college students, and I’m wondering … So you’d already been a professor, you already worked in higher ed and other capacities, did actually walking it through with your own children, did that change your perspective and even the specifics of how you do your job?
Dr. Price: Oh, my goodness. Yes, of course it did. How can it not? So my background is as a family sociologist, so I look at so much of my lens through being a sociologist. And then being a family sociologist, one of the challenges is stepping back and understanding your own world and making sense of your own world and raising your own children. So when I first came to SPU, I had no children (this will give you a sense of my age), and my oldest child just finished his first year of graduate school and my youngest graduated from SPU a year ago, and my colleagues might’ve gotten tired of hearing me use the phrase, “my N of one,” because I started seeing the world through their eyes. What were their challenges? What did they need? And while it isn’t always generalizable to all your students, stepping back and seeing the world through somebody who’s experiencing it, both the challenges and the joys, shapes how you see your current students. In some ways it even becomes more personal. I mean, you see your students, not as your children, but as people who need maybe something more or something less. But parenting, I think, really does shape how I have done my job.
I know with our own kids, both my husband and I, we wanted their educational system to shape them in a way that they saw the other in the world, that their responsibility was to do something, that they had a privilege of a college education, and how does that transform how they see the world? I think that has become even more important to me now, how do we help our students, who are privileged to get a college education, consider it their responsibility to shape the future? So my own children, my own parenting, allowed me to probably see that with much greater clarity.
Amanda: For sure, for sure. I like to think of higher ed education as you start by broadening your horizons and you just get as broad as you can possibly get, as you can stand, for who you are as a human being. And then before you’re done though, you have to start narrowing again to see, “Okay, then where do I fit in that broader world? How do I leave this place and find my own place in the world?” That you need both. You have to get bigger and then you have to get smaller, and that’s a lot to accomplish with every single student.
Dr. Price: It is. They have to get bigger and they have to get smaller. And one thing you want to send students away with is that this is only four years. You have a whole life. Now, we know college is transformative, education’s transformative, and how do you give these kids, the students … kids, I say, the students, the skillset that whatever comes their way, they will be able to handle it? I think at the heart of it, that’s the true value of a liberal arts education: That whatever comes their way, they’ll have both the intellect and the skillset to solve the problems that are right in front of them. So it’s really fun to watch students go. I mean, seeing my students after a lot of years, it’s fun to see where they land and it’s extraordinarily satisfying. I mean, I still keep in touch with students of 20 and 30 years ago and I am just touched to see how education transformed them and where they ended up. Very rewarding.
“… That’s the true value of a liberal arts education: That whatever comes their way, they’ll have both the intellect and the skillset to solve the problems that are right in front of them.”
Amanda: Well, and then you add the faith component on top of that. It almost seems like more, and yet I feel like the faith component supports everything you just said at the same time.
Dr. Price: I don’t see it as more. I mean, I had the great fortune, I went to two colleges, both faith-based, and it really became the anchor. Now my faith was always really important to me, but to now see the future through those kinds of lenses, we want faith to be the anchor. I mean, how do we create and help students embrace the line we’re using more and more, “faith for the future”? Because we know the world will change and their faith will need to accommodate whatever their change is, so I don’t see faith development as more, I see it as integral to what we do, that we can’t do both.
We have a fair amount of students now who’d come to us who don’t have a faith commitment, and so what we ask of them is that they see how this works for us and how it changes how we see the world. So we want our students to leave knowing that faith is their anchor. It may change, they may challenge it, they may question it all, good things to do, but we want them to see a future where faith is part of that future and how they change the actions they engage in, the choices they make are reflective of a faith that they’ve developed and has been strengthened and developed while they’re here at Seattle Pacific.
Amanda: I know there’s a lot of us out there who have college students within their purview, whether it’s their own child, their brother, sister, niece, nephew, whether it’s someone you go to church with, someone you work with. With such a big amount to accomplish in a short amount of time, how can we, as support system people, how can we help those students the most?
Dr. Price: Great question, Amanda. We may feel like we all want to do something, and I don’t know if doing is what’s needed. What students need is somebody who will listen to them. What are their thoughts? What are they thinking? How do they formulate what the future could look like? And the best gift we can give to, I think, to a college student, first, is to listen to them and validate their ideas. I mean, sometimes they come up with things you’re like, “Wow, I’m not sure I would have ended up that way,” but then ask questions.
So when I work with parents, I tell them the things that they can do that first holiday their students come back and are filled with ideas, is to listen to them and to ask a lot of questions. Another thing that we can do, and there’s a metaphor my mom used to say that her job was to give her children roots or give her and… how she say that? My mom used to say that her job was to give us wings and our job was to fly, and so students come to us with wings and we need to figure out how to give them that air beneath their wings.
What we need to be cautious about doing is deciding for them, is to telling them the way it’s going to be, because our experiences just simply will not be their experiences. So I think the best thing we can do is to listen and to ask good questions and to help them develop their identities.
“Students come to us with wings and we need to figure out how to give them that air beneath their wings.”
The other thing we can do, frankly, is give them connections to help them network, to help them understand a bigger world. Anything that we can do to connect them with the bigger world is really important. So one gift we have for them is our own networks, and that’s a great gift we can give our students.
Amanda: Yeah, I think most of us don’t think about it that way. It may not be a direct connection, like if I know the student wants to be a nurse, it may not necessarily be a nursing manager that’s hiring new nurses right now, it could be anyone that can help them understand better what the medical field feels like on a day-to-day basis and maybe what kind of environment they want to serve in as a nurse. I think that connection process is so much bigger than we would automatically think of it.
Dr. Price: So both of my children have gone through the informational interview process and both of them found it pretty unnerving, and so we hooked them up with friends of ours who we knew would be easy to talk to, and both found that as they began to do it, that they really enjoyed it. As my son once said, “You just need to ask somebody a question and they’ll just start talking about themselves, Mom.” I was like, “You’re right, that’s what they do, but you learn something.” We also told them that when you’re done with an informational interview, always ask them for somebody else you can talk to. So both will say that they’ve just met so many wonderful people doing this, and that’s another way that they can move into the world. So it truly is a gift that we can give them to start connecting them with people of all sorts and to tell them that this person may not, and most likely does not have a job for you, but learning about their world will help you learn about who you are and what you want to do.
Amanda: Absolutely. Absolutely. Okay. Well, I hate to have to bring you back to present day because talking about your work overall and your philosophy is very heartening to me as a parent, as an alum, as a person, but we are entering a fall that will take place during a pandemic, and it’s also pretty well known that higher ed is generally very slow to change. I’ve heard it said that universities turn about as quickly as the Titanic …
Dr. Price: That fast?!
Amanda: So how are you and team pivoting right now? How are you attacking this one-color puzzle that is the disruption of this fall?
Dr. Price: Well, you use the operative word. I know whether I talk to colleagues here at SPU or across the country, the magical word of the year is pivot. How quickly can you pivot? We pivoted well. There was a wonderful expose, or story, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed soon after the pandemic started that focused on universities here in Seattle, and they interviewed Jeff Jordan and myself about what our experience was, and it caused us to look back over the few weeks we had just gone through and reconstruct how we did what we did, and you were making decisions really quickly on the fly. We look back now and we say, “Well, OK, some things we didn’t do great, but what did you do well?” What did you do well?
I was meeting with a group of faculty in the middle of Spring Quarter, and I asked them, I said, “What have you learned that will help you in the future?” So they were talking about new technologies that they could use, ways to make their classroom and the learning more equitable and accessible for students, and it just forced us, and I mean that positively, to start thinking a little differently.
We’re entering the fall with so many unknowns, and so I think that we will still experience disruption and challenges as we move into the fall, but I think we’re much more cognizant of looking for those things that we can do differently, whatever they may be. There may be new technologies, ways of interacting with students. How can we level the playing field better so students have better access to education? We are starting to ask different questions. What I hope we do is when we ask questions, we then spend time, I call it in the muck, trying to figure out … I think one thing we have a challenge doing is when we see a problem, we identify the problem and we jump really quickly to a solution. And as I’ve told people I work with, we don’t spend much time in the muck. So we need to spend time in the muck asking more questions, digging deep, what works, what doesn’t, but I think given the pace of the pandemic we’ll just start doing these things much more quickly.
“We’re entering the fall with so many unknowns, and so I think that we will still experience disruption and challenges as we move into the fall, but I think we’re much more cognizant of looking for those things that we can do differently, whatever they may be.”
Amanda: For sure. For sure. Well, we’ll definitely be pulling for you and praying for you and your entire team as we enter this fall and really, for the world, let’s be honest, of everyone trying to pivot and try and do things a new way.
Dr. Price: Amanda-
Amanda: Go ahead.
Dr. Price: One thing along that is we’re talking about, and we’ll talk some more about, is how do we leverage the pandemic for our learning? How do we take this moment in time and think about the world differently?
So I had the great fortune of teaching a freshman seminar right after 9/11, and it was really one of the best teaching experiences I had because for your traditional college student, there was just no place to hang that experience. I mean, for us who were older, there weren’t many places, but we had a little more perspective. And there’s some research out there that’s coming that talks about how your traditional-age college student can be affected by living through a pandemic, and so how can we help the students gain this moment, whether it be about the pandemic, about race relations, upcoming elections, how do we help them make sense of their world? I mean, that’s the educational challenge in front of us right now. And then how do we help them engage in these topics to move forward? So academically, I think it could be a pretty exciting time. Making it all happen will be our challenge.
Amanda: Yes, yes. I definitely see that. I mean, we look back through history, and wars and tragedies tend to birth a lot of new technology and move society forward. So how do we come out of this the best we can for the future?
Dr. Price: For the future, but also how does it transform people? I’m always really curious when you talk about individuals who fought in World War II, we call them the greatest generation, we hear about their stories, but this was usually three to four years of their entire life. It was not the majority of their life. But people who were in World War II, they were young, or Vietnam, or pick your political time, they were young and it transformed them personally. So how do we think about now that our students are living through a pandemic, something we haven’t experienced in over 100 years, how do we be sympathetic and empathetic to the effects this time period has on them, their sense of identity, their sense of who they are and their learning?
“So how do we think about now that our students are living through a pandemic, something we haven’t experienced in over 100 years, how do we be sympathetic and empathetic to the effects this time period has on them, their sense of identity, their sense of who they are and their learning?”
Amanda: Yes, I agree with that. Even with my own children, I can occasionally want to jump to the what’s the lesson we’ll learn from this? Basically, what’s the good news? When for a minute, you need to just cry and mourn that things are not nice right now. You can get to the takeaways in a minute, but you have to experience all of that. So I absolutely agree, you really have to take it all in at the same time.
Dr. Price: Yep. Younger folks haven’t lived long enough yet to know that there necessarily will be a takeaway. I’m watching my two children in their 20s, and it’s very disruptive, more disruptive than it is for me. I mean, my life is pretty set in what I do, but I have a daughter with great dreams to go into global development. She just spent a year teaching English in France, and she’s home and there are no jobs, so how do you recreate an experience, what moves forward? I’m just so proud of watching her put these pieces together to think about how to do next steps. So it’s pretty transformative of a time for students, and we want to make sure that they leverage that skillset to move forward.
Amanda: Well, I’m glad you’re there for our students. I’ll say that.
Dr. Price: Thank you.
Amanda: Well, we like to end every interview with the same question because everybody’s perspective and experience is so different, including your own. So if you had everyone wake up tomorrow and do one thing differently that would make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?
Dr. Price: Hey, I’m a teacher so there’s usually more than one point. So, the first one is be grateful. I think it’s so easy in this time to think about everything that’s not going well. For those of us who have our health, that is something to be extraordinarily grateful now. If we have food on our table and a job, even more grateful because many people don’t. So there is gratefulness, I think, wherever you are in your stage of life.
The other thing that I’ve told my students for years, and it’s one reason I’m ending with this, before I even knew it was a Scripture, my mom used to say, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” I share that with all my students, that for those of us who have the extraordinary fortune of having a college education, we’ve been given a lot and a lot is expected of us. So what’s the one thing we can do differently, or new, that would put the world in a better place, is to live up to those expectations of “to whom much has given.” It’s really important to me. It’s a matter of faith. It’s a matter of privilege of having a college education. It’s a matter of living in a world that needs what we have to give, and so that we live up to the expectations of our faith and of our community.
Amanda: So well said. So well said. Well, thank you, Dr. Price, or Cindy, as you are to me personally.
Dr. Price: You’re welcome.
Amanda: I always love sitting down and talking to you. For those who have not had the privilege to talk to you in person, you are pretty much smiling 90% of the time. It’s infectious and we all love it, and we’re so grateful to have you at SPU. So thank you so much for joining us today.
Dr. Price: Thank you for having me. It’s been my pleasure.