Provost McCauley talks free speech principles and generative AI – The Michigan Daily

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The Michigan Daily sat down with University Provost Laurie McCauley Tuesday afternoon to talk about the University’s recently-announced free speech principles and the impacts of generative artificial intelligence in academics. Appointed in March 2022, McCauley will serve her term until June 2027. She discussed the use of AI in classrooms, resources for faculty who have been harassed because of their academic work or research, a new vice provost for sustainability and climate action, and more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Michigan Daily: What would you say is your proudest accomplishment over the past semester?

Laurie McCauley: Well, first I would say that we’ve had a lot of accomplishments. I don’t like to use the word “proud.” I feel incredibly fortunate to be working with a team that does awesome things, so I’ll share some of those with you. 

One is that we’re getting ready to launch our strategic vision for the University, and I’ve had the great fortune to work with not only the provost’s office, but the Chief Financial Officer’s office and Dean Marschall Runge’s office, President Ono and the Vice President for Communications. The thing that really excites me about this is that I think this is probably the most inclusive project we’ve done on this campus, at least when it comes to strategy and visioning. There have been over 5,000 engagements with faculty, staff, students, community members, donors and alumni to get their opinions of our future. 

In January, our inaugural Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Angela Dillard started, and she’s going to be focusing on student success and looking at ways we can really up our game. We have fabulous students who are incredibly successful but we can see that if we look across student groups, some students do better than others, and we’re looking at ways to elevate all our students. It’s going to be very data and evidence-based because we value that on a research-intensive campus. 

One of the other things that is in development is I’m really passionate about supporting structures for individuals with disabilities on our campus. I’ve been working with Chief Diversity Officer Tabbye Chavous and a group of faculty and staff across campus to look at ways we can put into place support systems for faculty and staff but also start to tackle how we can better educate our students who will be working in a workforce where one in four people has a disability.

TMD: The University has recently announced it will adopt a test-optional policy. Following this announcement, how will the University assess applicants who may or may not submit standardized tests? Will they assess those who submit test scores versus those who do not differently? If so, how?

LM: The announcement that we made with the test-optional policy was pretty much the same as how we’ve been functioning during the pandemic with what we called “test flexible.” We used the term “test-optional” to be more consistent with terminology across the country. We have holistic admissions, and those will continue. We take all the information that we can about a student. So, if they submit their ACT or SAT scores, those are looked at. We look at their grades, we look at how they performed in rigorous courses, we look at their extracurricular activities, their artistic performances, the way they demonstrate leadership potential — all of those are looked at holistically. And we will continue to do that. 

TMD: Following the announcement of new free speech principles during the Board of Regents meeting in January, what do you hope it will accomplish for faculty and students?

LM: As an institution of higher learning, I think coming forward with our statements in that regard is really important for our community to know that we value everybody’s opinions. We value the freedom for people to express their opinions, to be able to talk freely, to be able to have a discourse. There’s an understanding that people will have differing opinions and that this is a place where people should be allowed and encouraged to have those opinions and be able to discuss things. I think it was a really important move for our University to make that announcement. You may be aware that after we came forward with the announcement in January with the regents, in the February Regents meeting, I also came out with a statement in support of our faculty who do research or who have scholarly work in areas that they are able to continue to do their work in areas that by some may be considered controversial.

TMD: Could you go into more detail about the resources available for faculty who have been threatened or harassed as a result of their research or academic work and why they were created?

LM: So I think what you’re referring to is the workaround threats and harassment for faculty. It came to our attention that there are some faculty who, as I mentioned before, may be doing work in areas that are controversial, or at least seen by some people to be controversial. They were being threatened for that work. So there was a committee that got together and it was co-led by my office and the vice president for communications to look at the work and make recommendations in that space. 

One of the recommendations was to provide resources to faculty that will be easy to find. So faculty oftentimes will go to their academic units, their chairs and their deans, and that still can be true, but we wanted to have one place where they could access resources that would be available to them. Those resources would include mental health resources, media relations, so how best to respond to media inquiries or to social media postings, strategies around that. The concerns from faculty may also include, for some individuals, public safety. The safety and the ability for faculty to continue to do their work is key, but having all those resources in a single webpage is critical. The webpage also may include some legal resources and examples of how we have used the legal system to support our faculty. 

There was also a suggestion that we survey the faculty to see how extensive this is — what are the threats they’re having and what are the resources that they think they will need? So that survey will be done in conjunction with our Institute for Social Research, which is phenomenal in doing surveys. From there, we will then look to see what are the other things that we can do to support our faculty.

TMD: The University is offering more courses related to generative AI. What do you envision the University can do with AI? How do you think AI will impact U-M academic life?

LM: It’s a really exciting time for artificial intelligence and generative AI. It’s an area that our university has been invested in for a long time. We’ve had faculty doing research in these spaces, but because of the surge of interest across the country, we’ve now deployed more courses and more learning opportunities. The Center for Academic Innovation, for instance, has 35 courses that they are queuing up. Some of those classes are already being delivered and some of them will roll out over the summer for people to learn about generative AI. Ravi Pendse, who’s our chief information officer, his office has courses and training in generative AI. He has courses that are every Monday for faculty, staff and students. One thing we do best is educate, and that’s through much of this coursework. 

There’s also a lot of research going on in generative AI on our campus; there’s research on wearable robotics and feedback through machine learning. There is work in the School of Public Health that has shown that the artificial intelligence approach has been very beneficial and saves a huge amount of therapists’ time. 

There’s a lot of work related to machine learning too. The other area is in tutorials. I know there are professors, for instance, in the Ross School of Business, who have used our U-M Maizey tool to put all of their coursework and their lecture notes in their syllabus and then the AI forms a personal tutor. Students can ask questions to this tutor 24/7. They have shown that students actually perform incredibly well with that tutor compared to a more generic generative AI. 

TMD: What kinds of new strategies does the Office of the Provost have planned to help with the University’s environmental and sustainability goals?

LM: We are running a search for a new vice provost for sustainability and climate action. One of the key roles for that individual will be to look at education across our campus. Are we offering educational opportunities where our students will understand their responsibilities as citizens of the environment, from the lens of their discipline or profession? We have some phenomenal faculty in many different places on our campus, but one of the things that this new leader will do will be to help across our entire enterprise to ensure that our students have an optimal education. They will also partner with the associate vice president in the CFO’s office and the senior vice president in Michigan Medicine who have roles and responsibilities in climate action in their responsive areas to look at just our campus operations at large: are we operating as optimally as possible? There’s been a lot of interest in that new leadership role, so I’m really optimistic about what will happen.

TMD: During the last Provost’s Seminar on Teaching, Mark Largent, vice provost for undergraduate education at Michigan State University, said if advisers encourage first-year students to “go easy” and take fewer academic credits, doing so may harm the students. What is your approach to first-year course load to maximize student success at the University?

LM: That is something that we have been doing a lot of thinking about. The new vice provost for undergraduate education, Angela Dillard, and colleagues across our campus are part of a team called ASSET, which uses analytics to look at student learning on our campus. One of the things that they came forward with was the concept of early momentum. If students in their first year of undergraduate study take 15 credit hours each semester, so they’ve taken 30 hours their first year, they’re more likely to graduate on time. We have really outstanding graduation outcomes relative to our peers. But if we start to sort through the data, we can see that some students — like those who are the first in their family to go to college, come from low socioeconomic status or are underrepresented on our campus — have lower graduation rates.

One of the things that Vice Provost Dillard is going to be doing is working with the schools and colleges to start implementing this so that they can see the evidence themselves and also start looking at ways to implement this concept.

TMD: As a tradition, The Daily asks a fun question at the end of an interview with the provost. Our question is: do you have a favorite place to grab coffee around campus? 

LM: I will confess that I don’t drink much coffee on campus. I’m more of a tea drinker. During the day I have a cup of coffee in the morning at home, and then I change to tea. We have a fabulous kitchen in the Ruthven Administration Building where I have hot water and tea bags. There are great selections of tea. That would be my preference. Although it might be much more fun to be out and about around campus to get tea, I have great selections here.

Daily Staff Reporters Delilah Dakis, Anna Jerolimov, Thomas Gala-Garza and Daily News Editor Ji Hoon Choi can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected].

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