Appalachian Perspective: Dr. Stan Aeschleman

Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.

In his role as provost, Dr. Stan Aeschleman strengthened Appalachian State University's academic core and created the vision for which the University has become known—a unique institution that blends aspects of a research institution with those of a small liberal arts institution. After many years as an administrator, he has chosen to return to teaching later this year. We'll meet this visionary and beloved psychology professor on Appalachian Perspective.


Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock: In his role as provost, Dr. Stan Aeschleman strengthened Appalachian State University's academic core and created the vision for which the University has become known—a unique institution that blends aspects of a research institution with those of a small liberal arts institution. After many years as an administrator, he has chosen to return to teaching later this year. We'll meet this visionary and beloved psychology professor coming up on Appalachian Perspective.

KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective. My guest today is Dr. Stan Aeschleman, Appalachian State University's top academic officer. Welcome Stan.

Dr. Stan Aeschleman: Thank you Ken.

KP: It's good to have you on the show. You've done this before—in my seat, actually—so welcome as the guest on Appalachian Perspective. Your career at Appalachian spans something like 21 years, beginning as a faculty member in the Department of Psychology and culminating now as the chief academic officer at Appalachian State. At the end of June you've decided to step down and return to the classroom here. What are your reasons for doing that and why now?

SA: I think it's a confluence of three events. One is my age. I think of a lyric from a Bonnie Raitt song that keeps going through my head—time gets mighty precious when there's less of it to waste. I want to make sure that I have some time to do some of the things I really enjoy doing. Second, and I think that I've talked to you about this, this job takes a lot of psychological vigor and I think after 12 years in administration I kind of have that administrative fatigue and I don't know if I can really do the service and provide the energy I need to the University. And then, sincerely, I really wanted to close the circle. I got into this field because I love the science of behavior and what it promised for the human condition. My last few years as an academic, I want to go back, teach and engage in some research.

KP: Very good. Prior to coming to Appalachian State, just tell us a little bit about your background, from your education to your other experience.

SA: I was a first generation college student. We share that in common and have talked about that many times. I went to a school very similar to this—Western Illinois. I played a little basketball. I had very good mentors who pointed me toward an academic career. They started talking to me about pursuing a Ph.D. I was a psych major and went to the University of Kentucky and that's where I met my wife Ellen. I was working on my Ph.D. in psychology and she on her master's degree in microbiology. My first job was at an urban university, Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis. I was there for ten years and was tenured. I recall coming home one day, because I always looked for jobs in North Carolina and Virginia if the truth be told, and I remember asking Ellen, "Have you ever heard of Appalachian State?" I think she said something like "a few of my high school friends went there and I remember my dad taking me up to Tweetsie." So I applied, came on campus and had the same experience a lot of our students have—kind of fell in love with the ambiance. Bill Byrd, who was the dean at the time, hired me. It was a bit of an unusual hire. He hired me as a full professor to direct the rehab pysch program. Subsequently I became chair of the psych department and then interim dean and now is my sixth year as provost.

KP: Your contributions as provost are countless. We could never go through all of them. Is there one in particular that you think you're most proud of, that you want to hold up. The first thing that comes to my mind is the strategic plan. It's a road map for this institution. Anyone who has ever tried to develop one has to realize it takes countless numbers of hours and involvement with faculty, staff, students and external constituencies as well. That, to me, is what comes to mind when I think about your work. Talk about that a little bit.

SA: I would agree. As you indicated in the opening, it does provide this bold vision for Appalachian to be a blended university, trying to capture the best characteristics of a small liberal arts university, like a Davidson, particularly for our undergraduate focus, and then to strengthen our research profile to have some really strong graduate programs and programs of research. That was a wonderful experience. We had a strategic planning commission, about a hundred faculty, staff and students, who gave input to the strategic planning council, which was a smaller group that then synthesized the input. I remember getting all of the input from the commission—the subcommittees of the commission—and working with the council. It coalesced. I think we all kind of saw the vision together and it emerged as the plan that we're now operating under. The other area where I think we, in Academic Affairs, have made some lasting contributions, and this is certainly with the help of Tim Burwell and Bobbie Sharp in particular, is to come up with transparent, empiracally-driven resource management processes that use national benchmarks. We've used that to make equity allocations for faculty salaries, to allocate positions and operating budgets. I'm very hopeful that whoever replaces me will continue to use those practices. I think they've been extraordinarilly useful.

KP: During your tenure here, a lot has changed. Twenty-one years is a pretty long time. Certainly, as one year as the dean of the largest college on this campus and six years as the provost, what changes have you seen with our students coming in and the challenges that they may bring to us.

SA: Certainly they are much more technology savvy than students 20 years ago. Every generation has much more expertise than the previous. I think their expectation, the way material is presented stretches us as faculty members. Also, I think this is on the negative side, they're bringing more problems than we used to see 20 years ago. Psychological, in particular, where we've had to expand our counseling services. I think the stresses and demands of the 21st century have placed, and with the development of technology, unique demands on us both in the classroom and outside of the classroom.

KP: Talk a little bit about the counseling. Do you see typical problems that come in? You are the psychologist here. Do you see things that are coming, a pattern?

SA: I think that they're some of the typical patterns of adolescence. Alcohol and substance abuse and the spiralling effects that that can have on academic performance and life in general. I think you're aware of, in working with Dave Haney and Cindy Wallace and others across campus, have developed this Early Intervention Team, which is designed to alert whoever needs to be alerted—faculty members, residence assistants—of problems that a student might be having early so that it doesn't spiral into a situation that would be very difficult to manage. If a student is all of a sudden appearing discheveled or not coming to class, we have a mechanism now of, in a non-punitive way, trying to explore what those dynamics are so that we can design an appropriate intervention.

KP: Student research, you have focused on that a lot, too, and got some great things going. Talk about those programs.

SA: That's an area that I have great passion for. One of the first things I did as provost was create an Office of Student Research. Alan Utter has been director of that office. I feel very strongly that knowledge creation can't be acquired passively or vicariously. You really have to do it. You have to be a student who works side-by-side with a faculty member to understand how those processes really lead to new knowledge and other creative works. Also, and this is an area of our strategic plan that tries to capture this liberal arts spirit, is trying to get connections between faculty members and students outside of the classroom. Again, I feel very strongly that that's where some of the best and most transformative learning takes place. If I asked you what are your best experiences, both as a student and as a faculty member, you're going to point to those special relationships that you had that were really beyond the classroom. I really would like to see every student who has any interest in the intellectual process to avail themselves of this opportunity.

KP: Is this something that Appalachian is doing that is kind of unique here? It does blend together research and the liberal arts program as well. Is this kind of a unique thing for Appalachian to have?

SA: There are many universities across the country now that are trying to tap into getting students involved in research. Again, Alan has been remarkable in his facilitating the development of that program. Last year, we held the North Carolina Symposium on Research on this campus. It's an area, along with others, that bring faculty members and students together, such as service learning, international programs, the student leadership program that Cindy Wallace and Dino DiBernardi monitor, and give students opportunities for leadership across campus. Those are the things that I think could make us unique as a public institution of this size.

KP: Another thing that I think Appalachian has excelled in, and received some recognition for, deals with the service learning programs that we have. Talk about that and how it has grown under your leadership.

SA: The ACT program actually started in Student Development. With the creation of University College, we now share the resource responsibilities with Student Development. Of course, ACT is a statewide program that you're involved in. One of our objectives of general education is to have students understand the responsibilities of community membership, of citizenship. The students that we attract to Appalachian score very high on that variable, the number of hours that they volunteer to local agencies. We have this alternative spring break program that gets sold out in early Fall for the spring break programs. It's a wonderful opportunity for faculty members, staff and students to work together giving something back, to not only this community, but sometimes internationally with our alternative spring break programs that have an international focus.

KP: That's really grown, too, under your leadership.

SA: Yeah. It's great faculty and staff who really have a passion for giving something back to those that sometimes find themselves in situations less fortunate than us. The major effort we had with Katrina victims was remarkable.

KP: Another area where you have really excelled, and Appalachian had a little base but it has just blossomed, deals with international programs and relationships there and opportunities. It is a part of your strategic plan to make sure Appalachian students have the opportunity to go abroad, study, work, learn and serve. Talk about those programs and some things that you have done, and where we are now that we weren't before.

SA: Again, there are always people that you work with that make these things happen, and it's Jesse Lutabingwa, who we hired four years ago. One of the things that he started doing early on was to create partnerships with universities outside of Europe. I think we had, as most universites have had traditionally, a very Eurocentric focus. He, very strategically, started courting partners in other parts of the world, so now we have some very strong partnerships in Asia—in fact, that focus is primarily around service learning. We have four relationships in South Africa and one that's very, very strong at the University of Free State. That's more on a focus on sustainable development. And now he's also developing partnerships in South America—Brazil, Chile, Argentina—and then expanding on the long relationship we've had, again it has a sustainable development focus, in Costa Rica. I think an area where we really excel is in short-term study abroad programs. These are programs where faculty mentors will take a small cohort of students for two to six weeks, typically during the Summer. An area where I think we have the opportunity for some growth is for long-term study abroad programs, where students will go for a whole semester or a year. I've had the good fortune of spending a year on sabbatical—when we actually had sabbaticals at IUPUI—and then 18 months in Malaysia. I find those long-term study abroads a transformative experience. At some point you go from being a tourist to being an expat. When you're an expat, you start looking back at the United States through the lens of that culture and I think that can be transformative, particulary for a young student.

KP: So you led the campus to a strategic plan—that gives us a direction for the future. You've increased these international programs. You've brought to us student research. You've certainly enhanced our service learning opportunities. Another one that comes to mind for me, that we haven't mentioned, is the honors program and the work that you've done there, and what it has really evolved to at this point. Talk about the honors program and the purpose of that.

SA: Again, a great hire, Leslie Jones, hired two years ago from the University of South Carolina. Of course, it's been an interest of yours. She's taken the reigns of that and increased the quality of the honors students that are coming in significantly. I think the average SAT score now of the honors students is 1340. Through a partnership with Student Development we're creating the honors complex that will be adjacent to a dorm that will house honors students, and then an extension to the Student Union that will be the central locus on campus for these value-added programs like service learning, student research and international programs. We really want our honors students to take advantage of all of those opportunities. And then, as we're trying to enhance the visibility of our honors programs, we asked the general administration if we could change the name of the honors program to an honors college, and we're pending that approval with the Board of Trustees. Leslie has both tried to strengthen the general honors, the university honors, programs and, I think just as importantly, having departments establish their departmental honors programs. She's, I think, increased that by about a third since she's been here the last two years.

KP: That's exciting to see that. More housing for them and more educational space as well for a center for student leadership. It will just grow on that and I'm so pleased about the name change to make it a college. I think that gives it a great visibility and shows what other honors programs have done—primarily to become a college like that.

SA: Again, if we want to compete for these students that are looking for these value-added experiences, whether it be honors collectively or student research or service learning individually, we have to be able to provide programs that have visibility and delivery.

KP: Stan, with the change in North Carolina's economy—it's not the same as it was ten years ago or so—we hear things about getting individuals to retool, to get prepared for another profession. We have done some unique things, I think, in doing that. We had graduation a few weeks ago, and several would come across and tell me "I'm a graduate of X program. I went to classes here and there." They were so pleased with that. Talk about that outreach and the programs that you have developed there.

SA: That was an initiative that Chancellor Borkowski started when he was then feeling some pressure from the university system to add more students to Appalachian and we all felt that it would be difficult to do with the landlocked nature of the campus. He created this Appalachian learning alliance, an alliance with ten community colleges in the region. That was, I think, a dozen years ago. What we have done is tried to concentrate on, our programs most recently, the Hickory area, the largest metropolitan area in the learning alliance. So, we've created Appalachian Greater Hickory Partnership with three community colleges in that region—Catawba Valley, Western Piedmont and Caldwell (the three community college presidents were very cooperative—Jim Burnett, Garrett Hinshaw and Ken Boham—all very facilitative in their bringing this partnership together)—and then the engineering technology center together under one umbrella so that we can market our programs and provide a common advising experience for all of the students in that area. That expansion and concentration in the Hickory area led to the first full-time, daytime programs in the learning alliance. So, we have some full-time, daytime programs at Caldwell (Appalachian Center) and five at what used to the Hickory Metro Higher Education Center.

KP: The number of people interested in getting that educational experience through Appalachian State through those ways—is that increasing, stale, stagnant?

SA: We've continued to see gradual increase. We're hoping that, as we are approaching the third year of these full-time, daytime programs, that are not cohort driven (our previous programs would go out and identify 25 students who were interested in degree in elementary education and they would go lock-step through the program). What we're hoping with these full-time, daytime programs is that students will be informed of these opportunities in high school, they'll go to the community college (one of the three) for two years, and then they can immediately continue with their education in these 2+2 programs with Appalachian State then offering them a degree. So, we're hopeful that we'll see greater expansion in the interest in those programs as they become a little better known. But, they've been stable since we've started.

KP: What do you see for the future of higher education at Appalachian State and, then, general in our nation? What do you see?

SA: Well, without a doubt, in the media term, we're going to have significant challenges economically. As state support declines, we don't have many options. We can try to increase tuition. You know, we often refer to it as a general tax on the citizens that comes to use through state appropriations. Or it can be a local tax on our students and their families. Those are the two primary resources. As one goes down the other one, it seems necessarily, is going to have to go up. There are other opportunities—private support, grants and contracts—but those are going to be a smaller piece of the overall resources that we will receive. Those are going to be huge challenges, and, of course, as we increase tuition then that creates challenges of access at a time when the president of the system Erskine Bowles and the President of the United States are both strong proponents of providing opportunities for all students regardless of their economic condition. So that's going to be a real challenge for us. I think it's going to require great leadership among our legislators. Citizens of North Carolina and educators have the great benefit of visionary leaders in the state who've provided support for us in ways of managing tuition so we can still enable students who don't have the financial means to obtain a college degree. The other area where we've seen increasing pressure on higher education or education in general is accountability. Our citizens want to know when they are providing this revenue to us, what's the benefit? Increasingly, they want us to produce students who have these broad skills, generalizable abilities. They can think critically and creatively. The objectives of our general education—to communicate effectively, to work with others, to know what it means to be a responsible citizen. Those are very challenging abilities to try to generate, but that's what the business leaders want, that's what the citizens want, and I think increasingly we are going to be held accountable for demonstrating that when students come in as 18-year-olds, then graduate as 22-year-olds, that they've increased those skills and that we've had something to do with it.

KP: So, you're going back to the classroom in the next few weeks. In the next few months you'll be taking some time to retool and adjust. What will you do? How do you do that?

SA: The very first thing I need to do is read a lot. The last time I taught a class was six years ago. I have taught a capstone course, and talked to Jim Denniston, the chair of the psych department, who's asked me to continue to teach a course called History and Systems of Psychology. So, I've taught that for a number of years. I need to go back and reacquaint myself with psychology. That's a generalist course, so you have to have a broad understanding of all areas of psychology. And then I hope to develop either a first-year seminar and/or honors course either in the psych department or in general honors around what I hope will be a continuation of a program of research I started before I moved into big-time administration, which is around trying to understand why people make causal attributions to events that have no causal relationship. That's a blending of some very nice research in cognitive psychology, in fact one of the only two Nobel awards that were given in psychology (there's no award in psychology, so one was given in medicine) was for Roger Sperry's work on split brain and then another to Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman for their reseach in social cognition in economics. So, it's a blend of cognitive research and behavioral research. My strongest intellectual mentor is B.F. Skinner, the Harvard behavioral psychologist. So, I'm really looking forward to immersing myself into that research literature and I intend to do that by trying to get away for a bit, scanning some things in as PDFs that I can take with me electronically, and of course using the electronic resources that we have. Ellen and I hope to spend Fall semester in Valencia. Our version for sabbatical is off-campus, scholarly assignment.

KP: Let me thank you very much on the air here for your great leadership at Appalachian State for these years. I've enjoyed watching what you've done for this institution. Thank you for being on Appalachian Perspective. Best of luck in the transition. Stay at Appalachian as long as you can, we'd love to have you here. It's been an honor to work with you in this role, and will continue to support you as a professor on campus.

SA: Thank you. It's been great working with you Ken, and the entire leadership team, and thanks for having me on.