Q&A with Provost Katherine Fleming

As Fleming prepared to step into her new role on September 1, 2016, she discussed her academic vision for the University.
photo: NYU flag flying near Bobst library

Earlier this spring, President Hamilton announced that Katherine Fleming, who has served on the faculty of NYU’s history department for 18 years, would become the University’s next provost. A scholar of modern Greece, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean, she is the Alexander S. Onassis Professor of Hellenic Culture and Civilization in FAS, the director of the Remarque Institute, and vice chancellor for Europe. Her most recent book, Greece: A Jewish History, won the National Jewish Book Award and the Runciman Award. Since 2013 she has served as NYU’s deputy provost.

As Fleming prepares to step into her new role on September 1, 2016, NYU Stories talked with her about an academic vision for the University, the best method for increasing diversity on the faculty, and the (very different) career she might have pursued if not for one very captivating religion professor. 

photo: Provost Katharine Fleming on Washington Mews

You’ve been highly influential as a scholar of Greek studies. What drew you to that field?
Greece! I went on vacation there and stayed for a long time. I got offered a job and learned the language and decided that it was a really good place to do research. Insofar as there was an intellectual connection, I studied comparative religion as an undergraduate, so I also studied a little bit of Hebrew and Biblical Greek. It was the Biblical Greek that was the pretext for that first visit to Greece.

What’s your vision for what a provost should do?
I regard the provost role according to a very traditional definition: It’s the chief academic officer of the university. Now, when you work for a $6 billion dollar institution, obviously that ends up spilling over into budgetary and financial concerns too. But I think the job of the provost is to always remind people that there is an academic mission at the heart of all of that, and to make sure the mission is being advanced.

What will be your first priority when you take over that role in September?
My first priority will be to get my bearings. NYU is sort of a confederacy of schools, though I think historically it was more of a confederacy than it is today. So the tricky thing that I need to figure out is what makes NYU one unified university, while at the same time allowing all of the autonomous initiatives that have long existed to continue to flourish. I will also need to spend time meeting with deans and faculty. I’ve been here for 18 years, and while there are many people I know, there are lots I don’t know yet, too.

What recent academic developments here are you most excited about?
All kinds of fields of study are being dramatically transformed, many of them by technology. I know a lot of people think of the Tisch School of the Arts, for example, as being engaged in traditional things like writing and acting, but they also now have an unbelievable program in gaming, which is a major development that will dominate the entertainment world. It’s exciting to be at a university where those kinds of cutting edge things are happening rather than being in a place that is playing catch up.

I also think the addition of Tandon to NYU is really helping to push forward a lot of tech and entrepreneur-driven research, and being in Brooklyn gives us an opportunity to explore a different kind of relationship with our urban environment than we have in the Village. I’m excited about pursuing partnerships between our institution and the professional world, which will be mutually beneficial and great for our students.

How will you approach the question of how to recruit and welcome a more diverse faculty and student population?
We have a huge social problem that we've had in the United States for centuries, which is the systematic exclusion of various races and social classes. Universities are just one, in our case private, entity out there trying in some way to ameliorate and reverse this problem. We have to be really thoughtful about the way that we address it. A lot of this is, I think, a pipeline issue. I don't think that the way we're going to solve the problem is by identifying faculty of color at other universities and hiring them away from those universities to bring them here. If we did that, we could feel good about what we’re doing in our immediate sphere, but we wouldn’t be doing anything to address the broader problem. That derives from the fact that these are people who historically have not had the opportunity for a variety of different reasons to pursue doctoral training. And then in the cases where they have pursued doctoral training, because they are the only person of color in their cohort, they are not always connected to the social networks that other people are. They’re less likely to get a job not because they're less qualified but because they're less looped in to networks. So I think that we need to pay a lot of attention to the ways in which—very dangerously—we let social networks govern our admissions and hiring policies at the University. Those networks play a really big role without our even really being aware of it.

How do you envision the future of NYU’s global network?
I want the global sites to feel like a resource for our faculty and our students sort of in the same way that Bobst library feels like a resource. It’s something that’s part of the University and is readily available to you. For faculty and students conducting research, it’s huge to be at a university that has an infrastructure that makes it possible for you to go to close to 15 different places and have an infrastructure—and office, a community, ready-made local contacts. Lots of people take advantage of this, but even more should.

You mentioned that you studied comparative religion as an undergraduate—what was your college experience like?
As an undergraduate I had an experience that I hope many of our students will have: My entire course of study was determined by the fact that I stumbled upon one professor who I thought was a really, really smart person, and the way they talked about the material in class struck me as really interesting. I wound up being a religion major because of this person. It was a good experience early in my undergraduate career to be motivated purely by intellectual interest. Very early on, I kind of got that you can be totally gripped by some subject, no matter how obscure or weird or seemingly irrelevant, and be excited to learn as much as you possibly can about it. That happened for me and wound up determining pretty much the arc of my studies. I went on to do a master’s degree in comparative religion and then did a PhD in history.

What might have been your dream job, had you not pursued a career in academia?
I probably could have been happiest becoming a sitcom writer. I used to teach at UCLA and spent some time on the edges of that world in Los Angeles. It was super fun and funny and collaborative—and hard work. I definitely like writing. I definitely like creating things. I like things that tend to be more fast-paced than the academic world sometimes is. That’s one of the reasons that administration has ended up working out for me.

What do you like best about teaching? How should faculty set the dial between their teaching and research responsibilities?
The best thing about teaching is interacting with students, and, in my field at least, being challenged to make one's knowledge and interests accessible and relevant. As for teaching versus research: Some studies show that faculty who are strong in teaching are also strong in research and vice versa, and that the two are mutually reinforcing. Aside from the very obvious time considerations, this shouldn't be a dichotomy.  

What advice do you have for NYU’s incoming class?
Do the reading! You'll be amazed how much easier your classes are when you do the assigned reading. I don't mean that to sound patronizing—it was a revelation to me, partway through my college career. If I wasn’t prepared for a class, I’d go there and think, I don’t know what’s going on, this is so boring, this is so complicated, ugh, I’m going to bomb the test. But lo and behold, if you actually just do all of the assigned work—which takes less time than it takes to worry about but not do the assigned work—you will be guaranteed to do well in any class. That's my advice.

What about for the members of the Class of 2016, who’ll soon be graduating and looking for their first jobs?
Your first job doesn't have to be your ideal job—just having a job can be a really good thing. I also would advise people to, as frequently as possible, just say “Yes.” Like, if you meet someone who says “Oh, I have a friend who works in the fabric industry. Do you want to meet them?” You're probably thinking I don’t really want to work in the fabric industry and I'm kind of tired. But try and say yes because it’s usually because of those weird little moments in life that you wind up with something really good and unexpected. That’s certainly been the case for me.

What’s the best part about studying or working at NYU?
You’re in the middle of a fantastic city. And with this institution you have in one package the things that most people have to go out and look out for piecemeal in their own lives: a gym, a community, a library where you can hang out. You have all of the traditional cocooning that you have at other schools, but you have it in the middle of Manhattan so you don't have to feel as if you’re completely suffocated by that cocoon. I think that's really singular to NYU.