New Director of Academic Programs: Les Roberts

With the start of the 2015–15 academic year, Les Roberts, PhD, has become the Director of Academic Programs in PopFam. In this role, he is responsible for directing the academic program’s strategic initiatives, shepherding the direction of this program, and helping shape related policy. In addition to serving in this capacity, Professor Roberts will continue to teach Mailman students.

The Family News spoke with Dr. Roberts about his new role.

What does the Director of Academic Programs do?

[The position] involves all those things related to teaching and the departmental-student interface of teaching. I help Courtney [Hooper, Associate Director of Academic Programs] with the admissions process. I will also chair the departmental committee that reviews new courses and perhaps most importantly, I will solve our little teaching problems, like when a faculty member leaves and [we need to find someone] to teach their class. In theory, I am [also] supposed to work on those big structural issues within the Department that affect teaching and which my predecessor [Professor] Alastair [Ager], to his credit, did much to improve. For example, he dramatically formalized the process by which people get paid to teach and which has been wonderful on several fronts such as making it more financially viable for young professors to teach.

You are known as a faculty member with a great commitment to and gift for teaching. Was that part of how you came to take on this role?

I suspect that is why [PopFam Chair] John [Santelli] reached out and asked me to consider this [role]. I came to Columbia explicitly to teach and to help train the next generation of humanitarian aid workers so this is the part of my job I care the most about.

How many courses is PopFam responsible for teaching?

I think we teach about 60 classes. I will have to make sure that we are offering all of the classes that are required for the Certificates and for our departmental requirements including the “selectives”—courses where students have to take a couple of them. We can’t allow any of these courses to falter as they are part of what students require to graduate.

Are you able to play a role in helping develop new classes?

Yes…and there are a couple of faculty that are in the act of creating new classes that they are really excited about and I am a mechanism to help them get that clearance in the school. It’s a nice part of the job.

Are there any developments you see coming down the pike?

We are just starting to have online classes and we need to make sure there is some mechanism for ensuring that the experience is the same and that we are doing things so that a 1.5 credit is consistent for a class, whether it is online or in the classroom. This falls under the umbrella of the Academic Affairs Committee, which I will chair. We started online teaching last year which went very well and I think we should see five or six [online courses] in the next year.

What are your priorities for this academic year?

[I am committed to} getting a Master of Science approved and up and running. [PopFam Professor] Ginny Rauh has led a process by which we have applied to New York State to offer this degree…The MS requires 30 credits and it can be done in one year. So the idea is that…it will allow much more seasoned people to slip away from their job or interrupt their career for one year [to pursue this degree]. Our vision is that this would bring a new, much more experienced cadre of people to our classrooms who could do a more focused program.

PopFam has stellar teaching reviews both compared to other Departments and to other schools so just being supportive of that seems to be the most important thing.  Finally, Alastair started to systematize our institutional support for teaching but that work is not done. There are several medium-sized things that need to happen and which I look forward to following through on to ensure that teaching is valued, paid for, and protected by institutional structures.