Students scheduling their classes do not begin to fathom the work involved for ISU to generate more than 270,000 credit hours a semester. They focus on the professors teaching courses selected, not the nearly 1,400 faculty who guide approximately 5,400 students to the commencement stage annually.
It is staff within the Office of the Provost who focus on these essential global aspects of the academic experience, as well as equally tough issues of accreditation, general education requirements, and new areas of study. The work is led by the provost, who oversees the six college deans and holds the title of vice president for Academic Affairs.
The job is completed without fanfare from Hovey Hall’s fourth floor. The approach fit perfectly with the personality of Dr. Jan Murphy, who retired in June as provost after 34 years at ISU. Her successor, Nigerian native Dr. Aondover Tarhule, continues in the role that neither he nor Murphy envisioned pursuing as a career path.
Few beyond academia fully appreciate the role of the provost, who is second in command under the president. The first and fundamental responsibility is to build and maintain academic programs. There is much more to the job, however, as Murphy learned when she rose to lead the office years after joining ISU faculty in 1986.
“Academics must always be the priority at a comprehensive university. Simply put, Academic Affairs is the dog not the tail,” explains Murphy, who arrived as an assistant professor in what is now the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS). With a doctorate in agriculture from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she was among the first faculty cohort hired to strengthen research.
Murphy’s first administrative assignment came in 1989 when she was asked to serve as a part-time assistant dean for research within the College of Applied Science and Technology (CAST). “When someone you trust gives you an opportunity, you say yes,” Murphy said in recalling her role of helping colleagues advance their scholarly work.
She rose in CAST, becoming a full professor, an assistant dean, and chair of her department. Murphy’s focus broadened when chosen as an associate provost under Dr. Al Goldfarb. She served as interim provost in 2008 and again in the associate’s role before returning after 12 years to FCS as a faculty member. She anticipated retiring from that position, but was asked to serve as the interim director of campus dining.
“I have never applied for any of the administrative positions I held at ISU,” Murphy said with amazement and gratitude. Her plan to exit after that assignment shifted when she was asked to be interim provost upon the departure of Dr. Janet Krejci in 2017. A failed search resulted in Murphy being named provost in 2018.
“I am proud of having been able to serve the University in a number of ways,” said Murphy, who was a wife and mom while a leader at ISU. Among her most rewarding challenges was assisting in creation of the University’s first strategic plan, Educating Illinois.
“Up to that point, we had mostly apologized that we were not the University of Illinois. Educating Illinois helped us define our mission and work hard to fulfill it,” she said, noting ISU has since risen to be ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top 100 public universities in the country.
There was a review of general education requirements under Murphy, who helped internationalize the campus and improve academic facilities. She worked to create a revenue stream for such upgrades by advocating for a shift in ISU’s fee structure to include funding for classroom building needs. She also spearheaded the ongoing study to add an engineering program.
Her final months on the job were not surprisingly dedicated to issues surrounding the coronavirus (COVID-19). She praises the University’s leadership team and campus community for uniting in exploring strategies and enacting plans to serve students while protecting ISU’s stability as the pandemic spread.
“I think Illinois State is one of the finest public universities in the nation. We’ll get through this,” Murphy said. Her confidence comes in part because she deems Tarhule an excellent leader to take over the provost’s duties.
Tarhule agrees with Murphy’s assessment of the strength and excellence at ISU, which he joined July 1 after serving as vice provost and dean of the graduate school at Binghamton University in New York.
“From the moment I stepped foot on campus, I was immediately struck by how committed and invested everyone is to the future of the institution,” said Tarhule, who holds a Ph.D. in geography from McMaster University in Canada. A scholar who has generated more than $5 million in funding for his research on climate change and water scarcity, Tarhule’s work has been featured in prestigious journals such as Nature, Journal of Hydrology, and International Journal of Climatology, among others.
His vitae is equally impressive with regard to administrative accomplishments. While at Binghamton, Tarhule facilitated the creation of new graduate programs, developed international partnerships, and implemented several major technological innovations. He managed a portfolio of more than $2.5 million that was dedicated to improve graduate student diversity and research, as well as organized research centers and doctoral fellowships.
It was under Tarhule’s leadership that a prioritized action plan was created following an external review of the graduate school, resulting in a blueprint for best practices in advocacy and administration so that the university’s vision for graduate education could be achieved.
He also held faculty and leadership positions at the University of Oklahoma, as well as with national and international organizations such as the World Bank. His work with the financial institution that provides loans and grants to poorer countries was tied to a climate risk assessment of an $8 billion Niger River Basin Sustainable Development Action Plan. It was one of many consultant opportunities for Tarhule, who mentors doctoral students in African universities.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his career is that he readily admits “most of what has happened has been accidental. A lot of what I did was decided for me,” Tarhule said, including his field of study.
Tarhule was raised in a Nigerian community that still has no electricity or running water. “Growing up, I did not have the distractions of television,” he said, describing himself as a serious student interested in becoming a biochemist. His father wanted him to pursue medicine. By the time their stalemate ended, the only program with an opening at the University of Jos in central Nigeria was geography.
“It was a good accident, as it came very easily to me and I enjoyed it,” said Tarhule, who was chosen for advanced study with the expectation he would become an academician. His undergraduate work was so stellar that he was named the Outstanding Overall Graduating Student in Academic Excellence in 1988.
Tarhule earned a master’s degree at the Nigerian university under faculty mentors who insisted he complete a doctorate overseas and paid for application fees that Tarhule could not afford. He received admission offers with scholarships from four schools and took the acceptance letters from each to his professors.
They decided that he should attend McMaster, where he analyzed data to better understand floods and drought—opposite ends of the hydrologic spectrum. The research continued in Tarhule’s faculty role at the University of Oklahoma, where he microscopically examined tree rings to understand drought in the African sahel.
It was while in Oklahoma that he started down an administrative path he never intended to pursue. The opportunity to revive a geography program that was struggling intrigued him. He agreed to become chair. Under his guidance, the Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability emerged with such success that the number of undergraduates increased 400 percent.
“We did not just rebrand geography, but instead very intentionally created a program that would resonate with students and employers,” Tarhule said. He was thrilled to see the first students graduate with degrees in environmental sustainability, which he had helped establish.
His desire to create such opportunities for students and impact their future motivated Tarhule to join Binghamton and enticed him to ISU, which he recognized is stable and well-positioned to go forward.
“We are strong, but we can always be stronger,” he said, citing as areas of growth micro-credential offerings and additional options of a combined undergraduate and master’s degree program, which ISU offers in accounting and criminal justice sciences.
“It’s very hard to boost your enrollment through traditional courses. We need to identify areas where there is need on the employment side and leverage those opportunities,” Tarhule said, giving as examples engineering, robotics, and artificial intelligence. He also supports ongoing efforts to increase the international student population, as well as more attention to online teaching that has become a top priority during the pandemic.
Beginning his ISU career during such turmoil has not dampened Tarhule’s enthusiasm or dissuaded him from being a change agent. He began communicating with faculty directly upon his arrival, knowing that his first challenge is to gain trust. There will be plenty of others, as he defines the job of provost broadly.
“I argue the work expands beyond academic affairs. It is not just maintaining the curriculum and building relationship with faculty. We are a research environment so there must be an active role in fundraising, connecting with alumni and legislators, and making certain strategies fit the academic agenda,” Tarhule said with an energy that exudes his enthusiasm to lead at ISU despite what obstacles may arise.
“I don’t back down from a challenge. Put me in any situation and my first action is to find something that we can do better,” Tarhule said, revealing why he is indeed the person ISU needs to be its next powerful provost.