Illinois State welcomed prominent researcher and experienced higher education administrator Dr. Aondover Tarhule last July as the new vice president for Academic Affairs and provost. In this position, Tarhule guides academic life at the University, which includes oversight of research and creative activities within the Office of Research and Graduate Studies, led by Associate Vice President Dr. Craig C. McLauchlan.
Tarhule comes to Illinois State after serving as vice provost and dean of the Graduate School at Binghamton University and as a professor and an administrator at the University of Oklahoma. Tarhule was born and raised in Nigeria, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography and environmental resources planning. Thereafter, he moved to Canada, where he earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in geography at McMaster University.
As a physical geographer, he has researched how the climate affects water scarcity. His work has been featured in prestigious geography journals and Nature and has generated $5 million in grants from agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development, the National Institutes of Health, and the United States Geological Survey.
Tarhule talked about his academic background, research, and his plans for Illinois State in an interview conducted last September. The Q&A has been edited for brevity.
Why did you become a physical geographer and researcher?
Geography always came naturally to me because I grew up in a rural African village. My father was a peasant farmer, and I farmed with him. To me, many geography and environmental classes were just like putting names to processes that I already knew.
When I was growing up, I had no electricity, no running water, no TV. My world was pretty limited. But through geography I got the opportunity to learn about these other places around the world. This just fascinated me.
Are you continuing your research here?
I’d like to, but I haven’t yet. I worked with a postdoc at Binghamton University. I would definitely like to continue some element of my research.
What have you been researching recently?
I’ve been working on water scarcity, in particular trying to see if we could use the GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellites to study water scarcity. It’s a series of satellites that were launched in collaboration between the American and German governments back in 2002. They study mass gravitational anomalies and distribution. A big part of the anomalies the satellites detect is the change in the distribution of water.
What we are trying to do in our research is to convert the anomalies in the distribution into an equivalent volume of water. Because if you can do that, then we can study water scarcity in a way that is so much faster and more comprehensive than anything that’s been done before. We have published a number of papers, and we’re waiting to see what the feedback from the (research) community is. If it’s generally accepted, we hope this becomes one of the standard methods for studying water scarcity.
Why did you decide to go into administration? Has it been hard to balance your research with your administrative responsibilities?
A lot of (those grants) actually happened after I got into administration. I’ve been in administration a little more than 10 years, but I’ve still been able to continue to collaborate with people and do some research.
I got into administration partly because my department (Geography and Environmental Sustainability) at Oklahoma at the time faced some challenges but also clearly had some opportunities for new directions. There was discussion about potentiality dissolving or merging our department. Several people, including the dean, encouraged me to apply for the position of chair. Up to that point, I’d never thought of myself in administration. But I thought, Why not?
We were able to turn the department around quite a bit when I became department chair. By the time I left six years later, the number of students we had almost quadrupled. Secondly, we had gone from offering just one degree to three different degrees. Also, we were one of the very first departments in the nation to create a degree in environmental sustainability. We thought that we would be able to reach 100 students in about three years. We made that in just about two years. I think it underscored for me the fact that administrators can have real tangible impacts on people.
What do you think are the areas of strength at Illinois State in terms of research, and what would you like to improve?
We have some high-quality researchers here that are doing groundbreaking work.
What can we do going forward? I think there’s a number of institutional, structural things that need to align. Dr. Craig McLauchlan and I have had indepth discussions about how to realign those structures. So for example, our rewards and incentives structure—we want to examine that to see if it really incentivizes research. We need to take a look at the mechanisms for supporting new research ideas. What Craig and I would like to do is to take a good hard look at the framework, the institutional mechanisms, the incentives, and rewards structures, and then strengthen those as much as we can to eliminate impediments or obstacles that discourage people from doing research.
Furthermore, we need to identify pillars or centers of excellence, and incentivize them, and encourage them to be as strong as they can be. You can’t stand for everything. You have to have areas of excellence. So what are the areas of excellence in research for ISU? I’m very interested in trying to identify those, and that’s not something that you legislate from the Provost’s Office. That’s something that the faculty, the institution as a whole, will look around and say, “With just a little bit more additional investment and support and help, we think we can take this to the next level.”
I will bring this topic in particular to our retreat that I’m planning for Academic Affairs. We’re putting together teams of people to investigate that. By the time we come to the retreat, my hope is that we have a good idea of some potential areas.
How is coronavirus pandemic impacting what you’re trying to do here on campus?
So when I got the job, I thought I would spend the first two or three months listening. But of course, that’s all out the window. Now we have to make many immediate urgent decisions. Like, how many classes should we move online? Or do we have microphones in all the classes?
My everyday focus has been on the immediate management of emergencies such that much of the kind of strategic, long-term planning and listening I had hoped to do has been in the background. But it is not forgotten, and that is why we’re trying to organize a retreat. That retreat is part of taking a comprehensive look at how we do business. Research is one of the themes, as I mentioned, along with student success, faculty success, financial viability and strength, and creating new academic programs. There are also two cross-cutting themes, namely diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and what the post-COVID landscape is likely to look like for higher education generally and ISU specifically.
Each of those themes has a group of between a dozen and 20 members, including faculty, staff, and for some groups, students, broadly selected from across the campus, who are asking hard questions about what we can do better and what can we do differently. By the time of the retreat, we will have put together that background and also tapped into the intellectual brainpower from across campus to be able to, in essence, lay out a plan for Academic Affairs post-COVID. Hopefully, this is going to be behind us sooner rather than later. And once it is, this will be the vision we have for Illinois State University.