Capitol’s new chief academic officer, Dr. Helen G. Barker: “We’re at an exciting juncture for the university”
Since coming to Capitol in 2000, Dr. Helen G. Barker has served the university in many capacities: first as an adjunct professor, then as a member of the full-time faculty, and subsequently as academic dean.
She has helped countless students at the graduate and undergraduate levels, mentored faculty, and spearheaded new programs. Now, as Capitol enters an era of new presidential leadership and expansion, Dr. Barker brings her experience and vision to a pivotal role at the university: that of chief academic officer (CAO).
Dr. Barker became CAO in the fall of 2017 and will chart a course forward as Capitol launches multiple new programs, including a PhD in technology, a master’s program in cyber analytics, as well as undergraduate and graduate programs in business analytics.
We asked Dr. Barker about her priorities as CAO and the characteristics that distinguish Capitol from other colleges and universities.
What are your primary goals as CAO? What do you most want to accomplish?
I aim to foster a culture of growth at the university – a culture that thinks not only about where we are now, but where we can be, and what we can conceivably do. How can we make what we do even better and more exciting?
It’s not a top-down agenda; it’s an everybody agenda. We’re looking for creativity and innovation to spread throughout the institution. We’re a team in this journey that will shape what Capitol becomes in the future.
What perspectives do you bring with you as someone who has been a faculty member?
I bring the perspective of someone who understands faculty concerns, and also the perspective of someone who has worked closely with students for many years. I have an up-close understanding of the teaching and learning environment that our faculty delivers to students.
As CAO, my role involves finding the right balance between different sets of concerns. There are many great ideas out there for programs, classes, or resources, but not all these ideas align with the Capitol mission. And not all of them are viable from a budgetary standpoint. As an administrator, it’s part of my job not only to make these calls, but to convey to other stakeholders in the university the reasons for making them – the parameters we are working within. Because I’ve been a faculty member and a dean, I feel I’m in a good position to foster a productive dialogue among students, faculty, and administration.
While a faculty member, what are some essential things that you learned about how to deliver educational value to students?
Number one is to understand that you can and should learn from the students. The classroom is a two-way experience. No matter how bright we think we are as faculty, no matter how much we know, there’s always something to learn. That can mean, for instance, learning new ways of teaching that are effective with a younger generation of students – the millennials. It can mean learning how to better serve students who have a disability. My experience is that students have greater respect for teachers who understand that education is a two-way process.
I also think it’s essential to stick your neck out on behalf of your students – experiment, modify your game plan as needed, and resist the temptation to stay in your comfort zone. That could mean, for instance, collaborating with faculty in other disciplines to create a hybrid course, like Dr. Sandy Antunes of the astronautical engineering department has done together with cybersecurity professor Rick Hansen. It can mean taking on a mentoring role for students, as Dr. Garima Bajwa did when she assisted one of our students, Zalika Dixon, in developing a project that eventually went to the Grace Hopper Celebration and won a research award.
Our new president, Dr. Sims, has shown a commitment to encouraging out-of-the-box thinking – and that’s an opportunity we should all be excited about. We all have an opportunity to take Capitol to the next version of who we are.
Higher education is often said to be going through a period of considerable flux, as schools re-evaluate what their mission is and how best to meet the needs of a rapidly changing economy. What do you see as the major challenges?
It’s crucial to stay on top of what the market is looking for, while continuing to adhere to the highest educational standards and the requirements for accreditation. Students need the fundamentals as well as specialized academic skills. It can sometimes be a delicate balance. A given program has a prescribed number of credits. Students pay tuition for all of these credits. We don’t want students racking up massive debts paying for courses that aren’t relevant to their educational and career tracks. At the same time, we don’t want students graduating without a solid, well-rounded education that includes critical thinking and the liberal arts.
For a small, independent university like Capitol, budgets are always a challenge. At the same time, tight budgets can fuel creative thinking and wise decision-making. Capitol has thrived over the years because we’ve made good choices. Small size is also an asset in that it makes us more agile; we can respond more quickly.
What are some things about Capitol that inspire you, that make you feel excited to be here?
This is a close-knit, caring community. Not long ago, a member of our adjunct faculty became ill while teaching requiring emergency care. She told us later that she realized that day how genuinely concerned we all are here about each other’s well-being. It’s the Capitol culture. We’ve created an environment of caring, dedicated, hard-working people who think in terms of what’s good for the school, for the students, and for each other as members of the university community. I appreciate working in this type of environment.