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When Jon Harbor first went to college, he made sure he was prepared. Before classes even started, he read every single book on the reading list – only to find out few students had done the same.
Harbor, who grew up in a small town outside London, was fourth in a family of six children. His parents had not attended college, and when he received an acceptance postcard to Cambridge, he thought his older brother was playing a joke on him.
“They saw something in me that other people didn’t,” he says.
Little did he know that two years later he would lead an expedition of students to the Himalayas and then continue on to receive a doctorate and work in the world of academia.
This year, Harbor arrived at UM from Purdue to become executive vice president and provost. He spoke with the Montanan about his path and passion for education.
How did you begin working in higher education?
Education opens doors and possibilities for people that they never even knew existed. My undergraduate mentor encouraged me to pursue graduate study, and I ended up going to the University of Colorado in Boulder because of their research institute in alpine studies.
My first day in that program, I met this amazing person, and we’ve been married for over 30 years now. We moved to Seattle, where I completed my Ph.D. at the University of Washington, and spent a year working for an environmental engineering company. I wanted to combine research and teaching, and my first academic job was as an assistant professor at Kent State University, northeast Ohio. Purdue recruited me from there in ’94.
You’ve won multiple awards from Purdue, as well as fellowships. Could you describe your work?
As a professor, I have really enjoyed integrating student learning with research. This has included work in hydrology applied to community needs, environmental education and in studies of glaciers, climate change and landscape development. I work with many international teams, and my students and I have worked extensively on the Tibetan Plateau and in Scandinavia. Last winter we spent a month in Antarctica doing research on long term changes in the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.
I’m very interested in environmental problem-solving, so I work with local communities in the U.S. and abroad. This has included a connection with Salish Kootenai College, where I served on a board of their new hydrology program, funded by the National Science Foundation.
What exactly is a provost’s role?
At UM, the provost provides leadership for academic and student success. It’s a bit like being the coach of a sports team – I work for the manager (the president) and am responsible for encouraging the players, for guiding, for putting together processes and strategies that help them excel. I’m not on the field scoring the goals, but I help the team succeed. I work with all of the academic units, with the deans and with the chairs, to make sure they’re supported to create superb programs for our faculty and students.
I also oversee the student success side of UM, working with leaders in these areas to ensure that we have amazing programs for students in housing, in dining, in health and recreation, and in advising. We are continuously asking if we are preparing the student holistically. For example, are we putting together recreational programs that connect to what the students are learning academically?
I often describe myself as a catalyst. When I get involved in things, my hope is that it will create better and faster outcomes.
We are undergoing an attempt to boost enrollment at UM. Where does your role fit into that picture? When students come to UM, part of my responsibility is to make sure they’re having an amazing education, and that they’re well-supported so that they persist to graduation. If lots of students leave before they finish, that is not good for them or for enrollment. So part of my role is to make sure that as many as possible of the students who could succeed here do succeed here and then are able to move on to their lives and careers. In addition, to attract more students to UM, we have to be continually working to make sure that we have the academic programs and experiences that students are looking for, and so part of my effort is working with our colleges on program evolution.
How do you hope to help change academic programs?
In many universities, there’s a lack of connection between the academic experience and all of the other parts of a student's experience. What I want to be involved in here is knitting those together, so that when a student comes, if they’ve got a passion or an interest that’s developing, it’s not just something that they’re doing in courses, but it’s tying into the experience they’re having in the residence halls, in the clubs that they’re joining, the study abroad they’re doing.
A good example would be learning communities in residence halls – students self-selecting to take advantage of a program that brings them together in a wide range of activities around a shared area of interest.
You’ve talked about the technology piece of student success. How do you want to enhance that here?
I’m really keen about making sure students and faculty here leverage the best technologies to support learning. I think of it as a continuum – technology in our traditional face-to-face classes, hybrid courses – where part is fully online and part involves coming to a place and working together – to fully online experiences. There’s a huge opportunity for UM to reach students who cannot relocate to Missoula. How do we make sure they have access to a high-quality online education that will help advance their lives?
How does your background as that first-generation college student from Britain add a unique perspective to your role?
Having had that lived experience, it makes me very aware of how our decisions affect a wide range of students. I’ve been an adviser in a mentoring program for first-generation students and for international students, and I can say, “Well, this was me. And here’s all the things I didn’t know. Let me explain to you how that works.”
Whether you come from a small town in rural Montana, one of our tribal nations or from the U.K., we all bring a set of experiences and perspectives that really enrich the University. I love being part of highly diverse teams, and I’m really hoping to connect UM even more strongly to the globe, to the larger community.
– Interview by Courtney Brockman ’17