Finding an extraordinary individual who can not only manage but also excel in the critical role of provost and executive vice chancellor is a little like finding a unicorn — except that the job of a unicorn typically does not combine academic and practical leadership responsibilities and has many fewer complications.
Chancellor Gary S. May and his co-participants in the search for UC Davis’s new provost and executive vice chancellor have thus expressed their delight in finding Mary Croughan, who officially stepped into the position on July 1.
Aggie student to Aggie provost
Croughan has a professional background that seems tailor-made for her provost and executive vice chancellor responsibilities. She comes to UC Davis after three years at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and, before that, 30 years with UC — as executive director of the Research Grants Program Office in the UC Office of the President, faculty member in the UC San Francisco School of Medicine, chair of the systemwide Academic Senate, and faculty representative to the Board of Regents. She has conducted decades of research into reproductive and perinatal epidemiology, studying health outcomes of more than 50,000 women treated for infertility, and their partners and children.
As one of only a handful of UC Davis provosts who have a medical background, Croughan sees that part of her resume as an advantage at UC Davis, where UC Davis Health plays such a major role but is too often thought of as a separate entity. “I don't distinguish the Davis and Sacramento campuses just because they're geographically distant,” she said. “They’re both UC Davis, and the university is stronger when they work together.”
In addition, she notes that her medically oriented experience at UC and also at Johns Hopkins, where she earned her doctorate in epidemiology, has given her a good understanding of the culture of academic medicine and its major issues and pressures. And, of course, being an epidemiologist gives her special insight into the challenges of the current pandemic, and of UC Davis Health’s related research and treatment efforts.
Croughan has especially fond memories of her health-related education at UC Davis. One of her “most incredible experiences,” she said, was being allowed to create an individual major in which her fourth year focused on the economics, political science, and sociology of health care, and her fifth year was in the master's program in preventive veterinary medicine.
“Here I was,” she recalled, “a 21-year-old, human-oriented person who was able to participate in a very specialized, elite program with 50-plus vets from around the world.” But there was more. “The training I got through that program proved to be stronger than my first two years working on my doctorate at Johns Hopkins. When I realized that, I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God! Davis is the unsung hero of undergraduate education in this country.’”
Today, she is bowled over by the range of world-class expertise at UC Davis Health — in microbiology, pathology, infectious disease, zoonotics, and innumerable other areas, on both the human- and veterinary-medicine sides.
That said, other parts of her higher-education experience have impressed upon her the value of a broad-based education as well as the unique contributions made by all disciplines and professions. She credits her time as vice chair and chair of the Academic Senate with opening her eyes to a wide array of university issues.
But there are other important reasons Croughan feels this position is a good fit for her, ones that strongly motivated her to come to UC Davis. She is a proud Aggie alumna who grew up in the area and has long loved the university and the campus — so much so that she has rarely missed a Picnic Day since before she became a Davis student. She speaks enthusiastically of the “warm and friendly” campus culture; of the university’s historic mission to educate a broad spectrum of undergraduate and graduate students, including first-generation college-goers and individuals from historically underrepresented backgrounds; of its promotion of a broad-based and internationally engaged education; of the dedication of faculty and students to help solve the world’s most pressing problems; and of the university’s multidisciplinary emphasis in both research and education. While she is highly complimentary about her experience and former colleagues at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, she confessed that she began to “long for UC, a place that was a more mature, more developed institution, one that had more going on and was committed to answering bigger questions.”
Her plans as provost and executive vice chancellor
Croughan has hit the ground running. She began preparing for this position considerably before her official start date, even before her selection was finalized. On her first day as provost, she juggled both meetings with campus leaders and conversations with the movers who were transporting her furniture and possessions from Las Vegas. Despite such multitasking, more than a few of her new colleagues have been eager to hear what she intends to do as provost and executive vice chancellor. Her main response is that she doesn’t have a plan for future initiatives and projects yet, certainly not for the arbitrary period of the first 90 days. Indeed, she believes it would be premature to create one before taking sufficient time to reacquaint herself with UC Davis and listen to the ideas and concerns of the various constituencies of the university family — other leaders, faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends, and industry and community partners.
Even so, Croughan named a few priorities that are especially meaningful to her. She believes in the critical importance of mentoring in order to promote the success of early-career faculty, students, and staff, especially for women and members of historically underrepresented groups. She knows that it’s often difficult to find the path to success, including after one makes a career change, and she believes that the university has a responsibility to show the right way.
She also feels strongly about advancing diversity and inclusion, in part because she remembers being told by a professor during her freshman year at UC Davis, “Girls shouldn’t be in chemistry.” Fortunately, the college dean saw things differently and encouraged her. She reflected, “That was probably one of the most poignant memories of Davis that I have, and it probably put me on the path of believing that higher-education leaders can make a difference in students’ lives.”
She intends to help make sure “that women feel that they have a voice in the classroom and that, if there is any kind of discriminatory or unwelcome behavior, action is taken to correct that.” As a woman in STEM, she has “worked very closely” on these issues with the Association for Women in Science. She is also excited about supporting the chancellor’s Aggie Square initiative, which has “a heavy academic component,” promotes university partnerships with industry and the community, supports the Aggie Launch career-preparation program, and is part of UC Davis Health.
The state of the provost
Croughan shares that returning to UC Davis, particularly in the midst of the pandemic, has presented a variety of everyday challenges. A single mother with four children, two of them at home taking college courses remotely, she often finds herself in competition over computer bandwidth: “There are times when I have to bump them for a Zoom meeting, but mostly they bump me, so I have to Zoom on my phone.” But the big challenges of figuring out where to live, packing up, and making the move are now past. She is excited to focus most of her energy now on her new job and looks forward to reacquainting herself with the university and getting to know her new colleagues. She is happy to be back at UC Davis.