Fatma Mili smiles while leaning against a wall in the Mary Idema Pew Library

Q&A: Fatma Mili

Provost carries threads of equity, social responsibility throughout career

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Fatma Mili, newly appointed provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs, has quite literally a world of experience, having lived on three different continents. Leading a life of passion and vision, Mili shares how her experiences as a lifelong learner, educator and administrator have shaped her professional career.

Could you share some of your background?

I was born and grew up in Tunisia in a post-colonization era characterized by a very strong faith in the unique place of education in human and social development. I went to college in France and studied computer science. How I chose computer science, well, it was a bit on purpose and a bit on accident. I started in engineering, then math, then computer science. 

When I graduated, I decided I was not quite ready to go home to Tunisia yet, so I came to America. My first job in the States was at Oakland University teaching computer science. I didn’t see myself in an administrative position, I loved teaching and loved my research, but I realized that I really enjoyed empowering others to do their best and I could do that even more as an associate dean.

From there, I went to Purdue University as department chair of Information Technology and executive director for the Center for Trans-Institutional Capacity Building. Then after 10 years I went to the University of North Carolina where I served as dean of the College of Computing and Informatics.

How do you personally work to get more women interested in STEM fields?

Women, like men, are born curious and interested in the sciences and the technologies in all of their facets. As women entered the job market and entered higher education in significant numbers, their representation in different majors and in different professions varied over time and continues to change. 

The lack of large numbers of women in STEM majors is not necessarily a sign of their lack of interest in STEM. Irrespective of what is triggering it, this lack of equal representation is a problem. Technology is the major driver for change in society. Technology is impacting every human endeavor. Having all voices around the table creating these technologies is the only way to ensure that they serve everyone equitably.

This topic of equity and social responsibility has been an ongoing thread in my career. My understanding of it has evolved and so are the initiatives that I have engaged in to address it. At Purdue, for example, I founded a Faculty STEM Community of Practice in Equity and Privilege. This community provided a safe supportive space for faculty to get together weekly and, through common readings and conversations, explore our collective hidden values and models that are perpetuating inequity. The premise of the group is that faculty are important stewards of the academic culture and agents of students’ learning and experience.

I am now much more passionate about the systemic long-term approaches that interrogate many of our foundational assumptions.

In your first months at Grand Valley, what have you learned?

There are themes that are emerging for me that capture GVSU’s identity. The first one has to be the student-centeredness of the university. The single-minded focus on serving students is such a predominant trait. It is also weaved with a sensitivity and heightened awareness around the need for diversity and the responsibility to address inequities in education.

The second trait is the very strong bond between the university and the community. GVSU was created by a community who recognized that its most valuable resource is human capacity. 

The third trait is the orientation and quality of the research and engagement conducted at GVSU. It is home to a handful of world-class centers, all of them focused on the most important and most urgent issues of the day. 

What’s the best thing you’ve learned during your professional experience working in higher education?

We have much more agency than we think. It is both empowering and scary. We must be constantly aware of the fact that everything we do, or do not do, every word we say, or do not say, may impact others in some significant way.

What are you passionate about and how does it play into your life?

I’m passionate about the potential of higher education to be a leader in social change. So often we don’t play that role as much as we should. We are surrounded by inequity and the fallacy that society is a meritocracy. By buying into this fallacy, we end up committing more injustices and increasing inequity. 

Having lived in multiple countries on multiple continents, I am very much aware of the fact that the world is not equal. Where we are born and into which family and community predisposes us in ways that have nothing to do with merit. Socially, intellectually, we owe it to ourselves and to others to put all of our resources to address that inequality. 

I see higher education as an institution that has such a wealth of intellectual and human capital that it has a responsibility to be a leader in addressing these issues. 

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