A conversation with Sarah Church, vice provost for undergraduate education

Physics Professor Sarah Church talks about taking on her new role as vice provost for undergraduate education during the pandemic, her commitment to undergraduate education and the university’s efforts to help students and instructors navigate the teaching and learning challenges of the upcoming academic year.

Since Sarah Church took office on June 1 as the Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, she has been working with leaders across campus to prepare for an academic year unlike any other in the university’s 129-year history due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sarah Church (Image credit: Stacy H. Geiken Photography)

The Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education is the nexus for key programs and initiatives that help students acclimate to college-level work and help them define and achieve their intellectual ambitions at Stanford.

Its staff oversees programs in advising, academic planning, research and independent projects, as well as signature Stanford programs, including Introductory Seminars, Thinking Matters, the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, the Bing Overseas Studies Program and the Center for Teaching and Learning.

“The pandemic has forced us to adjust almost all of the programs that we deliver,” said Church, a professor of physics who joined the Stanford faculty in 1999 with a research program in astrophysics. “Everyone in the office has stepped up to meet the challenges of the moment. I’m deeply appreciative of them, and the opportunity I have to lead the organization.”

In a recent interview, Church talked about taking the helm of the office during a pandemic, her commitment to undergraduate education, and Stanford’s efforts to help students and instructors meet the teaching and learning challenges of the 2020-21 academic year.


What motivated you to accept the vice provost post at such a challenging time?

My decision to accept the position reflects my deep appreciation for the broad liberal education Stanford provides, which helps prepare our undergraduate students to face the challenges presented by our country and the world.

I was educated at Cambridge University in England, where there is no tradition of liberal education. When I entered college, I immediately focused on physics and math courses. There were no opportunities for me to explore other disciplines, or to take part in the kinds of programs Stanford offers undergraduates, such as traveling overseas, connecting with a faculty member through a first-year seminar or engaging in public service.

I was lucky that, for me, physics was the right path and had been my passion from a very young age.

This is my 21st year at Stanford and over time, I became more passionate about the undergraduate educational experience, first as an instructor and later as a member of the Faculty Senate’s Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy, which formulates policy governing degree requirements, transfer credit, breadth requirements and the academic calendar.

I learned firsthand about all the ways in which Stanford advocates for and supports the delivery of a broad liberal education when I served as senior associate vice provost of undergraduate education from 2015 to 2019 under Harry J. Elam, Jr. (Elam recently took office as the president of Occidental College in Los Angeles.)

The deep passion with which all members of the office approached their work was also clear, along with the many ways that staff supported both students and faculty members.


What inspired your commitment to first-generation, low-income students?

I was the first member of my family to attend college, so I appreciate how difficult the transition can be when you don’t know what to expect because your family doesn’t have that knowledge to share. That was my experience at Cambridge. I also understand how hard it is to navigate a setback such as a low grade, which happens to everyone, but is an extra shock to first-generation students.

Consequently, as a physics instructor, I focused on developing courses for first-generation, low-income students, particularly those who did not have the opportunity to take Advanced Placement courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), by creating courses that meet them where they are in their STEM education.

The experience of first-generation, low-income students at Stanford is important to me, and helping them achieve academic success is a goal of particular importance – and one of the things that motivated me to accept the vice provost position.

The pandemic, and the continuing pervasiveness of racial injustice and violence – particularly towards the Black community – have highlighted other educational inequities in our society, including the equity gap. The transition to online learning, not only at Stanford but also at high schools across the country, is going to widen that gap. That is another issue of particular importance to me.

One of the ways Stanford is addressing those issues is through the IDEAL initiative, which provides resources and community events to support its commitment to an inclusive, equitable community. In these times, achieving those goals are more important than ever.


Since first-year and new transfer students won’t be on campus autumn quarter, how will Stanford welcome them and help them become part of the community?

We will begin with a robust set of virtual New Student Orientation activities during the week of September 7th – the week before classes begin.

Orientation programs will continue through fall quarter with Frosh 101, which provides students with the social and emotional support needed to thrive in and out of the classroom, and Transfer 101, which provides transfer students with two guides – current transfer students – to help them make friends, get advice and navigate the Farm.

This year, of course, the focus will broaden to include more attention on keeping students connected with each other and with the campus as they navigate a remote transition into Stanford. We are in the process of creating new programs to help students connect with mentors who understand their experiences and the challenges they will face.

Meanwhile, our Academic Advising unit, which helps students select courses, choose majors, do research and investigate professional pathways, is working hard to guide students in an environment where uncertainty is the norm.


How will Stanford help students and faculty connect outside the virtual classroom?

Since public health guidance required us to pull back from our original plans to welcome first-years, new transfers and sophomores back to campus this fall, we are working to develop interesting and fun ways for students to connect with one another and with faculty. This is definitely one of our many challenges for the coming year, as these connections are vital beyond students’ engagement in their online courses.

We are developing meaningful ways that students can join faculty members in research projects and build relationships with tutors through the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking.

Instructors are also tailoring the classroom experience to replicate spontaneous activities, such as connecting with the instructor before or after class, and forming virtual study groups.

Our colleagues in the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs are preparing to share a number of opportunities for students in the next few weeks.

One of those programs is Club Cardinal, which introduces students to a virtual Stanford campus. Students can create interactive avatars that can meet up in well-traveled areas of our physical campus like the Quad, Tresidder Memorial Union, Memorial Auditorium and White Plaza. They can interact with fellow students, administrators and professors, and even decorate their own dorm room. There are also ‘lounges’ where students can have Zoom conversations.


What steps has Stanford taken to help instructors pivot to online teaching?

We learned a great deal about what worked and what didn’t work in delivering online education during spring quarter last year. Over the summer, the Center for Teaching and Learning partnered with key staff in my office and Stanford’s Learning Technologies & Spaces team to create a portfolio of new resources for instructors.

Their work culminated in Teaching Commons, a website where faculty members and instructors can find a wealth of information for the coming year, and the TEACH Symposium, which was well attended by instructors from across the university.

In the coming academic year, we know that students will face a range of challenges as they engage with their education, including Internet access issues, lack of quiet space to work, time zone differences and isolation from their peers. We have asked instructors to be as understanding and flexible as possible as we support students in their academic progress.