C. Cybele Raver, an esteemed developmental psychologist and higher education leader, began her tenure as Vanderbilt’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs on July 1. She also joins the faculty as a Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair and professor of psychology and human development at Peabody College of education and human development.
Raver most recently served as deputy provost at New York University, and she previously held faculty positions at University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and at Cornell University’s Department of Human Development. She holds a Ph.D. and a master’s in developmental psychology from Yale University and a bachelor’s from Harvard University.
Here she talks to Vanderbilt Magazine about her path into higher education leadership and her aspirations as provost to leverage the strength of the university to help solve the major challenges of today and those facing future generations.
How would you describe your role as Vanderbilt’s provost?
This is a question that a lot of students, parents and alumni have. I think the best way to think about it is that I serve as Vanderbilt’s chief academic officer. The office of the provost works closely with deans, department heads, faculty and staff to provide the highest caliber educational experience, both within and outside the classroom, for undergraduate and graduate students. The provost also oversees the university’s research mission, and our office is therefore responsible for Vanderbilt’s role and reputation as a powerhouse engine of intellectual rigor, breakthrough discovery, innovation and creativity for Nashville, for our nation and for the world. An integral part of our success is that we collaborate with deans and schools on strategies, programs and initiatives that propel Vanderbilt forward in terms of its growth and transformation.
What led you to start thinking about an academic career?
Even though I majored in visual and environmental studies in college, I also had a great opportunity to work in a research lab as an undergraduate. My faculty mentor maintained the ethos that every person in the lab was a junior investigator, every person was a junior scholar. I was so inspired by that collaborative, team-based approach to doing the work of science. In that moment, I thought, “Someday, I’d love to be the person doing this kind of work, perhaps even leading this kind of work.” After college, I realized that being a professor represented my dream job—a way to apply new knowledge to real-world problems. It was in those years that I really found my career path in the social sciences. For me, working as a professor, as a mentor and now as a leader to create that kind of opportunity for others is such an honor and a privilege. And such a joy.
Describe your path as a research scholar.
Graduate school at Yale was such an exciting and important time for me in laying the groundwork for my life as a quantitative social scientist. In those years, I was very politically and socially engaged outside of graduate school in community programs to combat poverty. At the same time, I was finding my intellectual passion for the science of human development inside grad school. Launching my own program of research in that early stage of my scientific career gave me the opportunity to integrate my dedication to social impact and social policy with my commitment to scholarly rigor. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
What prompted your move into higher education leadership?
In launching my first lab at Cornell University, I was fortunate to be able to collaborate with my doctoral students and undergraduate research assistants; together, we created a vibrant intellectual atmosphere where we accomplished so much more as a team than any of us could have individually. Later, I went to the University of Chicago to lead a center for human potential and public policy, which was a great description of my view of life—that we should embrace and maximize the potential that we have in our midst. At the same time, I also realized I liked designing solutions to institutional challenges. I liked working with teams and budgets to set our sights on major objectives and then to work hard to accomplish those.
I was recruited to NYU in 2007 to serve as the inaugural director of the Institute of Human Development and Social Change. That role was about mobilizing, supporting and promoting the scholarship of faculty across many disciplines, including economics, sociology, education and psychology, to address pressing societal and community challenges. In that role, I had the opportunity to develop and implement new strategies for supporting research and training the next generation of students. I also had to figure out how to make the machinery of the university work more efficiently and effectively. I built on those skills in my role as a vice provost and then as the deputy provost at NYU. For example, I designed, launched and led a university-wide Mega Grants Initiative where I partnered with deans and faculty to substantially increase the university’s research and reputational profile. I have also been very involved in rethinking how undergraduates are introduced to “gateway” STEM courses so that the doorway through which students enter into the sciences can feel less daunting and more welcoming. Through those experiences, I came to an understanding of myself as a senior leader in higher education.
As you come into the role of Vanderbilt provost, what are your priorities?
I would say that diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging is a central value of my leadership—and of my own experience. How can each of us think about ways to include every member of our community at the table so that they can share their strengths and participate fully in the life and leadership of our university?
In partnering with and serving Chancellor Diermeier as his provost, I’m excited about the ways that Vanderbilt is offering a new vision for what higher education can do in developing the next generation of our nation’s leaders through undergraduate and graduate education. I’m also fired up about the prospect of strengthening the visibility and impact of research at Vanderbilt—there are so many great faculty doing groundbreaking work. The decision to “go big” on strengthening Vanderbilt’s research reputation is exhilarating. It dramatically shapes not only how others outside our institution see us, but how we see ourselves.