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A Conversation with the Provost

Karen Patterson and Ozzie posing on the UNF basketball courtEven over Zoom, Dr. Karen Patterson’s calm disposition is easy to spot. So is her willingness to chat and honestly share her feelings. She doesn’t hold back and is quick to laugh at herself and some of the life situations that have tested her along the way. With 22 years of experience at UNF, Patterson is now focused on her new position as provost and vice president of academic and student affairs, after serving in an interim role since September 2020. But she’s brought along all her life lessons in order to navigate this new challenge. Here are a few insights gathered from a conversation with the provost.

How a family experience can shape the future

Patterson feels it’s a privilege to be at UNF. Yet, her path here was not a traditional one. Growing up in Jamaica, as the eldest of two daughters, she stepped up at an early age to help her mother run the household, while her father traveled to work on a farm in Massachusetts. He often would be gone for six months at a time. The owner of the farm then sponsored her to come to America to go to college, but after one semester she had to go it alone, getting scholarships, loans and working to complete her undergraduate degree at Kent State University. Those undergrad memories of faculty and staff support have stuck with her and made her sensitive to the needs of UNF students and the impact of mentorship at all levels, especially from faculty.

“I didn’t come from a family that had money,” Patterson said. “I am the first in my family to have had this opportunity to attend college, so I needed to make something of myself in order to help my family. So that kind of pushes you.” For Patterson that meant getting a teaching job and earning a master’s and doctorate while working in special education in the Cleveland public schools. Her choice of major was influenced by a childhood experience of seeing a child with physical disability being bullied, which led her to connect with special education training in college.

Approaching the job with a sincere disposition

Patterson believes in sincerity above all. “My mother used to say, ‘When you tell the truth, you don’t need a long memory, and you will always be consistent.’ So that’s still the way I try to approach things,” she said. In each role she maintains a genuine desire to serve with openness and integrity. In the role of provost, she believes it is even more important to be trustworthy.

To Patterson, there are many leaders at UNF and she is most fortunate to work with some of the very best. “I’m not pretending I always know what to do when faced with a difficult decision,” she said. “But I pay attention, and I work diligently to achieve the most successful outcomes … I am part of a great team ― we are connected, and we are all focused in the same direction. Leadership is just easier when you are working with a team who value the same things you do.”

Every day is unique

Ask Patterson to describe an average day, and she laughs. The days are all different, though most are filled with meetings. They also are long, often extending into the evening. The reach of the provost role is broad, touching all aspects of campus life. Patterson meets with the president, VPs, her executive team, deans, student government, the Council of Deans, students, and parents, among others. Meetings cover a range of topics including student concerns, budget, policies and procedures, accreditation and program reviews. She meets with Student Government and also attends the Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors meetings. She is also doing what she calls “Conversations with the Provost,” so she can meet with academic units. “So in this role, I don’t want to start with any assumptions,” Patterson said. “Forget what you think I know, and tell me what I need to know and how I need to help. We are facing real and unique challenges in higher education and it is critical for all of us to rethink the many assumptions that we have and adapt to new realities.”

The most enjoyable part of the job

The new provost is happiest when she can get to "yes" and support the campus to get what it needs most. Rather than starting with "no," she approaches each situation with "why not?" “Let’s figure out how we can have the most successful outcomes,” Patterson said. “If things don’t work according to plan, at least we’ve explored the possibilities. The job becomes difficult, however, when decisions are about resources that could have a significant impact on students while making meaningful differences to faculty and staff, but you can’t do it because of limited resources and competing priorities.”

Time to relax

When time allows, Patterson said she relaxes by reading or watching British comedies and movies. Before the pandemic, she would be at the gym most mornings at 4:30 to exercise. With COVID, she decided instead to buy a treadmill. “But I’m not getting up at 4 o’clock to be on that treadmill,” she said, laughing. “So, now I do it whenever I feel guilty. Just being honest with you.”