The Interview USA
Thomas Edison State University
Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Thomas Edison State University

Cynthia Baum

As higher education increasingly embraces remote learning, the landscape of the sector has been reshaped, bringing unparalleled opportunities as well as fresh challenges. Few understand this better than Cynthia Baum, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Thomas Edison State University.

Cynthia sat down with Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, to share her insights on everything including her career in higher education, proactive approaches to ensuring student safety, and the changes in the field brought about by the pandemic. 

Cynthia's Journey

Max: Let’s start with a brief introduction to yourself and your current role…

I’m the Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Thomas Edison State University. We’re a very non-traditional institution: we were founded about 52 years ago, to serve individuals who at the time were not well served by traditional academic institutions. Our charter specifically mentions military and other adult students who have stepped out of school. So it's a very interesting business model. We are always trying to find ways that students don’t need to pay us tuition; we offer very liberal transfer credit and more credit for prior learning than any other institution that I'm aware of. In the last five years, we’ve offered 1.7 million credits in prior learning, which has saved our students more than $586 million in tuition fees.

Max: What inspired you to pursue a career in higher education?

I really stumbled into it. Originally, I wanted to be a psychologist, from the time I was about 15 years old. I just had this idea that I wanted to make a difference in people's lives. So when I was finishing my doctorate, I had a realization: I could go out and be a practitioner, and help maybe 30 people a week, or I could join the clinical psychology faculty at Virginia Tech, and help train 10 or 20 new practitioners every year each of whom could provide those services. I realized that higher education was an amazing way to make a difference in people's lives and that's why  I stayed in it once I got into it.

Max: Student safety is key to creating a welcoming campus environment. What’s the biggest thing you're focused on from a student safety perspective?

When I arrived here, I noticed we had a very positive campus culture which is based on giving students the opportunity to be successful. We’re a 98% online university, so we need to focus on emotional safety rather than physical safety. About 40 percent of our students identify as part of underrepresented groups, and we also have a large military population. So the first thing that I did was to hire a Chief Student Success, Diversity, and Equity officer who reports to me but also serves on the president's cabinet.

It’s been a five-year process, working across the campus to create a culture where we don't just provide students with an opportunity to be successful, but we support them too. In terms of shifting people's mindsets, it's a huge task – we need to prioritize proactive outreach. Early on, I looked at some data and saw that our success rates were lower for underrepresented groups than they were for majority groups. So there's a real focus on closing this success gap, and a huge part of that is cultivating a sense of belonging for people from all walks of life. To achieve that, we’re focusing on two things: first, focusing on inclusivity and education with our own employees and our staff and addressing our blind spots; and second, starting a new process for both developing and revising our courses to incorporate inclusive content.

Max: Most of your students are remote learners. How have things changed in the aftermath of the pandemic?

Again, we're primarily an online remote learning institution: in the first week of the pandemic, we moved 325 staff completely online within three days with little or no disruption to our students.  Most of our students were already learning remotely, so they weren’t affected by the shutdowns in the same way as many traditional students. In a way, we still operate in a sort of pandemic environment, if you will: although we do have people coming back onto the campus, we’ve been heavily focused on building up our online infrastructure and expanding access to support resources remotely. For example, we’ve started a peer mentoring and tutoring program based on a 24/7 student support model. We have only recently in the last year been able to afford to add significant mental health resources – so we now have online 24/7 mental health support for our students and their families and we are in the process of doing mandatory training on mental health issues for all of our student-facing employees.

Max: How do you respond to the challenge of getting students engaged and making sure they are aware of where to find help?

We're only about six or seven months into it, but by training all of our student-facing employees we can teach them what to look for, what are the signs, and how to offer support. A really key thing is just making sure that our folks who are interacting with the students can identify somebody who might be in distress and get them to the right resources as soon as possible. We try to make it as easy as possible for students because there's still such stigma despite the progress we’ve made. We’re very intentional about the mental health services we provide, while also providing links to legal advice, housing, elder care, and childcare. So we are trying to do what many institutions are doing in person which is to provide wraparound resources for students. 

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

There are two things. First, let your principles be your guide. And second, don't let perfect be the enemy of good. You’ll never get things exactly as you want them; instead, get started, and get it out there. Learn from what you're doing, and modify as needed. 

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Max Webber
Max works closely with people leaders and change-makers in our professional services markets. If you're looking to feature on The Interview, or simply want to learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

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