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Dittmar on making a difference

Photo by T LAVERGNE | The Rice Thresher
Courtesy Tommy Laverngne

By Hugo Gerbich-Pais     4/16/24 10:23pm

On the top floor of the Allen Center sits Provost Amy Dittmar's office. The campus she leads is spread out below; eight school deans, the deans of undergraduate and postgraduate studies and four vice-provosts all report to her. 

"One of the roles of leadership in general is to shepherd the community through good and bad," Dittmar said. 

Yet, Dittmar said she is confident in the Rice community's ability to support itself. "One of the most important things we have are those relationships, that community," Dittmar said.

Prior to arriving at Rice in August of 2022, Dittmar was the acting provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan. She was also the senior vice provost, overseeing a budget of over $2.5 billion and leading 19 schools and colleges. Karen Zaruba, the assistant vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs at the University of Michigan, and who worked under Dittmar, said Dittmar's appointment as provost, distinct from the title of vice provost, was an indication of her competence.

"[The title] was a reflection of her leadership ... and the amount of trust the institution had in her," Zaruba said. 

Zaruba said that the University of Michigan’s size — over 65,000 students, in stark contrast to Rice’s 8,400 — could detach administrators from students. That wasn’t true for Dittmar, she said.

"She kept teaching, even though her job was more than full-time," Zaruba said. "She would try to be very student-centered in a lot of our discussions and decision-making. I think that's great prep for being in a place at Rice." 

Even before she had completed her Ph.D., Provost Dittmar was good at working with students, according to Marc Zenner, her thesis advisor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

"[Dittmar] could immediately take her solid analysis, solid research and articulate and explain why it's important," he said. "She could do this to a room of 20 Ph.D.'s but also to a room of 20 freshmen. That's a unique skill that only a limited number of people have."

Before UNC Chapel Hill, Dittmar earned her bachelor degree from Indiana University, majoring in finance and business economics.

“I started actually as an English major … I loved reading, literature and poetry. Candidly, I realized I was okay at that, but others were a lot better," Dittmar said. "So I wanted to get into something that was more quantitative, and that was what made me gravitate towards economics."

When Dittmar began pursuing economics, she cited an incredibly male-dominated field; however, she didn't let this environment deter her. 

"If something did get under my skin, it just drove me a little more towards excellence, because [there’s] nothing like showing people how much you can do to prove anyone wrong," Dittmar said. 

Dittmar had, until Rice, exclusively worked for public universities — before Michigan, she returned as an Assistant Professor to her alma mata, Indiana University Bloomington. 

"I didn't know if I would ever move to a private [university] because the impact on society and the social good is kind of ingrained in a public school," said Dittmar. "And it was very much ingrained in who I was, and what I believed was important."  

Dittmar said Rice's unique sense of community was one of factors that attracted her to Rice.

"That's everything from the college culture of the undergrads and the support they get in O-Week … but it transfers to faculty as well," said Dittmar. "The community that you have at Rice [provides] the ability to work across disciplines, and to interact across disciplines which is so incredibly important right now."

Dittmar had talked to and visited other private universities before coming to Rice, but concluded that they didn’t feel like the right fit, while Rice did. Part of that, she said, is because of the Rice Investment, as well as Rice's strong relationship with Houston and Texas. 

"The commitment to broader diversity and inclusiveness was really, really key, as well as the research having an impact on the social good," Provost Dittmar said.  

"I came from a university that had a hospital and lots of medical research,” Dittmar said. “I come here, and [there’s] no hospital, no medical research, and they're still curing cancer as much as anyplace else. [Rice] really does have a profound impact."

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