Learning Experience: No Longer an Interim, Provost Committed to Progress

     From Focus magazine, Spring 2012 >>

By Bill Sutley

After three decades as an educator, Tom Hackett knows a lot about learning.

But that doesn’t mean he’s stopped acquiring knowledge in his current role as Columbus State provost and vice president for academic affairs.

“I know it’s a cliché, but every day (as provost) is a learning experience,” said Hackett, sitting down in March to talk about the job he’s held on an interim basis since September, 2010.

After a national search, President Tim Mescon announced Feb. 14 that Hackett would remain in the position, no longer an “interim.”

His ascent since joining CSU in 2004 has been rapid, faster than his two-decade rise from teacher to Phenix City schools superintendent, the job he retired from to join CSU.

“I’m surprised at the pace,” he said of the provost job. “You’ve got to deal with things not only tied to campus but also at the Atlanta and national level. This is a very complicated organization with a lot of moving parts.”

He’s committed to moving Columbus State forward in terms of academic reputation.

“In my view, we’re an adolescent institution, just beginning to feel our power and abilities,” he said. “Now we’re trying to decide where to go in the future. Do we want to assume the mantle of leadership?”

Hackett said he’s pleased with the changes he’s witnessed over eight years at Columbus State, including a couple of major moves he initiated as professor and chair of the department focused on educational leadership.

His “proudest moment” came at December commencement, when he put the doctoral hood over the neck of the first graduate of CSU’s first standalone doctoral program, an Ed.D. in educational leadership that was his brainchild. He’s also been a key player in CSU’s rapidly growing commitment to online instruction — an ironic role given a scholarly article he once wrote questioning its effectiveness.

“Distance learning is just another tool,” he said. “Given its ubiquitous nature, distance learning is going to happen whether we shape it or not.”

He’s determined Columbus State will add more online courses only as long as the university addresses related issues of quality, academic freedom and faculty expertise. Hybrid courses, mixing classroom and online instruction, are often the best option, he said. Sometimes, face-to-face interaction is a must.

“It’s like Wynton Marsalis,” he said, referring to the jazz trumpeter. “I enjoy his albums, but there’s no substitute for listening to the real Wynton, like when I saw him live at the RiverCenter.”

Jazz is one of Hackett’s few passions unrelated to his job. A poster of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane dominates one wall of his Richards Hall office.

Hackett and his wife, Janey, who he met as a Columbus College student, are the parents of three sons, and they have three grandchildren. Their youngest son, Joseph, is a freshman psychology major at CSU.

Hackett earned the first of his four degrees, a bachelor’s in English, from Columbus College in 1977, returning to complete courses in 1979 to be certified as a teacher. One of his professors was his father, Paul T. Hackett, who was enjoying a second career here as an English professor, teaching Greek and Latin.

“He was tough on me,” Hackett said. “He had a genius for languages that I did not have.”

Before then, his father’s first career, 26 years in the Army, kept the future provost on the move, from his New York state birthplace to homes in Kansas, Texas, California and Paraguay.

“I spent my formative years, from age 4 to 7, in South America,” he said. “At one time, I spoke Spanish fluently and could play soccer. Coming back to the states was a culture shock.”

Now 57, Hackett’s committed to what he perceives as an “incredible” U.S. educational system.

“Can we improve? Absolutely,” he said. “What we need to do is have an honest discussion about what it will take to be an educated person in 2030 or 2050. I think Columbus State is going to be not just a player but a leader. In the end, that’s why I’m so excited to still be in it.”

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Photo captions, from top left:

Provost Tom Hackett reflects during a February interview. (Photo Courtesy of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer)

Hackett receives his cum laude bachelor's degree in English from founding Columbus College President Thomas Y. Whitley in 1977.

Hackett, left, chats with his father, Columbus College professor Paul T. Hackett Sr., after earning his master's in educational leadership from the college in 1986.

As a young teacher, Hackett spent his summers for several years in an Army National Guard field artillery unit.