A Conversation with Caroline Genco, Tufts’ New Provost and Senior Vice President
Caroline Genco, an established academic leader and a highly regarded immunologist with an active biomedical research program, has been named provost and senior vice president at Tufts University. As provost, she is the university’s chief academic officer.
A professor and holder of the Arthur E. Spiller M.D. Endowed Professorship in Genetics at Tufts University School of Medicine, Genco has been the university’s provost ad interim since January 2022.
Before her current role as interim provost, Genco served as the university’s vice provost for research for two years and, from 2015 to 2019, as chair of the Department of Immunology at the School of Medicine.
Genco joined Tufts in 2015 from Boston University School of Medicine, where she was a professor of medicine and microbiology and research director of the Section on Infectious Diseases. At BU’s School of Engineering, she was also an affiliate faculty member in the biomedical engineering department. Prior to BU, she held academic appointments at Morehouse School of Medicine and Emory University.
Genco’s research centers on host-pathogen interactions and the ways in which infectious agents cause inflammation and disease. One area of focus is understanding why some sexually transmitted infections are asymptomatic and others are symptomatic, as STIs disproportionally cause asymptomatic disease in women, with resulting reproductive complications.
“I have had the opportunity to engage with Caroline closely during my transition over the past eight months," said President Sunil Kumar. "Through those conversations, I appreciated her clear vision for the academic enterprise at Tufts and the collaborative approach with which she will achieve that vision.”
In speaking with Tufts Now, Genco shared the impact she hopes to have through her role as provost—and why she stays closely connected to her research.
Tufts Now: What does it mean to be Tufts’ chief academic officer?
Caroline Genco: The provost is responsible for the academic strategy of a university. A provost’s scope can differ depending on a given university’s organizational model. At Tufts, we operate under a decentralized model. While I oversee all our schools and colleges, along with some of our cross-school programs, centers, and institutes, Tufts’ schools and colleges have independent control over their resources and programming.
My responsibility is to guide institutional priorities that collectively advance Tufts’ mission as a student-centered, R1 university. [R1 is a classification given to certain universities with very high research activity.] Another part of my role is to work with central administrative leadership, in particular, Executive Vice President Mike Howard, to ensure that our resources support our academic priorities.
Last but certainly not least, I work to remove barriers and create support systems so that we provide an environment for our students, faculty, and staff to succeed.
In my interim role, in service of Tufts’ mission, I redefined the provost position and the way it operates by balancing the need for a university-wide approach to academic strategy and planning with the need to maintain each school’s uniqueness and honor their autonomy. Tufts’ schools are already strong, and by coming together across schools, our impact can be even greater.
What did you learn from your interim period that will inform your work as provost?
Tufts is large enough to make a significant impact on the world—but we’re not unlimited in scale. Our success lies in our ability—and our desire—to collaborate, to be greater than the sum of our parts. I’ve seen firsthand how strong the sense of community is at Tufts—it’s what allows us to pivot quickly as things change around us.
I’ve also witnessed the competitive advantage in having faculty doing pioneering research and scholarship in disciplines ranging from the humanities to the sciences and policymaking. Our expertise, steeped in civic engagement and inclusive excellence, allows us to address complex societal challenges.
Amid all the headlines about the issues facing higher education, what are the challenges you have to consider in leading an academic enterprise in the years ahead?
Society is changing so fast that people need to make sure they’re prepared. And just as our learners need to respond to those changes, so does Tufts. Tufts is a nimble institution, and this key characteristic will allow us to adapt as things continue to change quickly.
At Tufts, we innovate by listening to a range of perspectives and promoting more conversations across our community. This in turn creates opportunities to bring people together to capitalize on Tufts’ strengths and to foster creative responses to the complexities that we face.
Tufts also has a deep commitment to civic engagement and inclusive access, and these values serve as pillars that help guide us in addressing new challenges.
Earlier in your career, you were a fellow in an intensive, year-long training program aimed at expanding the pool of qualified women candidates for academic leadership. How do you now support a new generation of people who’ve often been underrepresented in leadership?
During my leadership training, I had the chance to see the impact of bringing emerging women leaders from throughout the country together so they could inspire and empower one another. I’ve stayed connected to the women I met, and we continue to support each other both professionally and personally. This experience gave me a network of people whom I can trust with the problems I face and who can rely on me as well.
And now, as provost, I can pay it forward by creating systems modeled on the experience I had, to provide individuals with the tools and resources they need for success.
I believe deeply in the power of robust mentorship and, in partnership with my team, I am currently developing mentorship programs to support our faculty not only in their development as scholars, but also to cultivate them as institutional leaders.
Just as I have benefited from programs and mentors that helped me to feel more like I belonged, I feel strongly in continuing to make Tufts a place where everyone feels that same sense of belonging, where they have the role models, mentors, and the confidence to push themselves outside their comfort zones into directions that benefit them and, in turn, all of us.
Something about you that people don’t know?
People are often surprised to know that I was the first person in my family to go to college. My parents were immigrants: my father worked in a steel plant, and my mother was a seamstress. I was able to attend a public university near my home and fell in love with the world of learning and discovery and saw the value of engaging with diverse perspectives. I feel very fortunate to have had that opportunity and to have been able to build on it to get to where I am today.
Where do you think the biggest opportunities lie for Tufts?
I think our embrace of lifelong learning is critical. We have terrific programs that prepare students at all phases of their professional journeys. Tufts is just the right size to be flexible in terms of what we offer to prepare learners for our ever-changing future.
Even for students who focus on a traditional four-year college experience, we recognize their desire for more within those four years, whether it’s dual majors, more hands-on experience, or more interdisciplinary opportunities to change the way they look at—and solve—problems.
For our research and scholarship enterprise specifically, the opportunity for us now is to promote Tufts not only nationally but globally in terms of our distinctive strengths. We have expertise in a variety of disciplines that, when combined, give us a competitive advantage.
A critical priority for us is making certain that everyone understands the breadth of what we do here at Tufts. We are working at this locally and at the state and federal levels, and globally, to make our impact known.
Speaking of research, why is it important to you to continue your research while you have a very full plate as provost?
My research grounds me. It’s what brought me to higher education; it’ll always be at my core. Time and again, my research team exposes me to a diversity of perspectives that broadens my horizons and demonstrates the power of collaborating to solve big problems.
Individual meetings with my graduate students and our lab meetings also keep me in tune with some of the challenges that students are facing today. As with our faculty, it’s important in my role as provost that I hear directly what’s standing in the way of their success and what’s important to them. Understanding where people are coming from helps me create opportunities to increase their ability to succeed.
One example of the connection between research and the collaborative work that I support in my role as provost is an international conference to be held in Boston, which I helped to organize. In addition to faculty and student researchers from around the world, we’ve engaged representatives from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Sanofi, and the World Health Organization. At the same time, we are offering panels that spotlight our thriving local biotech industry. This is an opportunity to bring to bear a more innovative approach to information-sharing than at a more traditional scientific conference.
What’s it like to work with a president who has himself been a provost?
Having been provost at Johns Hopkins, Sunil Kumar understands and respects what is needed to run an institution’s academic enterprise. I am thrilled that he understands the role of provost so fully. He will be both a great mentor, as well as someone who will allow me the autonomy I need while also being available for advice.
When your service as provost is complete, how would you hope that people characterize the legacy that you’ve left?
I hope our community feels that I was able to bring together the skills and expertise of the faculty and staff to capitalize more fully on our collective potential.
I hope I will have been able to put systems in place and remove barriers to ensure our individual and collective success. That’s the most important thing to me: that people feel like they have the tools they need to succeed. When they are successful, then I feel like I’ve done my job.