On a bright but chilly morning, just one of many this fall, Provost Mark L. Biermann, Ph.D., strolls through the Christopher Center reflecting on how his path led to his tenure as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Valparaiso University, where he serves as the chief administrator for academic programs. In addition, he provides oversight for student affairs, campus ministries, and the Cresset literary magazine.
For Provost Biermann, the path to Valpo is rooted in his deep understanding of call and vocation.
“I wouldn’t have come to Valpo if I didn’t have a strong sense of calling, which comes from my faith background. Faith is central to who I am,” says Provost Biermann. “Throughout the search process, my sense of calling became stronger and stronger, and I firmly believe this is where I should be at this particular juncture.”
Provost Biermann thoughtfully relates his sense of calling and purpose back to Valpo’s commitment to the intersection of faith and learning. His field of study, optics, which researches the behavior and properties of light, is perhaps symbolic considering Valpo’s motto “In Thy Light, We See Light.” But for Provost Biermann, the relationship between science and faith is an important facet of life.
“Science is a powerful lens through which we know more about the Creator and the creation God gave us,” he says. “In science, we can see better by using a lens. In the same way, science allows us to better see how God is revealed in nature.”
Like many students who come to Valpo, it was Provost Biermann’s early discovery, exposure, and research that led him to study optics. It began during his freshman year of high school, when he wrote a research paper about lasers. From there, Provost Biermann’s curiosity took him to places he never imagined. During his junior year of high school, he applied and was admitted to the University of Rochester’s optics program, where his appreciation for the field of study grew. He then pursued a Ph.D. in order to continue his research and share his wisdom with others through teaching.
In recent years, Provost Biermann has devoted his attention to academic administration, where his passion for teaching remains. “I desperately miss teaching. I desperately miss being in the classroom with the students,” he says. “As an academic administrator, if you don’t have a real love for teaching and scholarship, then your chances of being really effective decrease. You have to love what you’re trying to support.”
Since he began his position on July 1, Provost Biermann has acclimated to the University’s culture and worked diligently to apply his expertise to the academic environment. He finds Valpo’s sense of purpose and intentionality especially intriguing.
“The University’s position as an independent Lutheran University has allowed it to construct its identity without external pressure from outside organizations,” he says. “This allows Valpo to address the needs of the world in an extremely thoughtful and vibrant way. These qualities make Valpo distinctive, and they permeate through everything we do here.”
In his role, Provost Biermann hopes to advance Valpo’s distinctiveness by implementing and strengthening a variety of academic programs and experiential learning opportunities. He says there is an incredible opportunity to develop well-rounded students, because Valpo exists as a liberal arts institution with a strong interdependent system of professional colleges and programs.
“I have never seen a dichotomy between professional studies and the liberal arts. From my perspective, I always saw them as fully integrated; that in order to be the most effective engineer, you need an incredibly strong grounding in the liberal arts. And the liberal arts are enhanced when you can see their application into professional areas.”
The recent addition of several professional programs, including physician assistant studies and public health, strengthens Valpo’s liberal arts tradition and positions the University to strategically serve the demands of the community and the world.
“The combination of these two programs launching at the same time speaks volumes about Valpo’s attentiveness to the needs of our society,” he says.
Along with curricular additions, Provost Biermann is also eager to enhance and expand the study abroad experience as well as Valpo’s partnerships with study centers worldwide. The University’s recent partnership with Generation Study Abroad, an initiative aimed to double the amount of students who study abroad by 2020, aligns with his interest in experiential learning.
“Study Abroad provides a wonderful foundation for students to build a strong inclusive approach to the world, where, no matter what the world throws at them, they can be ready and be prepared.”
Although his position keeps him immensely occupied, Provost Biermann tries to take time to enjoy life outside of work. He spends most of his free time with his wife, Lois, and their daughters, Grace, 15, and Hope, 12.
Additionally, Provost Biermann’s appreciation for optics extends into his personal life, where he dabbles in photography.
“I’ve been taking pictures my whole life, an interest inspired by my dad. When he was in Korea at the end of the Korean War, he bought a Kodak rangefinder and shot several thousand slides,” he says. “I grew up looking at all these pictures, and my brothers and I would beg him to see them over and over again. And so, with my background in optics as well as my dad’s passion for photography, I just became very interested in it early on.”
The ways in which Provost Biermann’s personal interests coalesce with his professional background indicate that he has found his vocation in academia. His enthusiasm for education, self-discovery, and wisdom permeates through everything he does, in both his personal and professional life. And just like the sun rising on a chilly morning, Provost Biermann’s reflection shines bright at Valpo.