Oparah selected as new provost

First Black woman to serve in the role will start in July

Julia Chinyere Oparah, who has more than 20 years of experience in higher education, will become the University’s first Black female provost when she begins her appointment in July. Photo courtesy of USF Office of Marketing Communications

Ethan Tan

Staff Writer

After a nearly year-long search, President Paul Fitzgerald appointed Julia Chinyere Oparah as the new provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Oparah, who was one of four finalists for the job (candidate 2 in our previous coverage), will become USF’s first Black woman provost when she begins her tenure July 12. Interim Provost Tyrone Cannon will return to his previous position as dean of libraries after assisting Oparah with her transition into the job, according to an email release from Fitzgerald. 

Oparah will fill the vacancy left by current Vice President of Operations Don Heller, who resigned from the provostship in February 2020 after facing a vote of no confidence from the USF Faculty Association (USFFA). 

Oparah is currently serving as dean of faculty and provost at Mills College in Oakland where she has been since 1997. Prior to arriving at Mills, she taught at the University of Toronto in Canada, University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Oparah has received degrees from the University of Warwick and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, where she grew up, and has an academic background of studying the African diaspora, gender, Black women and childbirth, civic engagement, and sociology.

In his email announcing her appointment, Fitzgerald elaborated on Oparah’s prior work, writing, “As provost at Mills, she helped lead that community through times of disruption with steadfastness and care, and kept a central focus on students’ well-being and education. In both her scholarship and business decisions, she has demonstrated a deep commitment to collaboration and partnership, gender and racial equity, and global social justice.”

While she was the provost at Mills, Oparah created the Mills Promise Program, which supports students transitioning to college by providing scholarship, leadership, and mentorship opportunities, launched Mills’ first online master’s degree program, increased opportunities for transfer students, and partnered with UC Berkeley on a joint engineering program. 

On the administrative side, according to Fitzgerald, Oparah diversified revenue and development for Mills through online programs which ensured the financial viability of the college. She also improved retention for the institution and worked to increase diversity.

The search for the new provost began in the spring of last year with a call for nominations for people to serve on the search advisory committee. This committee, in consultation with a contracted executive search firm, WittKieffer, held listening sessions that sought community input to write the job description and list the qualities and qualifications the University was seeking in candidates.

A smaller group within the search advisory committee reviewed all received applications and narrowed down the candidates through a vetting and interview process. After narrowing down the field to four candidates, finalists met with various campus leaders and constituencies in open forums. 

A week after the last finalist visited the Hilltop via Zoom, the search committee sent its report to Fitzgerald. The report did not contain a recommendation to Fitzgerald as previously reported, rather, it gave the strengths and weaknesses the committee perceived in the four finalists from community surveys and feedback forms.

John Iosefo, the ASUSF Senate president, who was also a member of the search committee told the Foghorn: “Oparah is an excellent choice for Provost of the University. She has a history of standing by students and advocating for them at all levels of a university.”

Oparah was also praised by Iosefo for the diversity she brings to USF’s senior administration. “She also brings more diversity to the Cabinet at a time when diversity of opinions and experiences is needed most. Throughout her selection process, she has been an outspoken advocate for servant leadership and working with the community to arrive at decisions,” Iosefo said.

As the University continues to deal with a budget shortfall caused by the pandemic, one of Oparah’s first priorities will be to steer the University out of financial trouble. 

“Fr. Fitzgerald’s provost choice indicates that he carefully considered our input about what kind of leader would be best for our university community at a critical time such as this. Chinyere Oparah presents as a strong faculty and student advocate who understands our needs, challenges and opportunities,” USFFA President Sonja Martin Poole said in a statement to the Foghorn. “I am optimistic about the possibilities her appointment as our new provost suggests, and I look forward to working closely with her.”

Jill Schepmann, president of the USF Part-Time Faculty Association, told the Foghorn, “There’s something really powerful and empowering for all of us in the selection of Chinyere Oparah as our new Provost …  I think we all gained important awareness about how we might make collective decisions with broad community input in the future.”

USF labor unions are expected to enter contract negotiations again with University administration soon. Negotiations are expected to start before Oparah officially steps into the role of provost, but it is not yet known if she will take part in the proceedings.

Oparah is optimistic about her new role. In an exclusive statement to the Foghorn, she said, “I am deeply honored to have this opportunity to serve the University of San Francisco community, and excited to help advance the university’s commitment to equity, social justice and to educating thoughtful, grounded and ethical changemakers.”

Ethan Tan is a junior politics major and the Foghorn’s News Editor. He covers the University’s administration and campus labor unions. He can be reached at etan@sffoghorn.com or on Twitter @tanethans.

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