A new year presents new challenges…but for good reasons

As we head into another academic year on campus there is a lot of excitement in the air!  We have a new group of freshmen arriving that collectively bring with them some of the strongest academic credentials we’ve ever seen at UW-Whitewater.  This is definitely exciting and is further evidence that UW-W’s reputation for providing outstanding academic programs is growing and reaching beyond our state borders.  Many of these students are from Illinois and other nearby states as well as an increasing number of international students.  At the same time we are still admitting large numbers of students that will need some extra help early on to get them up to speed for success at the college level.  This dichotomy poses new challenges to our faculty and staff that are tasked with serving two different audiences.  However, we have very talented and dedicated faculty and staff that are up to the challenge!

During the past year we continued to add to that group by hiring new individuals in key areas where students typically need the type of specialized attention described above (math, english, general education).   We also brought new advanced specialties to the college in a wide range of areas (biological sciences, geography, history, political science, psychology, and sociology, among others).  Thus, I’m confident we will continue to successfully address this “good problem” and provide every possible chance for our students to be successful.  It is no coincidence that the freshman retention rate of those returning this year for their sophomore year is once again shaping up to be above 80%.  This is well above the national average of 65% and one of the highest freshman retention rates in the state.  Given that the College of Letters & Sciences is the primary home of the General Education program on campus, and all freshmen take classes in General Education, this high level of success isn’t a surprise.  We are proud of how well our students are doing and they deserve a ton of credit for their hard work and dedication.  But let’s not forget the dedicated faculty and staff that serve them during that crucial first year of college.

As I wrap up the end of my first academic year as Dean I have gained a true appreciation for the dedication and commitment of our faculty and staff.  Although this has never been a question in my mind, this year I’ve been able to witness it firsthand.  Walking through the halls of Upham on a late afternoon I see students working side-by-side in labs with their faculty mentors, in Laurentide I see faculty working into the evenings to provide extra help to student study groups that are clustered in the various corners of the building.  I see faculty and staff volunteering their time to work on campus during the weekends to host events, conferences, and other learning opportunities for our students.  There is no doubt that our students are well-served here and when I have asked those graduating to reflect on their time here this is one of the most common themes mentioned.  They truly notice the care and commitment our faculty and staff take in making sure each student is given every possible opportunity to be successful.

Fortunately, our strong reputation as a satisfying and rewarding place to work is established and thus we are able to recruit talented new faculty and staff each year into the college.  In the fall we will be pleased to introduce eight new faculty members that will be joining our college.  I have no doubt that they will contribute to the success of our students in the same ways that their new colleagues have done for so many years.  Check out our college web page or visit us on Facebook for more information about our newest faculty colleagues.

5. UW-Whitewater is Recognized Statewide as a Leader:

This past fall I attended the Board of Regents meeting at UW-Parkside. My main reason for being there was to help shepherd through a new major in Criminology that was approved by the Board with no concerns. We continue to develop new majors that respond to the interests of our students and the demands of the job market. I have no doubt that this major will be as successful as others recently developed in Japanese Studies, Environmental Science and Computer Science. However, what most caught my attention at the meeting was a presentation given by Chancellor Telfer on activities and accomplishments going on at UW-Whitewater. As he presented impressive statistics on our freshmen retention rates and success to graduation, growth of new majors, development and use of the Whitewater Innovation Center, the accomplishments of our faculty, and many other great achievements including the fact that UW-Whitewater has again been recognized as one of the top places to work in southern Wisconsin, I found myself increasingly feeling a sense of pride of working here and being a part of these great accomplishments. The positive comments by members of the Board of Regents after his presentation about UW-Whitewater as a “model” campus that others should follow only furthered that sense of pride. It is no wonder that Chancellor Telfer was selected to be the Interim President of the UW-System while the search for the new president took place earlier this year. This positive vibe was even further reinforced when I attended the Council of Colleges of Arts & Sciences annual meeting in November. There I heard other deans share some of the challenges they are currently dealing with on their campuses including the closing of some departments, faculty lay-offs, across the board budget cuts, poor faculty/staff morale, and woeful student retention rates. We’re very fortunate not to have these issues here at UW-Whitewater. Sometimes it’s hard to appreciate how good you have it until you hear about the problems others are having. This year I challenged my college to recognize how fortunate they are to work here and to be a part of the great things we’re doing!

4. The UW-Whitewater Student Body is Changing in Front of our Eyes:

It’s hard to believe that this is my 19th year on this campus. The UW-Whitewater that I was hired into in 1994 was a very different place than what we see today. The student body has become much more global and diverse with students from all over the country and all over the world- over 40 different states and 40 different countries this year alone. Students are also much more connected to campus. The days of the “suitcase campus” reputation are long gone and students are here throughout the week, during the summer, and even during holidays. The campus has made a commitment to provide students with opportunities to get more involved through undergraduate research, job opportunities, and a variety of student activities seemingly going on 24/7. I’m convinced this has gone a long way towards improving our student retention and success to graduation. A walk through Upham Hall on a random day this past summer amazed me because there was so much student activity going on in the various faculty research labs. Even more so, I was impressed at how many of them were women and from underrepresented populations. It has been a priority of ours to increase the number of majors in the sciences from these groups. Our STEM efforts are paying off! Let’s keep it going and expand these efforts into other areas of the college.

3. The College of Letters & Sciences is More Appreciated than We Realize

As the new leader of the college on campus that constantly seems to be going through an identity crisis, one my goals was to “sell” the college to anyone that would listen. We are diverse in subject matter and thus hard to define. Identifying a clear “brand” sometimes seems impossible so we often feel unnoticed and underappreciated. My plan was to promote the virtues of our college- the general education service we do for the university; what we do for freshmen students and the impressive retention rate that we’ve seen in recent years; the outstanding reputation our majors have and the great things our graduates are doing. Guess what? So far I’m witnessing many others do that for me. I’m hearing other Deans and Directors of programs outside our college talk to incoming freshman about the importance of General Education and LEAP (Liberal Education America’s Promise). I’m hearing students that are pursuing majors in other colleges tell me how much they appreciated and enjoyed that freshman-level course that they took from one of our instructors. I’m hearing our alums tell me that they realize now that their upward mobility in their careers is in part due to the broad liberal arts training they received early in their time here at UW-Whitewater. They developed good oral communication and writing skills, good critical thinking skills, and an appreciation and ability to work effectively with diverse groups, and their employers have noticed it! This past fall I witnessed the Chancellor at his State of the University Address dominantly highlight activities occurring in our college through examples and videos of “success” at UW-Whitewater. I see the Marketing Media & Relations office write story after story about the success of our faculty and our students. We ARE being noticed. I still won’t give up my pursuit of getting the recognition we deserve but it sure is nice to see others making my job that much easier.

2. Being a Department Chair is the Hardest Job on Campus

As a Dean, the most important “go to” people for me are the Department Chairs in my college. I count on them to inform me of their departmental needs, the challenges their faculty and staff are having, and to enforce policies created in the Dean’s Office or other areas of higher administration. They are expected to walk a balancing act of still being considered one of “them” by their faculty and one of “us” by the administration. This is not a fair position to put anyone in and ultimately no one is going to be completely satisfied. I appreciate our department chairs very much and am blessed with a talented and committed group that successfully walks that balancing act on a daily basis. We ask a lot of Chairs—put the accomplishments of your faculty and your department ahead of your own, support your faculty but also critically evaluate them, enforce the policies of higher administration even if you personally disagree with them, provide extra support to mentor junior faculty but don’t shortchange the needs of tenured and senior faculty, and while doing all of this stay positive!!  Succeeding in this “in between world” is no easy task. Let’s make sure we give our Department Chairs a break every now and then for being human and recognize the difficult positions we put them in.

The First 100 Days

I started in this position on July 15th. As I write this I’m in my 100th day as Dean of the College of Letters & Sciences. It’s been quite a ride so far but I must say that I feel very fortunate to be in this position. The college is doing great things with wonderfully talented and committed people. During my early tenure in this position I have already noticed some important attributes of the college and the university that make this a special place for students and the staff. Over the next several weeks I’ll list a new one each week.

1. The Little Things Can Make the Biggest Difference: Although we have talented and dynamic teachers that no doubt have a major impact on students in the classroom, my conversations with current students and alums have convinced me that it’s the little things we do that have the greatest impacts. Students come to UW-W expecting to have great teachers, small classroom sizes, and a variety of applied learning opportunities. What they don’t expect is the interest that we take in their personal lives, their unique challenges, and desire to identify what ignites their interest in a particular subject. Students don’t expect to get “noticed” and are sometimes even embarrassed or frustrated when a professor takes interest in them as an individual and pushes them to realize their potential. However, these are the moments that change their lives. I remember being noticed by a professor as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia who invited me to work on a research project with him. It changed my life. We cannot stop doing this. We need to do it more.

Our Chinese Connection

Department of Languages & Literatures name in the news! Jian Guo, faculty member in the English program is one of two translators who have worked extensively on the recently published book _Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-62_ written by Yang Jisheng whose uncle was among those who died.  Thirty-six million people starved to death during the Maoist revolution while the government was exporting grain; cannabalism may have resulted.  The book is banned in China, but was published in Hong Kong, Japan, and the West and has been getting attention here.  Already it has been reviewed in the Washington Post and the New York Review of Books.  Yesterday, a brief summary appeared on the Op Ed page of the New York Times, also translated by Jian Guo.  Recovering historical documents, correcting “historical amnesia,” insuring that events such as this remain a part of the historical record, and making that history known requires great courage.  As more parts of the past are uncovered, history becomes more complex. I’m reminded of what George Santayana said:  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  The Op Ed piece ends this way: “I intended my book to be a memorial to the thirty-six million victims, but also a literal tombstone, anticipiating the ultimate demise of the totalitarian political system that caused the Great Famine.  I was mindful of the risks in this endeavor:  if something happens to me because I tried to preserve a truthful memory, then let the book stand as my tombstone, too.”

Open for Business

Just an update on our whereabouts. Since Monday, October 22, the Dean’s Office, L&S Advising, our Graduation Examiner, as well as the departments of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Women’s Studies, History, and Political Science have moved to the fourth and fifth floor of Laurentide Hall (formerly Carlson).  Sociology and Languages and Literatures  moved the following week, and finally one week later Psychology and Math joined us. Come and check out our beautiful new building! Students have been wandering in, but we don’t have all of our signs in place, so you have to be a bit resourceful. We hope to have an open house for the campus once we are “out of boxes” and a little settled. Advising and Graduation are on the fourth floor (north end).  And we are hoping to have the cafe on the second floor up and running by the end of the semester.  You will find comfortable places to study and to meet with faculty and other students over here!  We have also had the Dean’s Advisory Board and the Foundation Board tour the building.  Those who remember the “old Carlson” are totally amazed.

We are approaching the busy end of the semester, with many projects and tests coming due before Thanksgiving.  Nonetheless, our new Science Outreach Coordinator organized “Discover Science” day last Friday, drawing hundreds of middle school and high school students to Upham Hall for an afternoon of excitement and scientific “discovery.”  Faculty and students were involved in explaining plant taxonomy, doing flashy chemistry experiments, and making science engaging and fun.  Thanks to Alissa Hass for her hard work on this.  The students on campus for Premiere Day were invited and all attended!  This week, we have Geography Awareness Week with programming every afternoon and a major lecture on Friday morning.


The move approaches.

Moving day will be upon us soon! This Friday  (October 20) the faculty and staff who will be moving to the fourth and fifth floor of Laurentide will begin “the move.” Then on successive Friday/Saturdays, third, second, and first floor will fill in. This week, we are all weeding our libraries, sending books to the library book sale, papers and files to archives, and unearthing some surprsing objects. The building looks great and will provide a wonderful place for collaboration, involving faculty and students. Please stop by and visit us! But we may need a day or so to get organized.

Also, I want to thank Baocheng Han and Steve Anderson for organizing a very productive meeting of Chemistry faculty within the UW System that was hosted on campus this last Friday and Saturday. John Warner gave an inspiring keynote on green chemistry and challenged those present to approach chemistry and the teaching of chemistry in more creative ways; the analogy he used was jazz improvization, in contrast to the cook book approach of classical music. (We do have some new green chemistry courses in the works.)   Mary Tilton, 1974 alumna and member of the Dean’s Advisory Board, gave the final keynote in which she described her work with Virent Technologies LLD where they are exploring alternative forms of energy and biofuel.

Also on Friday, collaborators from Biological Sciences, Chemistry, and Physics sponsored the third annual Nanoscience Symposium, held in Upham Hall. I’m delighted that we are so involved in these emerging technologies! Thanks to everyone involved!  Busy week!