By Justin Wier
Last week, three candidates for the job of dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences visited Youngstown State University engaging with students, faculty and the administration.
The candidates are Kristine Blair, a professor of English at Bowling Green State University who served as the department’s chair for nine years, Pamela Scott-Johnson, acting dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Morgan State University, and Vandana Kohli, associate dean of graduate and undergraduate studies at California State University, Bakersfield.
Blair told attendees of an open forum on Monday she would spend the first three months engaging in active listening, meeting with students, faculty and staff and then evaluate the way departments in the college align with the strategic goals at the university level.
She said she would pursue external fundraising and grants to contend with budget constraints, and advocate for community engagement and service learning opportunities.
“I’m a person who likes to be involved,” Blair said.
When asked about a proposed first-year experience course, she said it is a valuable tool to increase retention, but they are expensive and need to be properly funded.
“The dean’s advocacy role is really crucial to argue for those types of resources to make the initiative a success,” Blair said.
Blair said the dean of CLASS needs to help people understand what the liberal arts has to contribute in terms of fostering critically literate citizens who can communicate and speak ethically. She said she will also be concentrated on making sure students can find work following graduation.
“In the end, we are fostering a liberal arts education, but that liberal arts education has to have an endgame, and that endgame is full-time employment for our students at both the undergraduate and graduate level,” Blair said.
Blair said she will focus on implementing policies that help the College meet its goals and further the University’s mission.
“I think policy is the roadmap to governance, so I think policy gives us a way to establish that type of collaborative commitment and shared vision,” Blair said.
Scott-Johnson visited campus on Wednesday and said she was drawn to YSU by the university’s strategic plan.
“Not only is it dynamic, but the mission and the vision of the institution as written in that plan is very strong,” Scott-Johnson said. “Your commitment to the community and your commitment to the types of students that come to your institution, is really what made me say, ‘I think I could make a difference here.’”
She said it is critical to increase the University’s graduation rate, retain quality faculty and build and strengthen the college.
“If you don’t have good relationships in an environment, and people operate as individual islands, it doesn’t work as well,” Scott-Johnson said. “You spend a lot more energy because you’re working as groups of one as opposed to a unit of one.”
Scott-Johnson said her management style involves collaboration and communication.
“It really is about team-building. It really is about coaching,” she said. “I’m one to lead and guide us because as a coach I have accountability.”
Scott-Johnson said CLASS can help other colleges in the University build a foundation for critical thinking. She said they can create a bridge between humanities and the professions to offer a cultural context and philosophical framework.
“Part of that is understanding what we can contribute [to other fields], and being more specific than global,” Scott-Johnson said. “It really comes down to establishing who we are, showcasing who we are, sharing who we are and building partnerships internally and externally.”
Kohli was at the University on Thursday and said she was drawn here by some of the difficulties the University faces.
“I like challenging work environments,” Kohli said. “I think it’s very easy to go into an environment where everything works and you just sort of sit there and hold fort, but that’s not what turns me on.”
Kohli said the dean needs to communicate the value of the college to the community. She said a lot of high school students do not understand disciplines within CLASS because they’re not taught.
“It isn’t that difficult to market the disciplines within CLASS,” Kohli said. “What may be difficult is overcoming the personality distribution that happens in higher education where we are not used to a culture of having to market ourselves.”
She said as an international citizen, she has a unique perspective on the value of an education that follows the U.S. model — with a general education curriculum — because it doesn’t exist in many other countries.
“When they come to school, the general education is a great place for them to encounter our disciplines,” Kohli said. “We need to put our best instructors in our general education classrooms and have them become the people who bring us majors.”
She said we need to maintain and emphasize connectivity with professional programs, perhaps encouraging students in business and STEM to pursue a double major in CLASS.
“We have the skills that almost all employers tell us they’re looking for in their employees, even in areas that require specialized training,” Kohli said. “That training seems meaningless to our employers unless students are able to present a fundamental ability to solve problems through active listening and appraising.”
Additional reporting contributed by Dan Hiner, Gabby Fellows and Alyssa Pawluk.