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Q&A: Hess begins tenure as dean of UW-Madison’s School of Education

August 01, 2015

Diana Hess starts her position as the next dean of UW-Madison’s School of Education on Saturday, Aug. 1.

Hess, who had served as senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation in Chicago since September 2011, becomes just the ninth dean of the School of Education since its founding in 1930. She is replacing Julie Underwood, who is returning to the faculty after a decade of serving as dean.

Diana Hess
Hess
Hess began her education career as a high school social studies teacher in Downers Grove, Illinois, in 1979. During her time there, she became president of the Downers Grove teachers’ union before working as the associate director of the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago from 1987-95. Hess next headed to the University of Washington-Seattle, where she earned her Ph.D. in 1998 from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, with extensive coursework in educational policy and law.

Hess is no stranger to the UW-Madison campus, having worked as a faculty member with the nation’s No. 1-ranked Department of Curriculum and Instruction from 1999 until 2011, when she went on leave from the university to begin her post at the Spencer Foundation.

Prior to starting her tenure as dean of the School of Education, Hess sat down for a question-and-answer session. Following is an edited transcript:

Question: What excites you most about becoming dean?

Hess: I’m very excited about working with the top-flight faculty and staff in the School to build new programs that enable us to more effectively respond to the changing needs in society. A lot of the existing programs are fantastic, but I think that across the School there’s a real enthusiasm for thinking about new things that we could do to fulfill our mission.

Question: In March, U.S. News and World Report for the second straight year ranked UW-Madison’s School of Education as the No. 1 public school of education in the nation. As you take this position, what do you sense are the School’s strengths?

Students walking out the School of Education's Red Doors
UW-Madison's School of Education was
ranked as the No. 1 public school of
education in the nation according to the
most recent U.S. News and World Report
ratings released in March.
Hess:  The diversity of the School of Education – having such a wide range of departments, centers and programs – is not only unusual, but is a great strength. And the quality of these diverse programs clearly accounts for our top ranking. There is no school of education in the country that combines quality with diversity in substance and methods like we do. In all, 10 specialty programs within the School were recognized this year as being among the very best in the nation, with our programs in Curriculum and InstructionEducational Psychology and Rehabilitation Counseling earning No. 1 rankings from U.S. News. That’s remarkable.

But we also have very strong arts programs, with the Department of Theatre and Drama just entering the School and joining our highly regarded departments of Art and Dance. We have an excellent Department of Kinesiology that leads the health fields in so many ways. In addition to our 10 departments, we have excellent research centers, including the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, one of the oldest and most productive education research centers in the world.  The School is also the administrative home of the Morgridge Center for Public Service, which does so much to involve students in meaningful service with the community. The highly innovative Tandem Press also resides within the School, and the list goes on and on. It’s a wonderful combination you don’t see anywhere else. I’m very interested in learning more about the synergy that already exists, and that can be further developed, among these departments and programs. I don’t think all the component parts of the School need to connect to one another in the same way, but collaboration between and among them is important. Without that, we are not fully taking advantage of this diversity.

Question: Are there any negatives associated with having to lead a School of Education that houses so many programs that one typically doesn’t associate with schools of education elsewhere?

Hess: One of the reasons I wanted to return to UW-Madison is because the School of Education is so comprehensive, diverse and large. So I really do see that as a tremendous strength. That being said, I will clearly start off knowing more about the departments and programs in the school with which I have had direct experience, so I’m going to spend a great deal of time making sure I really understand fully what’s going on in all the departments, centers and programs across the School.

Question: Where are some areas within the School that you’ll be paying especially close attention to as you begin your position?

Students celebrate graduating from the School of Education
Hess says finding ways to attract and support a
diverse array of talented students will be a priority.
Hess: Continuing to attract and support a diverse array of talented students needs to be a top goal and area of focus. We are in competition with many private institutions with greater financial resources, so our focus needs to be on how we can attract and retain students – both undergraduate and graduate students. We will need to rely even more on the incredible generosity of donors in the future. Dean Underwood has done an amazing job raising funds for the School. Unfortunately, it appears that public funds for higher education will continue to decline – at least in the near term. So one of my primary responsibilities will be to raise funds – for student scholarships, for new programs, to support research, and for the important outreach work that is the heart and soul of this university.

I also want to get a good sense from faculty and staff of what their dreams are as they look to the future. I’m really interested in hearing what people would do if they could build any kind of program they wanted or if they could create any kind of class that they wanted or if they could conduct any kind of research that they wanted to do. There are probably many people across the School who are doing exactly what they want to be doing right now, and we need to make sure that their work continues to be supported. But I think some people would say, “I really have this aspiration to create a new center on X,” or “I really think we should have a new undergraduate program that focuses on Y.” I want to listen very carefully so I understand what faculty and staff yearn to do. I think what makes universities such wonderful places is that you have opportunities for such great creativity, so I’m interested in learning what people want to do and supporting them in whatever ways I can. I’m interested in innovation, and in the many conversations I have had with faculty, staff, alumni, current donors and potential funders, it is clear to me that others are, too.

Question: You bring to this position some unique perspectives as both an insider and an outsider. You spent more than a decade as a faculty member with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction but had been on leave as senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation in Chicago. Tell me how your time with the Spencer Foundation may have altered your perspective on the realm of education.

Diana Hess pull quoteHess: When I went to the Spencer Foundation I wanted to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the challenges confronting education and the ways in which high-quality research and scholarship could contribute to meeting those challenges. Like a lot of scholars, I had been in my research niche for quite some time. I wanted to look more broadly at education – in and out of school, and from early childhood through graduate education. I spent a great deal of time at the Spencer Foundation working on all sorts of things that were entirely different from what I had done in my role at the UW. My time at Spencer also allowed me to gain a much better understanding of how the foundation world works. Spencer is unique in that it primarily funds research. But Spencer staff also participated in collaborative projects with other foundations that typically fund programs. Knowing about how the foundation world works and how we can better make connections between that world and the needs we have here should be helpful.

Question: On the research side of the equation, what did you learn during your time at Spencer?

Hess: I gained a deep appreciation for why we need many different kinds of high-quality research and scholarship. The Spencer Foundation funds scholars from many disciplines who use many different approaches to research. And they study a vast array of topics. While I had always respected many different kinds of research and scholarship, at Spencer I gained a more robust understanding of how critical this diversity is to making meaningful progress on important problems. I think that understanding is going to serve me well because one major strength of this School is the breadth of the research that’s being done.

Question: Before you took the route of academia, you spent several years as a high school teacher, a teachers’ union president and the associate director of the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago. How did that period shape you as an education leader?

Hess: More than anything I loved, and still love, teaching. When I started teaching it was at a very, very large high school in Illinois. No high school in Wisconsin is even remotely as large. And while at that school, I was mentored and taught how to teach by teachers who had graduated from UW-Madison’s teacher education program. This group of teachers had created one of the most innovative social studies programs in the country and they had very high standards for what constituted high-quality teaching. Luckily for me, they were willing to spend the time it took to make sure that I too developed the pedagogical skills that were needed to pull off an innovative curriculum. So even though I didn’t do my teacher education here, I was the benefactor of our excellent teacher education program.

And very early in my tenure as a teacher, I joined the union’s bargaining team and learned how complex education policy is, how important it is to balance the needs and interests of various stakeholders, and what can be done to reach agreements that are not based on sheer power politics. After negotiating a few contracts, I was elected president of the union and worked very closely with the school and district administration, the school board, and local legislators. Those leadership roles taught me how to work with different people who had different needs and interests. It also taught me that facts matter, inquiry matters and leaping to conclusions is almost always a disaster. The Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago is a non-profit, non-partisan civic education organization that develops and runs all sorts of programs to help teachers teach students how to engage effectively in political and civic life. I primarily ran programs and led professional development opportunities for teachers all over the United States and in central and eastern Europe.

Question: These are interesting times for both public higher education and public PK-12 education – both in Wisconsin and across the nation. Can you tell me about some of the challenges public education is facing today at all levels – and also some of the opportunities that may be out there.

Hess: The primary challenges for public education are tied to lack of respect for public institutions in general. We need to rebuild the public’s faith in public education, because if we don’t we’ll cease to function as a democracy. You just can’t have a democracy without a strong and healthy public education system. My sense is that higher education, in particular, is going to change more dramatically in the next decade than it has in the past 50 years. And that’s the opportunity – to make sure these changes are responsive to the needs of the people.

The Political Classroom book cover
"The Political Classroom," which
was co-authored by Hess, was
published this past winter.
Question: You’ve done a lot of interesting and important work in recent years related to examining ways to help teachers talk about difficult – potentially controversial – political topics in the classroom. This past winter, you and Paula McAvoy published, “The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education.” How does your work on this subject help you talk about some of these educational hot-button topics when speaking with others?

Hess: In my research, teaching and the work I have done at Spencer, I have had many opportunities to learn about how young people and adults talk with others about controversial issues and what impact those discussions have on high-quality decision-making. I am hoping that this background is helpful in my role as the dean. While there are many points of agreement within the School of Education, there are also important disagreements. Outside the School of Education, many education and health issues are extremely contentious. I have personal views on a lot of those issues – as many people do. We need to deliberate about these issues with respect and vigor. In particular, we all need to listen carefully to those we disagree with if we are to make real progress.

By working together we can build upon the School of Education’s legacy of excellence.

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