Deans make campus smaller with personal interaction

University Park, Pa. — Penn State's University Park campus may at first seem daunting to some, and the idea of personally getting to know academic leaders may seem far-fetched. But deans at Penn State's largest campus are finding ways to make it much smaller while getting to know the students in their colleges.

Christian Brady, dean of the Schreyer Honors College, and James Thomas, dean of the Smeal College of Business, are among those deans. Though they frequently have different focuses and tasks in their day-to-day administrative duties, both are passionate about creating a sense of community with their students.

"The community aspect of it has always been an important part of the Schreyer Honors College," Brady said. "I think it's important for the dean to be a part of that."

Added Thomas, "One of our strategic goals is to have a community of distinction. When you're near 6,000 students, that's the bulk of your community and you need to make sure they are included."

One of the most visible — and popular — ways Brady gets engaged with students is through a monthly chat session called Donuts with the Dean. Brady was inspired to have the early morning talks by a similar event held regularly by a colleague at his previous university, Tulane. The idea is simple: Offer up donuts, and some healthier options, along with hot chocolate to students early in the morning in the lobbies of Atherton or Simmons Hall, and while they are there, students can talk with Brady.

"In my position, which is unlike most of the academic deans, I have much more of a student affairs component to what I do," Brady said. "It's important for me to interact with students and find out how things are going. The key is to then find venues and means of engagement that are appropriate to that. Donuts with the Dean worked because students are getting up and heading to class. Food is always something to bring students in."

Approximately every week and a half, Thomas similarly positions himself in a highly visible location — the atrium of the Business Building — and puts up two signs stating "The Dean Is In."

"I think students have a sense of access that is greatly appreciated," Thomas said, adding that many students query him on issues related to the value of their degree and how to leverage their academic work to get where they want. "They'll have some pretty good questions and they have an ability to get tough questions answered. There are a lot of layers that have been diminished, and that's important at any institution."

Thomas pointed to Penn State President Graham Spanier as a prime example of leaders opening up to students, noting Spanier's stay in the residence halls on move-in weekend and readiness to respond to students.

"He's accessible and will readily engage with students," Thomas said. "I think that's what we should be doing. The goal of being student-centered is a noble one, and I think all deans are behind that. These are just some of the ways I do it."

Spanier, in fact, attended Brady's Donuts with the Dean in the spring. Like most of the events, students stopped by to discuss a broad range of topics from current affairs to campus issues to academic work.

"It's something students pay attention to and look forward to it," Brady said. "Some may only come and spend five or 10 minutes, but others spend the whole hour, talking about issues and topics. I regularly try to ask them about the programming we have going on, or difficulties they are having with courses."

Both Brady and Thomas acknowledged they would be remiss if they limited their engagement with students to these periodic conversations. So both have integrated connecting with students into their professional lives.

Brady is actively involved with many programs in Schreyer and has a meal plan so he can have lunch with students on campus several times a week. He dines with the Schreyer Student Council executive committee members once a week, and even got auctioned off in the council's date auction. He took the six students who bought him and the council out for a night of bowling.

"I try to stay very involved with them so they know I am accessible and they don't feel like there is a wall between us," Brady said. "When they see me out on the quad they are welcome to shout at me and have a conversation."

He also takes a major role in Schreyer Honors Orientation, or SHOtime, a three-day orientation in which Brady takes part in fun events such as hosting a late night "talk show" and having meals with new students. Among other programs, he also takes part in the Simmons Atherton Social Hour (SASH), which brings together the two honors residence halls for themed gatherings.

Thomas, meanwhile, serves as an academic adviser to Smeal students, taking on 25-30 students a year. Students are frequently surprised to learn the dean is also their adviser.

"I always get the e-mail that says, 'It's a coincidence, but the dean of the college is also named Jim Thomas.' It's always a big surprise," he said.

Additionally, Thomas offers an open invitation to speak with the nearly 40 student organizations in Smeal, with some groups having him talk on a regular basis. He holds the Business Roundtable with the heads of each student group every semester, and dines with students and groups on a regular basis. He makes sure that college committees are rich in student representation and that students have input into new intiatives. Carrying on a tradition from his prior post as dean of the College of Information Sciences and Technology, he hosts Town Meetings with MBA students as another venue for students to voice their ideas.

"It's important people see there is a leader, and also it's a great way to take the pulse of what is going on at the second-largest business school in the United States," Thomas said. "If I just sit up in this office, layered and protected from everything, there's no telling what I' m going to hear or get. These are direct links into understanding what this college is about — what we are doing well and what we can do better."

Brady and Thomas said they find interacting with students on a regular basis to be vital to their positions and rewarding.

"These are very positive things," Brady said. "I've had students tell me they appreciate the accessibility, and it is certainly worth my time and energy. It gives me a real opportunity to be with students face-to-face and remind them that I really do want to hear about these things and engage with them."

"These are my stock options," Thomas added. "That's what we're in the business for. There's the personal satisfaction with being able to engage students and have a way of them being able to get their insights to us. I love interacting with students, but these are also wonderful channels to figure out what's going on — good, bad and indifferent — in the college."

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Last Updated January 10, 2014