Q&A with the Class of 2014 college deans

Curtis Chan
April 24, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Recently, Penn State Today sat down with the Class of 2014 college deans — Amr Elnashai of Engineering, Marie Hardin of Communications and Rick Roush of Agricultural Sciences — to ask them about their views and experiences as the academic year draws to a close.

Elnashai joined the College of Engineering in January 2014 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he served as head of its Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Hardin has been a member of the Penn State journalism faculty since 2003 and previously served as associate dean for undergraduate and graduate education before being named dean of the College of Communications in July 2014.

Roush began his appointment as dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences in October 2014, having most recently served as dean of the Melbourne School of Land and Environment at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

Q: Each of you has enjoyed different measures of success in your respective academic careers as teachers, researchers and administrators. What drove your decision to become a dean at Penn State?

Hardin: I came here in 2003 as a tenure-track assistant professor and found a fabulous mentor in Doug Anderson, who was the dean here. I’m one of those relatively rare internal candidates for dean. I became interested because of the opportunities I had to move up. I was promoted to associate department head and various iterations of associate dean, and so becoming dean just felt like the next thing to do.

Elnashai: I started off not thinking of being an administrator at all. In 2004 an opportunity presented itself to become department head and I said, ‘Am I crazy? Of course not.’ Over the next five years, my research program expanded beyond my wildest dreams. At the end of those five years, I asked myself, ‘What more can I do than what I’m doing now?’ It would just be more of the same, so I decided to go for department head. I enjoyed it very much and I said, ‘You know, this is what I want to do for the rest of my career.’ The next step was dean, so I started looking for dean positions.

Roush: Marie, did you start out thinking you wanted to become dean at some point?

Hardin: No, opportunities were offered to me. At some point along the way, I just decided to say ‘yes’ every time a new one was offered.

Roush: I didn’t start off thinking I wanted to be an administrator either. I was at the University of Adelaide when we had a national research center for weed management and the director left and we went casting around for another director. I looked around and thought, ‘I should do this because somebody’s got to do it.’ I thought this would be my contribution to the team in that they needed somebody to take this role. I found that I liked it and people thought I did a good job. People asked me to apply for other things and one thing led to another.

Marie Hardin-DEANSQ&A

Marie Hardin came to Penn State in 2003 as a member of the journalism faculty and was eventually named dean of the College of Communications in July 2014.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Q: So what does it mean to be a dean?

Roush: I figure my primary job is to make it possible for other people to do their jobs better than they thought they could. It’s facilitating the rest of the college to achieve what it’s capable of.

Elnashai: In my case, I look at it as a combination of both leadership and service, leading the institutional direction for academic programs and its research enterprise. At the same time, I am also serving in terms of facilitating the faculty’s and department heads’ work.

Hardin: Yes, I would agree. I think it’s leadership and service and I really like what you said about helping your faculty and your staff and your students do their very best work and reach their potential. And when you can create that kind of environment, you’ll have a very powerful and wonderful place to be.

Q: What are the major priorities for your respective colleges and how do you plan to achieve them?

Elnashai: We want to be more agile, and that means invigorating almost every aspect of the enterprise, from HR (human resources) to IT (information technology) to research management to finances to space. You cannot achieve excellence, you cannot expand the research enterprise without addressing what I mentioned previously. So our priorities are very broad, going from curriculum to research to research management to communications and fund-raising.

Hardin: We have some things in common in thinking about many, many priorities. Having been in the college since 2003, we too have taken a conservative approach in a lot of areas, and that was good for us at the time. But it’s time to move forward, maybe take some risks that we haven’t before. We’re also thinking a lot about curriculum. Obviously the communications industries are changing very rapidly, so that’s a high priority for us. And we’re thinking about how the college can contribute across the University with our expertise.

Roush: Clearly we want to continue improving our research. We want to expand the various avenues for teaching and be a much stronger presence online, nationally and internationally. We also want to have some real impact. There are major issues for agriculture in Pennsylvania: nutrient runoff from farms, issues with pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and so forth. These are real challenges we want to address. I think we’d be pretty disappointed if we just elevated our teaching, just elevated our research and we couldn’t demonstrate increased impact on what we see as some of the great challenges of our time.

Hardin: I would think that unites all of us, right? The desire to raise the impact in the areas we are involved in.

Elnashai: Absolutely. Very true. Very well said.

Q: Speaking of impact, in the relatively short time you’ve been in your respective positions, what would you characterize as your major accomplishments?

Roush: Well for me, just making contact with the faculty and staff and a large group of external stakeholders who have a lot of interests. Understanding what they saw as the strengths, the challenges and problems we ought to address.

Hardin: I can point to some specific things, like our Hollywood internship program — we’re very excited about that.

Elnashai: That’s very nice — can I take part in it? (Laughs)

Hardin: It’s going to be fun. It’ll be great for the students. But more generally, I think, the impact that I’ve tried to make early on is helping our faculty, to think about broader possibilities in terms of the way they can work across departments, and across fields within the college, to be much more innovative in terms of teaching, research and outreach.

Elnashai: There are specific things and general things. I’ll say from the general point of view, maybe the thing I’m most proud of is creating a sense of community. We have a published social calendar, we meet regularly, we meet with all levels and all offices in a regular fashion in a social setting. This summer, we’ll have our ice cream social and this winter is the college breakfast and lunches with various offices and so on. In terms specifics, there’s something that may be very impactful, which are the one-year M.S. and M.Eng. programs that we started. We went from zero to eight full degrees. We went from nothing to a projected number of over 110 master’s students in these program. There are another six in the pipeline to be launched in spring 2016, so we will have 14 new one-year programs — that’s quite a bit.


Richard Roush-Deans Q&A

Richard Roush is dean of Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences and began his tenure at the University in October 2014.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Q: Looking further down the road, where do you see your colleges in the next five to ten years?

Roush: We’ll be doing a lot of collaborations with other colleges and the community in areas such as stormwater management. We’re working more and more with farms and industry to assist in a lot of areas such as nutrient management, improving productivity and profitability, dealing with new federal food safety, so a range of issues. Our college is very strong in a lot of very basic aspects of research that are related to agriculture and I expect we’ll be able to strengthen that substantially as well.

Elnashai: In our case, I think the major change is the size of the research enterprise and graduate program. We have our own institutional thrusts — one in education and five in research. And now we are beginning them in such a way that we’ll start seeding projects internally in preparation for the next large proposal. So when an opportunity comes for a major grant, we are ready to take advantage of it.

Hardin: I think we’ll be more cohesive and more coherent and powerful along the lines of our research. Right now we do a lot of terrific research in the college, but I think we have a lot of room for growth in that area, so I do think we’ll be much more powerful in the research front in a few years. We’re also going to have some exciting curricular innovations as we work with other units on campus in new and exciting ways we haven’t before.

Q: What do you see at the greatest challenges for your particular colleges?

Roush: For us, one of the biggest challenges is budgetary. Three years ago, the state budget cutbacks to the University had a much larger impact on our college than others. With the current concerns about budget in Harrisburg, it’s one of the challenges we still have to address. So, to achieve all the things we’re interested in doing, we need to stabilize the budget a little more.

Elnashai: It is infrastructure for both teaching and research. The college has expanded the number of students enormously, increasing 28 percent in the last seven years — 28 percent of a very large number. We are now the second largest undergraduate program in the country after Georgia Tech. Their engineering college has 1.6 million square feet of space and we have 700,000. But we have 600 fewer students than them —12,000 versus our 11,400. The major challenge is infrastructure in amount and quality because of the lack of investment over the years.

Hardin: I can relate to budget and infrastructure. Another challenge I would add here is how — and we talked about this a little bit earlier — the college has had a relatively conservative approach over time and now it’s time to move forward from that. One simple example: World Campus offerings. The College of Communications is near the bottom in terms of what we offer on World Campus and yet we have really exciting curricular possibilities there. So we need to figure out a way to move forward with the limited resources that we all have.

Q: What do you see as the challenges the University as a whole faces?

Hardin: I think right now we need strong change management across the University. We’ve had various changes in leadership recently, we have changes in the way our technology systems and our instructional systems are being delivered, such as LionPath, for instance. All of these changes — even when they’re terrific, even when they ultimately promise very, very good things — have to be managed.

Roush: I’d endorse that. I would add that I think the current political climate in the state — all the universities in the state, including Penn State — we need to do more to sell what they’re doing for the people of Pennsylvania. It’s very difficult to communicate the value of what we’re doing to the people of Pennsylvania. This is a challenge faced by public, affiliated, associated universities all over the world. We need to do a much better job of trying to help the public understand the kinds of tangible and intangible benefits a strong university brings to the state.

Elnashai: Of course I agree with both my colleagues. I’ll add something different. Our teaching, research and outreach is very advanced, and our organizational infrastructure should be as advanced.

Amr Elnashai-Deans Q&A

Amr Elnashai is the Harold and Inge Marcus Dean of Engineering. Before coming to Penn State, Elnashai served as head of the University of Illinois' Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Q: What motivates you as a dean?

Roush: For me, it’s the opportunity to help create new initiatives that really help stimulate the growth of the college and University and the individuals involved. It’s doing a little bit of matchmaking and bringing people together with different skill sets to build new initiatives that really work.

Elnashai: It’s making a difference through the day. It’s taking pride in other people’s success. When I get emails of someone winning a (National Science Foundation Faculty Early) CAREER Award, or a new center being established or when our success makes the headlines, it’s really what keeps me going.

Hardin: I agree with all of that and I would just add that something else I really enjoy about this job is the variety. In a given day, the many, many things you’re going to do. Maybe I’m the only one who thinks this way, but sometimes I’ll look at my calendar for the day and just know that if I drop the ball over here, I’m going to have so many other chances to do something good for somebody in a different context later on that day, that ultimately the day’s going to be all right.

Elnashai: (Laughs) I hope I can adopt your approach!

Roush: That’s an incurable optimist for you!

Q: What aspect of your previous academic positions do you miss the most?

Roush: I miss not having quite the same opportunity to mentor students either in the classroom or host graduate students. There’s just not anywhere near enough time. I miss not being engaged with students in greater depth. It’s something that got me into University life in the first place.

Elnashai: What I miss the most is research, having new knowledge being created and publishing papers.

Hardin: I miss the teaching and I also miss the writing. So as a former journalist and somebody who really enjoyed the writing part of the research process, just the chance to — I mean, we get plenty of writing, but we don’t do the kind of —

Elnashai: Free thinking, creative unscripted time …

Hardin: Yes, that’s it.

Q: Serving as a dean at high-profile institution such as Penn State is extremely demanding and can be very stressful. What do you do to unwind and relax?

Roush: When the weather improves, I’d like to get out and enjoy the fishing in this region. I have to say, honestly, I’ve gotten to the point where, although the hours are long, I don’t feel I’m stressed. I think part of it is this feedback from people: ‘Yeah this is a great idea,’ or ‘Sure, I’ll support that’ and that helps manage the stress a lot. Every once in a while I’ll kick back and watch a movie or something, but by in large, I don’t feel that stressed in this job and it’s because of this positive feedback. It feeds on itself. You’re spending long hours, but it’s very rewarding because you’re seeing very positive outcomes coming from it.

Elnashai: The same with me. I agree that I don’t feel stressed. People think that I’m stressed, but I felt significantly more stressed when I used to have 18 funded Ph.D. students and I couldn’t fund them or a proposal was turned down. There is a level of fatigue after a while, day after day after day, and the trick is movies. I watch a lot of movies — movies I can get engrossed in.

Roush: Something to distract you for a while.

Hardin: I would agree. At the end of every day, there may be something that I feel stressed about, but if I think back on that day, I can choose to remember the parts of the day that were successes. You figure out ways to manage any stress that you might be feeling as you move forward in your job. What I make sure that I do is take care of my health. I love to run and to be outdoors, to get exercise. I love audiobooks and reading and so just integrating those things into my life is important.

Q: What would you say has been the most rewarding aspect about being a dean at Penn State?

Roush: Just things that I alluded to before — helping build groups, solving problems — problems in a whole range of areas in the environment or farms, from advising ways to approach them to helping people come up with some sort of solution.

Elnashai: I think it’s seeing a good sense of community in the college and the environment and how people are working together more smoothly than before and seeing the institution moving forward.

Hardin: Yeah, I would say the idea of thinking about the institution as a whole, right? We deal a lot with individual people and helping those individual people solve problems, but it’s all in the interest of the community and the institution and that is extremely rewarding.

Q: Is there anything you want the Penn State community to know that you haven’t been able to say, whether it’s about yourself, your role or your academic college?

Roush: One of the things that I’ve felt since I’ve been here is the incredible commitment of people at just about all levels to use the resources of the University wisely. Wherever the source of funding, people take very seriously the responsibilities of the public trust, to do the best possible thing they can with resources for everybody in the state. I don’t know how to emphasize that enough, but I’ve really been impressed at how seriously people take their responsibilities in trying to help the University achieve the best it can with the resources it has at its disposal.

Elnashai: I’ll close with this message to the Penn State community: Penn State is very well recognized. As the flagship of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and one of the top universities in the nation, I feel that our potential is significantly more than what we have achieved. We tend to think internally more than externally. And I think that bringing the outside in will help us realize that our strength can be repackaged and refocused in such a way that would have a significantly bigger national and international impact than we have had.

Hardin: I guess I’ve become convinced over time that what makes Penn State a great place and potentially an even greater place than what it is today is not any one particular piece of the University, but the entire University as a whole working together. I think our unmet potential will be in the entire University collaborating, solving problems together and working on a shared vision. I’m really excited about what President Barron is doing to move us in that direction.

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Last Updated April 27, 2015