Dean David Monk leaves lasting legacy of caring

Annemarie Mountz
June 19, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For the past 20 years, David H. Monk and the Penn State College of Education have gone hand-in-hand. The dean's easygoing manner, even-keel management style and quirky sense of humor made him a favorite of faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the college.

What most people do not know is that Monk very nearly did not become dean of the college. When the previous dean, Rodney Reed, retired in 1998, Monk was among those nominated for the position.

David H. Monk

David H. Monk

IMAGE: Annemarie Mountz

"My daughter was finishing up her junior year in high school," Monk said. "I couldn’t see pulling her out of high school and the thought of coming down here by myself didn't appeal to me very much. So, the timing wasn't quite right and I declined to become a candidate."

The position remained unfilled, and Ed Herr was named interim dean while the University embarked upon a new search.

"They came back to me and said, 'by the way, we're redoing the search and what do you think now?'" Monk said. 

His daughter was a high school senior at that point, so the timing was much better and Monk agreed to become a candidate and ultimately accepted the deanship … and his daughter became a Penn State student.

"I've often told the story of how I'm the first person in my family to have a Penn State connection and that in the past 20 years just about everyone in my family has become connected to Penn State," Monk said. "That seems to be the way that Penn State rolls. It's been and continues to be a wonderful ride, and we're very grateful."

Not only has Penn State had a lasting impact on the Monk family, but also the Monks have had a lasting impact on Penn State. Last fall, he and his wife, Pam, announced a $1.5 million estate gift commitment to the college. At the retirement reception for Monk, it was announced that donors to the college contributed generously and created a gift fund in honor of Monk’s tenure as dean. The fund will be designated for a high priority use in the college.

"I want to thank everyone who has contributed to the fund. It's really quite amazing for me to learn that more than $80,000 has been contributed. That's truly remarkable," Monk said.

Monk will designate it as an early-activation fund for the one of the endowments he and Pam created with their estate commitment. That endowment is focused on their interest in the role personal narrative can and should play in pedagogy and leadership.

"Stories play a key role in my life as well as in Pam's life, and we're delighted that the college doesn't have to wait until we die before some meaningful activities can begin around the role of narrative in pedagogy and leadership," Monk said. He said they are planning to contribute to the early activation fund as well. "So, with some luck real things will begin happening soon and will continue happening," he said.

Fond memories

Simon Corby, the college’s director of development and alumni relations, began his relationship with Monk when he joined the college in 2015. They have spent a lot of time together since then, on trips to visit alumni and donors.

"There are many examples of closing larger gifts that have impacted the college, such as the Krause Learning Space and Chambers bridge renovations, but my favorite memory is driving over a mountain pass in Southern California from San Diego to Palm Springs," Corby said. "It's an extremely steep, narrow and twisted road through the high desert and there are many switchbacks and ravines. It was the quietest drive we ever had together. Dean Monk was looking over the edge of the road into the canyons and I think he was a wee bit relieved when we finally drove down off the mountain."

Travel seems to be a theme among those who shared fond memories about Monk. On one occasion, he was the keynote speaker for an International Vocational Education and Technical Association Conference in Honk Kong.

"After his informative presentation, we went on a shopping trip and had suits and shoes custom-made in two days," said Edgar I. Farmer, emeritus head of the Department of Learning and Performance Systems. "We also traveled to Taiwan on several occasions to meet, greet and have fellowship with Penn State College of Education alumni who were presidents of their respective universities. These were the best of times of witnessing Penn State alumni in top leadership positions in Taiwan. I still have fond memories of David, Pam and myself serving as faculty members at National Taiwan Normal University during the summer of 2013."

Greg Kelly, senior associate dean for research, outreach and technology in the college, first met Monk when he was a graduate student at Cornell.

"I don't recall many details, other than he was named department chair and I remember thinking he looked too young to be a full professor and department chair. But I figured it was about competence, not age. Turns out, he still looks too young — too young to resign as dean anyway," Kelly said.

Kelly's favorite memory of working with Monk took place a few years ago, after a town hall meeting with students.

"The group was primarily undergraduates who for about two hours had peppered us with questions and suggestions for improving the college. Walking back to our offices, we were both admiring the hopefulness, commitment and enthusiasm of our students, noting that this is why we come to work every day. It was a moment of solidarity in recognition of the value of the students we serve," Kelly said.

'It's about the people'

For Monk, interactions with people are at the top of the list of things he likes most about being dean.

"It's the people, it's the community, it's the dynamic that exists within the unit," he said. "I think one thing that's really appealing about Penn State as an institution and the college is that what pervades it is a 'can-do' spirit. People face challenges, but the default frame of mind is, 'Well, we can figure that out. Let's put some effort into it and let's get some help along the way.' So that's really appealing and to be a part of that is very enjoyable."

Kelly attributes the college's strong sense of community to Monk.

"Dean Monk's greatest accomplishment is the community he built in the college," Kelly said. "He has done this by attracting talented faculty, students and staff. He has worked with colleagues across the college and University to create a positive and welcoming community that values people."

Kelly sees this as a big reason for Monk's success over the past two decades.

"There are many reasons why Dean Monk has been successful in leading the College of Education. I believe principal among them is his belief in people and his commitment to human dignity. He cares about people. He uses dialogue and deliberation to bring in the expertise of others and diverse options before making important decisions. This shows his respect for the views of others, and also leads to informed decisions."

— Greg Kelly, senior associate dean for research, outreach and technology, College of Education

"There are many reasons why Dean Monk has been successful in leading the College of Education. I believe principal among them is his belief in people and his commitment to human dignity. He cares about people. He uses dialogue and deliberation to bring in the expertise of others and diverse options before making important decisions. This shows his respect for the views of others, and also leads to informed decisions," he said.

Farmer agrees. "David's transformational leadership style and caring personality are sustaining attributes of his legacy as dean of the College of Education at Penn State University," he said. "His vision and commitment for developing an inclusive culture in the College of Education to recruit and sustain a world-class, cutting-edge faculty has contributed to his success in leading our college."

Corby, who has been at Penn State for 15 years, said Monk is the best dean he's ever worked for.

"He has led the college through a period of great change and managed to do so with an unmatched integrity, a genuine concern for people, and a consistent good humor and positive outlook," Corby said. "He is a very decent and humane person. He is whip-smart and yet has very little ego. Above all, he genuinely cares about the mission of the college and truly embraces all the challenges that leadership brings through a very strong work ethic."

Over the past 20 years, it has become clear to many that Monk seems always to be thinking of others.

"I owe my Penn State tenure to David Monk," said Bobbi Korner, dean of the College of Arts and Architecture, who also is retiring. Korner said Monk reached out to her when he chaired the search committee for the College of Arts and Architecture's dean position 12 years ago.

"His gentle persuasion to submit my materials, his kind spirit during my interview time on campus, and his subtle sense of openness and humor, all proved to convince me that Penn State was a special place," Korner said.

"He served as a key mentor during my early years of transition and continues to do so today. He's a strong, empathic leader who leads with heart and head in quiet ways that make a huge impact. His legacy at Penn State and his impact on the field of education is obvious; equally significant has been his impact on individual lives and leaders in other areas," she said.

Friends of the college Harry Kropp and Ed Legutko will miss their interactions with Monk, which began in 2003.

"When we sent our first donation to the College of Education, Dean Monk followed-up with a personal phone call to our house," they said. "We were not at home to receive the call but Dean Monk left a beautiful message on our answering machine. When we heard the message, we were very surprised that the dean of the college would take the time to place a phone call to us. His words and sentiments were so beautiful that we kept that message on our answering machine for a long time. We were, and continue to be, impressed by his thoughtfulness."

Kropp and Legutko point to the relationships Monk has built as what they see as his lasting legacy.

"Dean Monk has many accomplishments and achievements over his 20-year tenure, but his relationships with others — including donors, faculty, staff, alumni and students — are outstanding. The example that he shows every day in how he works, how he lives his life and relates to others is outstanding," they said.

'Tremendous success'

Throughout his tenure, Monk demonstrated that it is possible to care deeply about people and in sustaining a collaborative community environment, and still be successful in the ways a dean's success is typically measured.

"David has cultivated an environment where teamwork and collaboration are valued and encouraged, which has contributed to attracting top faculty, staff and students to the University."

— Nick Jones, Penn State executive vice president and provost

"The College of Education has seen tremendous success under the leadership of David Monk, and enjoys an extremely strong reputation as being one of the best education colleges in the nation because of his hard work and commitment to excellence," said Nick Jones, Penn State's executive vice president and provost. "David has cultivated an environment where teamwork and collaboration are valued and encouraged, which has contributed to attracting top faculty, staff and students to the University."

Faculty in the college have a robust research agenda, and are funded by such diverse sources as the National Science Foundation, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the U.S. and the Pennsylvania Departments of Education, the Spencer Foundation, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the Society for the Study of School Psychology, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Google, the William Penn Foundation, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Career and Technological Education, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and others.

"One of the distinctive things about the faculty here is you don't have a split between research and teaching. We have a research-oriented faculty, but they see the complementarities that can and should exist between their research and teaching and they're genuinely interested in professional preparation and the teaching that they do," Monk said. "That connectedness is pervasive throughout the whole college. It's precious and I'm not quite sure how we managed to do it, but we need to keep doing it. It makes us quite distinctive, and I think it makes the college attractive to potential faculty candidates and students."

Under Monk's leadership, the College of Education also has become a place that alumni and others want to support with their philanthropy. In Monk's first year as dean, the College of Education raised $1.4 million. As of early June, the college has raised $6.9 million in commitments and receipts this fiscal year alone.

Overall, in Monk's 20 years as dean, the college has raised more than $80 million, including $32 million in the University's last fundraising campaign, "For the Future: The Campaign for Penn State Students," which ended in 2014. Nearly a third of the faculty and staff in the College of Education, both active and retired, collectively contributed nearly $900,000 to that campaign.

Since the start of the current fundraising campaign, "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," the college has raised more than $15.3 million, or 88 percent of its $17.5 million fundraising goal, with two years remaining in the campaign.

In 2017-18 the College of Education awarded more than $1.6 million in scholarships to a total of 340 students, with a $3,600 average individual scholarship award.

"Under David's leadership, [the college] has far exceeded expectations of securing financial gifts to increase funding of scholarships for College of Education students. David has raised the bar of philanthropy, including, but not limited to, the increase of donors giving for scholarships that will sustain our College of Education as a cutting-edge institution of higher learning," Farmer said.

'Twisted' path to the dean's chair

All this, from someone who never planned on becoming an administrator. Monk describes his path to the dean's chair as a "twisted" one. He was "interested and impressed with what schools did" because his father was the local high school English teacher, and was well-known and highly respected in the community. "That made a pretty deep impression on me," Monk said.

"And then, somewhere along the line, I got interested in economics and resource allocation," Monk said.

He went to Dartmouth, majored in urban studies, and ended up teaching elementary school in an intern program that the college operated in Jersey City, New Jersey, in the early 1970s.

"Dartmouth didn't really have an education major, although they did have a small education unit, and the professors there did not like the intern program that I was in because they didn't think it was properly resourced or supervised," Monk said.

"The idea was 'let's go to the inner city. We're smart people, and we can be helpful.' So, there was some arrogance to it," Monk said.

The Dartmouth education faculty was reluctant to embrace the program because they felt the interns were well-intentioned, but they were not well-prepared to enter a classroom and teach.

"They were the enemy. We were doing God's work in the inner city and they were being fuddy-duddy, education fuss pots that were just giving us a hard time," Monk said. "During this time, I did not have much regard for education professionals in universities. So, it's kind of ironic that I ended up as the dean of a college of education."

Monk did take some education courses and was certified to teach in New Hampshire. However, New Jersey did not recognize the New Hampshire certificate, so he taught in a private school.

"I remember going to Jersey City State at the time and sitting there and going over what I would need to do to get a New Jersey certification," said Monk. "The answer was, 'Well you have to quit your job and come and be a Jersey City State student for two years to get certified.' I said, 'I don't think so,' and that was that."

Ironically, if he had been able to get certified, he probably would have pursued a career as an elementary school teacher and just gone on that path.

"My wife, Pam, was trained as a teacher, so we probably just would've stayed on in New Jersey somewhere," Monk said. "But those education people with all their fussy requirements pushed me out of the nest, so to speak. And I ended up in graduate school at the University of Chicago, studying economics."

While he enjoyed the topic, he missed the interactions with people he had as a teacher.

"It was a night-and-day difference in my life, and I didn't like it a whole lot, so I was struggling," Monk said. "And then I stumbled upon a course that was listed in the course catalog called educational finance. I didn't know there was such a thing and I thought, well that's kind of interesting. Maybe there's a way to put these two things together."

There was, he did, and it was life-changing. He ended up staying at the University of Chicago for his doctorate. When he graduated in 1979, he was hired at Cornell University.

"It was a temporary faculty position, so my title was visiting assistant professor and it was a two-year appointment, but things worked out and they retroactively made it a tenure-line position, which is kind of unusual," Monk said.

After 15 years at Cornell, he became department head.

"It wasn't really the goal that I had, but it seemed like a good, reasonable thing to do and I thought maybe it was a way I could help out," Monk said.

Monk was a department head for five years, and then reached a crossroad, realizing that he liked administrative work, but if he pursued that track he would probably have to leave Cornell. It was around that time that Penn State opened its first search for a new dean.

"As I thought about it, I realized that there's something very appealing about the dean's role. I think it's the best job in higher education because you have some focus to it. … I just kept coming back to realizing that this is a very special role, especially at Penn State, and I didn't want to leave. It turned out to be a 20-year assignment for me and even now it's hard to step away."

— David Monk

Over the years, he has been approached by search firms about becoming a candidate for various other university administrative positions.

"As I thought about it, I realized that there's something very appealing about the dean's role. I think it's the best job in higher education because you have some focus to it. It's a portfolio of responsibility with some definition. So, as I pondered pursuing other opportunities, I just kept coming back to realizing that this is a very special role, especially at Penn State, and I didn't want to leave. It turned out to be a 20-year assignment for me and even now it's hard to step away."

Plans for the future

While Monk was due to step down on June 30, he has agreed to stay on as dean through the end of August, until the new dean, Kimberly Lawless, begins her tenure in the role on Sept. 1.

Once he does leave the dean's chair, he will return to faculty and begin a phased retirement, working with administrative interns.

"These are people preparing to be principals, located in schools distributed around Pennsylvania. They work with a mentor principal and a faculty member from Penn State. I'll be the Penn State faculty member helping them navigate the administrative responsibilities, helping it become as rich and valuable an educational experience as we can make it," Monk said.

In addition, he has some writing aspirations and projects he'd like to work on.

Kelly wonders if some of those projects might include things Monk mentioned over the years at college gatherings.

"There have been many (let's call them) 'research studies' that he proposed, but never had the time to do. These studies were often of utmost importance, ranging from questions exploring the frequency with which leaves land top-up or bottom-up on the grass in autumn, to the computation of geometric factors of various snowflake sizes. Now, maybe he'll have time to complete these studies," Kelly said.

Kelly cited those "research studies" as just one example of Monk's sense of humor, which is what he said he will miss most.

"As hard as any day ever was, he always had a positive attitude, kept in good spirits, and was ready to deliver a one-liner to keep things relaxed. Of course, his sense of humor included many stories, first about grandchildren, and then about puppies, and then sometimes about grandchildren with puppies," Kelly said.

The good news for those who are sad to see Monk leave is that while he will no longer be dean, he will still be part of the college.

"What's kind of pleasing to me is even though my role is changing, I'll stay connected to the community," Monk said. "It will be as a faculty member for a period of time, then I'll be an emeritus faculty member, and I will always be a donor. So, I'll stay connected in many ways. I'm very happy about that. This place touches you deeply.”

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Last Updated June 20, 2019