Former dean of MLFTC shares lessons learned in 'The Successful Dean'

By

Erik Ketcherside
Mari Koerner

Mari Koerner, Alice Wiley Snell Professor of Education

Teachers College Press released “The Successful Dean: Thoughtful Strategies and Savvy Tips for Today’s Evolving Leadership.” The author is Mari Koerner, Alice Wiley Snell Professor of Education and the former dean of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

In 2006, Koerner was named dean of the College of Teacher Education and Leadership, one of three ASU education units. When all of the university’s teacher preparation and education research efforts were united in 2010, ASU President Michael Crow appointed Koerner to lead the newly christened Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She held that post until 2016, the same year she was named Alice Wiley Snell Professor of Education.

Koerner’s experiences as dean of MLFTC and the College of Teacher Education and Leadership were the inspiration for “The Successful Dean.” Her writing is also featured on the Teachers College Press blog. Here, she shares some of the experiences and reminiscences that led to the book.

Why this book? Why now?

There are two answers to that: one from me and one from Teachers College Press. I think about the book as a kind of memoir of my experiences as dean in one of the largest and best colleges of education in the country. TC Press saw the book as coming from a different voice — even though it is a voice from academia — speaking of the usually unspoken rules and role of leadership, with humor and a kind of informality.

Who were you writing for? The title says deans, but how will the non-deans among “today’s evolving leaders” benefit?

I am writing for people who are interested in, aspiring to, or who already occupy leadership roles, and want to think about how their responsibilities play out in both their professional and personal lives.

What stands out for you about your career as a dean? There was a lot of transition going on for ASU’s education programs at the time, a lot of redesign. What was it like?

When I became dean of the College of Teacher Education and Leadership on ASU’s West campus in 2006, it was my first time being a dean, and the outstanding memory is that I loved it immediately. The new ASU provost, Betty Capaldi Phillips, became my mentor. The faculty and staff were supportive and the students were terrific. There was never a dull moment, especially when the three colleges of education merged into one, newly named: Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. I remember trying to make the transition work well, which was sometimes — hopefully mostly — successful. And I also remember that despite the tumult in the beginning, people who stayed wanted to have a college which was both a good working environment and good for students. I was lucky to be the dean at the time of that wave of goodwill, hard work and excitement. But it did also mean lost sleep and long days.

What are your points of pride? Regrets?

I learned that my own rising anxiety when something worrisome happened was simply not good for me or for figuring out answers. It is not helpful for any administrator to lose sleep or wring her hands over troublesome issues and problems. It is better to understand that with good will, trust and bringing in colleagues, things work out — even in ways which may not have been obvious in the beginning.

I have pride in the top-notch new faculty members who were hired, and those who were supported to do outstanding research and teaching. And we served schools in order to improve the education of thousands of students.

Being dean of a college of education is an enormous challenge these days. Why would anyone aspire to it, and who would that person be? What is an ideal dean of education?

Being a dean is a challenge and leadership is a risky position, but it can provide opportunities to push your own and others’ thinking, action and success. It offers ways to establish unique and enriching relationships with myriad people in all kinds of contexts. For me personally, it was transformative. I think differently. I have more understanding of myself and others. Maybe more patience (but do not fact-check with my husband on that one). And, I can say that as part of a team of remarkable people, we did a lot of good.

An ideal dean puts students first and then supports all the people necessary for those students to have meaningful and successful experiences. Good deans always do the right thing — not the expedient thing. They take pride in their work and are committed to their own growth as people and members of the community. Non-negotiable qualities are intelligence, humor, ethics and loyalty.

What’s your next step?

My next step is to do a daily reality check that I am 74 years old and retired. It is a crazy and scary world right now and so much depends on having to live in a world which is safe. That and only that can determine anyone’s next steps.