Q & A with Dr. Particia DwyerJun 13th, 2011 | By admin | Category: Features
Vice President for Academic Affairs
BY DORYANN BARNHARDT ’11
After meeting Dr. Patricia Dwyer, it’s easy to understand why adjectives like “engaging” and “intelligent” are used by colleagues to describe her. In conversation, her demeanor is welcoming, her attention rapt and her speech articulate. As Wesley’s new vice president for academic affairs, Dwyer brings a new enthusiasm and years of diverse experience to the academic leadership of the College.
Since coming to Wesley in summer 2009, Dwyer has already made a lasting impact on the College. Stepping in as the chief academic officer at a time when Wesley was faced with accreditation concerns and an academic office in flux, she led the College to a successful reaccreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education in 2010.
To be sure, no small part of Dwyer’s success lies in her ability to lead effectively. President Bill Johnston credits much of the College’s recent reaffirmation by Middles States to her management style and leadership abilities. “She is very inclusive,” he said. “She doesn’t just hand down edicts or operate in a vacuum.”
The faculty also appreciates Dwyer’s even-handed approach. Dr. Jeffrey Mask, professor of religion, philosophy and American studies, has worked with his fair share of chief academic officers: by his count a dozen in the last two decades. Mask believes Dwyer brings much needed professionalism to the post. He describes her as “intelligent, fair, somebody who strives to do the right thing.” Mask is particularly pleased with her willingness to consider multiple perspectives. “She listens to all of us,” he said. “She does a good job at trying to see what’s good for the whole institution.”
Recently, Dwyer gave Wesley magazine the opportunity to find out more about where she’s been, what she’s learned along the way, and her hopes for the College’s future.
Q.What attracted you to Wesley and why did you decide to come to this institution?
I certainly enjoyed my position at [The College of] Notre Dame [of Maryland], but I wanted to be in a leadership position in which I could make a real difference. When I came for my interview at Wesley, I was told about some of the Middle States challenges and felt that my experience in directing assessment programs at both Shepherd and Notre Dame could be a good fit. I remember having a wonderful conversation with the faculty in the Carroll Room on the day I interviewed. I left the College after a long day of meetings feeling energized. I thought that was a good sign. When I met President Johnston and heard more about his vision for Wesley, I felt even more confirmed. I’m excited to be part of this next phase of Wesley’s growth and development.
Q. You were a high school teacher and an English professor before you became an administrator. How did your experiences in the classroom shape your role and prepare you to be the vice president for academic affairs?
That’s a great question. I’ve taught literature for most of my life, and interacting with students about values, historical and political contexts, and the “big questions” has been so rewarding. At times, students came into the class, especially if the class was part of the general education program, ready to dislike reading poetry or fiction. I often felt that my purpose in those classes was to awaken a curiosity and interest about great writers. Believe me, I wasn’t always successful, but I tried to understand where students were coming from and what would make the readings and discussion relevant and meaningful.
As a chief academic officer, I have the privilege of working with many talented faculty members, all who come with expertise in their disciplines and a sincere dedication to our students. I feel my most important job is to tap the energy of the group, very similar to the students in those literature classes, and help faculty to see that the goals we are striving for are relevant and meaningful and not just another administrative hoop to jump through. I think our recent discussions of the core curriculum are a good example. Over the last eight months, we have had very energetic and insightful conversations about the skills, knowledge and dispositions our students need to be successful as professionals and good citizens. Rather than simply seeing this as an exercise mandated by our strategic plan, I see it as energizing and exciting because we have tapped into what is meaningful to all of us: helping our students succeed by preparing them with 21st century skills.
Q. Why did you make the transition from faculty to administration?
My transition was a gradual one. While at Shepherd University, I became director of the honors program, but I still held faculty rank in the English department. When I became a dean at Shepherd, I continued to teach. I’ve always thought that teaching while doing administrative work is a good way to stay grounded in what we are all about—the students. When I moved to College of Notre Dame, I was not required to teach, but I taught a first year composition class. Last fall, I was able to teach a Wesley Connection class for undeclared students. Getting to know the students outside of my administrative role is wonderful.
Q. You earned your Bachelor of Arts in 1979 and your doctorate in 1995. What did you do in the 16-year span between the two degrees?
After I finished my bachelor’s degree in English, I thought I’d like to go to law school so I volunteered for a period of time at a public defender’s office in Philadelphia and took a few law classes. That experience convinced me that law wasn’t for me, and since I thoroughly enjoyed my studies as an English major, I began exploring master’s programs in literature. One of my college professors told me about the Bread Loaf School of English affiliated with Middlebury College. The master’s program is designed for people who were teaching during the academic year; classes at Middlebury are taught during the summer. Through this program, I studied in both Vermont and Oxford, England. I finished my degree in 1986 while I was teaching high school English. In 1989, I moved to Washington D.C. to start my doctorate at George Washington University. I finished my dissertation and defended it in the fall of 1994 and graduated in the spring of 1995.
Q. What person or persons have inspired you the most in your professional and academic career and why?
My parents are the people who have most inspired me. My father was in advertising and also taught a marketing class in the evening division at LaSalle College in Philadelphia. My mother returned to school to become a nurse after raising five children. As children, we were taken to musicals and museums, and I believe my love for the arts started early on because of them. My parents both so valued education and they made sacrifices to ensure that we received the best education possible. Most of all, they encouraged each of us to find the path we could be passionate about. They were great role models.
Q.What are some of the greatest academic challenges the College faces and how do you plan to tackle those challenges?
We need more faculty to fully staff the majors we have. In some cases, we have only one full-time faculty member teaching in a major. That’s not good for the program or for the students. My plan is to develop a model for adding additional faculty and making sure our salaries are competitive. We need to expand our offerings and choose new majors that fit with our mission as well as the needs in the marketplace. We can’t do everything. What are our strengths? As a liberal arts institution, I want to showcase the arts. I’m thrilled that our newest major is music, and I know, with the commitment of the faculty who proposed the major, that Wesley will create a first-class program. And the arts can have such an impact on the community—Wesley could be a hub for the arts in Dover and the region. As our offerings grow, we will hire faculty with the passion and expertise we need and a commitment to the highest quality teaching. We also need to attract students who are a good fit, who have ability, who want to be challenged, and who would thrive in the small college environment where close relationships with faculty are a hallmark of their academic experience. I would like to see more of our students have the opportunity to study abroad. Opening new worlds to them can be a transformative experience. We need to tackle impediments to travel, and that typically involves financial resources. We must continue to develop and implement data-driven decision making and assessment. We’re getting much better with the addition of Dr. Chul Lee [director of data analysis and institutional effectiveness] and Dr. Colleen Di Raddo [assistant vice president for academic affairs] to our staff, but we could do more to use assessment data to continually improve our programs and institutional effectiveness.
Q. As the vice president for academic affairs, you work very closely with the faculty. What do you think are the greatest strengths of the Wesley faculty? Are there any areas for growth in the faculty that you would like to encourage?
We have a very hardworking faculty who carry a heavy teaching load, serve on countless committees, and who stay current in their disciplines. They take students abroad and organize clubs and student activities. They show up for athletic events and stay after hours to work one-on-one with a student in need. They advise students in their majors and mentor students in undergraduate research, often without compensation. And the thing that amazes me is I have rarely had a faculty member say no when I’ve asked them to serve on a search committee or task force, or to just get together to pick their brains about an idea. I’m really inspired by them.
Q. Areas of growth?
I think when one has worked with colleagues for many years, it’s easy to jump quickly to assumptions about others. I read recently about a CEO who asked her colleagues to embrace what she called “the MRI paradigm”— that is, the Most Respectful Interpretation. I think if we all practiced this, including myself, we could enhance our collegial and productive atmosphere.
Q. “Accreditation” and “assessment” are two buzzwords heard on campus in recent years. Please explain to our readers what those words mean and why they are important to the future of the College.
The College is accredited overall by the Middle States Association, and in November 2010 we received the good news that Wesley was in full compliance with all 14 standards of excellence. The College also has discipline specific accreditations: NCATE for Education, National League of Nursing for the Nursing Department and the American Bar Association for Legal Studies. Assessment is the process of measuring our success at helping students learn the skills, knowledge and dispositions that will enable them to be successful. I remember when I first started working in assessment and saying to faculty, “It is not so much about what we teach, but about what students learn.” Assessment of learning outcomes in our programs helps us measure these goals and adjust programs to better reach them. We also assess to measure our institutional effectiveness. Through surveys we give, focus groups we hold or exit surveys we administer, we discover what we are good at and where we need to improve. The assessment cycle is about continuous improvement both in academic programs and in the various offices throughout campus that serve our potential students or the campus community.
Q.Why is being accredited important to the College?
Accreditation is the stamp of approval from an outside evaluator. Being accredited through Middle States legitimizes all of our programs at Wesley.
Q. More high school graduates are college-bound than ever before, making competition for students fierce among colleges and universities. What can the College do to attract talented students when those students are faced with so many options?
I was recently reading the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. In one section of that book, he writes about institutions discovering what they are great at. He talks about organizations that are good at what they do, but because they offer about the same thing that other “good” organizations offer, they will never be great. When it comes to Wesley, I ask myself, “What is it that will showcase what Wesley is great in?” A few areas come to mind— faculty mentorship and undergraduate research. Wesley is doing excellent work in this across the disciplines. Also we have the potential to create a dynamic and innovative liberal arts core that challenges students and introduces them to new ideas and ways of thinking. We are the only liberal arts college in Delaware. We need to do a better job of translating why that is important and what we can offer that challenges and engages our students. Personalized education: our entire campus community works together on this, from the faculty in the classroom to those who work in the dining hall, from the offices that serve our student needs to student life’s outreach and activities, from the President and Mrs. Johnston’s invitation to students for dessert or breakfast in their home, to the community engagement opportunities we offer. We are very intentional about making sure students know their responsibilities and reach for and achieve those dreams that first inspired them to come to college.
At both Notre Dame and Wesley College, I was attracted to the institutions because they communicated values as an integral part of the educational experience. As a Methodist institution, we emulate the virtues of John Wesley: social responsibility, compassion, inclusion and justice. I see these as a vital underpinning to all we do at the College. We educate the whole person.
Q.What do you think our readers would be most surprised to learn about you?
I was a Catholic nun for 20 years.
Q. Is there anything that you would like to add to our discussion or make sure our readers know?
I feel privileged to serve as the chief academic officer at this very exciting time in Wesley’s history, and I look forward to the College’s evolving growth and development as a truly exceptional liberal arts college.