CLA’s new leader excited to take the reins

John Coleman is starting his first semester as the head of the College of Liberal Arts.

College of Liberal Arts Dean Coleman poses in his office on Thursday. This will be Colemans first semester leading the school.

College of Liberal Arts Dean Coleman poses in his office on Thursday. This will be Coleman’s first semester leading the school.

Taylor Nachtigal

The Minnesota Daily sat down with John Coleman, the University of Minnesota’s new dean of the College of Liberal Arts, on Thursday afternoon.

The new dean of the largest college at the University discussed his goals for the school and how he plans to tackle budget cuts and balancing research and academics.

This is your first year as the dean of the College of Liberal Arts. What are your main goals for the college this year and beyond?

I want to build the research profile of the college to become even more prominent than we already are. I want to have us move on the student experience.

I mean that in two ways: One is thinking about new kinds of [alternatives, like certificates], we can do with instructional delivery — whether that’s hybrid classes or whatever it might be. [And] thinking about technology and other kinds of things we can do to give students a more flexible experience.

And third is making sure we are increasing our capacity to help students transition themselves after campus into careers. So, career development activities, which will include anything as simple as giving students more detailed course descriptions that try to tie course skills to particular career paths, up through developing internship programs, connecting students to alumni … mock interview training for jobs and so on. …

What exactly would the alumni outreach look like?

I think it’s a two-part process: One is alumni feeling like we are speaking to them more and communicating with them more. …

We can do more to make alumni feel like they know what is going on in the college. … The more they have a sense that they have a stake in the college, that also means that they also have a stake in our students. That means they’ll want to help us get the very best faculty here, the best grad students, provide the very best internship opportunities for undergrads and so on.

Is there anything former CLA Dean James Parente, who led the college from 2008 to 2013, did during his time at the school that you would like to change?

One thing people appreciated about Dean Parente was his willingness to speak with faculty, staff and students and understand their concerns and be open and available to them. … I would want to be able to do that as well. [I want to] have people feel like I’m understanding what their concerns are, what their needs are, what they’re worried about and what they may be optimistic about. If I can follow in his footsteps to do that, I’ll be very happy.

Anything specifically that you want to change?

I think the change part is more thinking about what directions we’ll have the college go in. … I want to have us thinking very systematically about what we want to become as a college.

[CLA is] a great college with a great national reputation. I think the reputation and the prestige can be even greater than they are if we are being systematic about what it is we want the college to become, where we want to invest [and] what we want to focus on. …

CLA has faced budget issues in the past, with over $30 million in budget cuts since 2008. How do you plan to work with the existing budget, and what programs or departments will receive the largest allocations?

Part of the issue here is making sure that we are being thoughtful about our curriculum we have. …

The best thing we can do is make this a college that’s an absolute destination. … We’re being very creative about the new options that we develop, whether it’s a certificate or a minor or a cross-departmental initiative or even a connection with another college on campus.

Those are the things that will give students even more options within CLA to do what they want to do and prepare for life after campus. If we do those things, then that starts helping us on the budget side.

In your public interview with faculty, staff and students last fall, you said you’re a “fierce defender and believer” in the value of a liberal arts degree. In your opinion, what makes a liberal arts degree valuable?

There’s hardly any career where being able to problem-solve isn’t what we do every single day. …

The liberal arts are inherently diverse, so that’s the beauty of them. A student who comes through with a liberal arts training has their own diversity in that sense. They know how to think like an anthropologist, like a historian, like an economist, a political scientist, a sociologist, a musician and so on. … They have all these different ways of thinking about problems. That’s exactly the kind of employee that people are looking for now.

How do you plan to promote CLA’s importance to potential students, professors and researchers?

I want us to be really thinking right from the start, “How do we make this the best environment we can make it?” because we’re competing in an international environment for scholars and they have a lot of choices of places to go. So we have to make the strongest possible case that this is the place to be and being in the Twin Cities is the place to be.

An undergraduate student at a research institution should have an experience that is unique and different from what they could get if they went to another state [or] public institution [or] if they went to a small liberal arts college. Those [schools] are all great in their own way, but the combination of the research intensity at a place like this [when] you’re right here, you’re right next to [the research] — we need and want to have you be involved in that. To me, it matters that you are taking a class with the people who are writing the books and articles that they are reading at other schools.

How do you balance the reputation of a great research institution as well as being a great institution for academics?

It’s do you emphasize in the culture that, yes, we want you to be great at research, but we also have as part of our commitment that we are great teachers and we take that seriously and it’s important in what we do. I think the college has that, and we will continue to emphasize that these are not tradeoffs.

Why do you think focusing on research is vital to CLA’s success?

I think research is the foundation. When you attract great researchers here, that has three effects. One is you pull in and attract other great researchers and great graduate students who are going to go on to become great researchers. Two, you attract the best undergraduates who want to be in a research environment …

Third, when you have great research, it is of assistance. We are a public institution; we’re a land-grant institution. Part of our mission is to be of service to the state and [students] beyond the state as well. … and that ends up being, I think, a win-win for everybody involved. …

Do you have plans to increase interactions or collaborations with other colleges at the University?

Absolutely. I think there is a lot of enthusiasm among the deans of the various colleges on campus to think about ways we can create collaborative programming for our students. So we will be very heavily involved in those discussions.

What are you most looking forward to during your time as dean of the largest college at the University?

There are so many great people here, and I’ve started to get to know them. And the opportunity to meet more of our alumni and meet more of our students and [learn] what they’re up to, what they’re doing, what their passions are, what their goals are, that’s just fun for me. I like it.