Provost names new dentistry school dean

The appointment follows controversy surrounding past leadership.

Bryna Godar

Dr. Leon Assael was named dean of the University of Minnesota’s School of Dentistry on Tuesday by Provost Karen Hanson.

Assael, who is scheduled to begin August 1 pending Board of Regents approval in June, was selected by a search committee comprised of faculty, students and staff.

“The University of Minnesota has one of the highest profile dental programs in the country, attracting the best and brightest students, so I am honored to be appointed to this role,” he said in a press release.

Assael was one of four finalists considered for the dean position.

A search committee took into consideration faculty concerns regarding the lack of transparency in the search for an interim dean, said Trevor Ames, the committee’s chair and the dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine. The Minnesota Daily last fall investigated a series of faculty allegations, including a lack of faculty input in choosing the interim dean and purported favoritism by the former dean.

Former Provost Tom Sullivan and Vice President for Health Sciences Aaron Friedman appointed the search committee in September 2011.

“We’re delighted he’s joining us,” Hanson said of Assael. “He brings a wealth of experience.”

Interim Dean Judith Buchanan said she’s excited about Assael’s appointment and was happy with the speed of the search process. She said she’ll meet with Assael to discuss her work as interim dean and his transition into the position.

Since 2003, Assael has been a professor and chair of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the School of Dentistry at Oregon Health and Science University.

Prior to that, he was dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Dentistry.

Michael Rohrer, professor and director of oral and maxillofacial pathology at the University, said he is happy with the appointment.

He called several colleagues at the University of Kentucky, where Assael had served as dean until 2003 and heard only good things about Assael.

“I think that Dr. Assael appears to be a very outgoing person who said he does not like to micromanage.”

Recent school of dentistry graduate Siara Elovich, who served on the search committee, said the finalists were selected from 10 candidates interviewed for the position. The group was narrowed down to five finalists, one of whom withdrew from the process.

Assael’s personality and knowledge set him apart from the other three finalists, Elovich said.

“He is just an all-around great human being,” she said.

Heightened transparency

Ames said that a series of “listening sessions” were conducted with faculty, students and staff and that their input was used to shape the search process. The committee also made efforts to communicate with these groups throughout the process, he said.

“In general, the faculty were very pleased with the interview process, so it seems very consensus-driven,” said David Bereiter, professor and faculty liaison. “I haven’t heard anything else other than that. It’s been pretty positive.”

Jill Stoltenberg, associate professor in the dentistry school, said she felt that previous concerns about transparency were addressed well and that the search committee provided many opportunities for faculty input.

Rohrer said he thought the process was as open and transparent as it could be.

“I’ll think he’ll be a good dean for the school,” he said.

Hopeful for change

Faculty members are hopeful that the new administration will clear the controversy that has surrounded the School of Dentistry in past years.

In extensive interviews with the Minnesota Daily last October, current and former faculty members alleged favoritism and intimidation within the school under former Dean Patrick Lloyd, who served the school from 2004 to 2011.

According to sources within the school, personal relationships factored into hiring decisions, fear of retribution suppressed debate and Lloyd’s autocratic decision-making and micromanagement alienated some faculty members.

When Lloyd stepped down, many saw a chance for change but were disappointed.

Some of the original concerns continued when Buchanan was appointed interim dean, contradicting faculty and student input.

Many sources told the Daily about Lloyd and Buchanan’s relationship, some referring to her as a member of Lloyd’s “inner circle.”

Controversy heightened in August 2011, when Buchanan announced she would appoint her husband to a leadership position in the school, raising concerns of nepotism.

The issue was resolved with the appointment of a four-person committee to chair the department instead.

“The majority of the faculty were OK with that,” Rohrer said. “After that there wasn’t any controversy.”

Lisa Ahmann, an assistant professor in the School of Dentistry, said she supported Buchanan from the beginning and thinks she did “extremely well” as interim dean. Ahmann said faculty members who initially disapproved of Buchanan eventually came to trust her.

“She really tried to make it clear that she was an interim, and she wasn’t trying to make any radical changes — she was going to stay the course until the new dean took over,” Ahmann said. “I think everyone finally determined that they could trust her to do that.”

Friedman said in an interview that while he was grateful to Buchanan for her work as interim dean, he was looking forward to having a permanent dean in place.

In the months before Assael begins his appointment, Buchanan said she plans to continue the efforts she has had in place throughout her term to move the school “in a good direction.”