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Interview with Dean Allen Berger

Interview with Dean Allen Berger

Extended interview discussing Dean Berger’s take on the future of Augustana, his education and background and how it has shaped his leadership style

Which other universities did you work at before Augustana?

I started my career at a Catholic liberal arts college in Indiana, St. Joseph’s College, where I was a faculty member and eventually an assistant dean. I then spent a year at Franklin & Marshall College, a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania on an American council on education fellowship.

Then I became vice president of academic affairs and dean at a second liberal arts college in Indiana, Franklin College. Then I became a vice president of academic affairs and provost at a public liberal arts college—all my previous institutions have been private. So I shifted to the University of Maine Farmington. I was there for 11 years before coming here.

Is it true that as recently as 2014 the University of Maine Farmington challenged you to the ice bucket challenge?

Yes, and I declined.

What is your education background and what was your university experience like?

I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. The university of Chicago is a top-ranked university worldwide, but it is a very unusual place. It is a world-class research university with a small undergraduate college.

When my wife and I were there the undergraduate college at the University of Chicago had 1800 students and no teaching assistants, no graduate students doing teaching; we were taught by the same professors graduate students were—sometimes Nobel Prize winners. It was an amazing experience and truly focused on the liberal arts. The Universtiy of Chicago since its earliest years has had a great core program.

Anyways, I went to university thinking that I wanted to me pre-med because I grew up in a family that thought that either you became a doctor or a lawyer or you were a failure. The value of my education was discovering all kinds of other interests—discovering who I was as a person.

After considering lots of possibilities, I settled into anthropology; I graduated with a dual major in anthropology and history. I, like many students, was uncertain about what I would do after university and I had little to no idea about what graduate school was or that one could go to graduate school on a fellowship and it wouldn’t cost anything.

When I discovered that was possible, I thought, “Wow, school’s fun and I can continue to go to school and get paid to do it? That’s amazing.” So, I had to make a choice between history and anthropology and I chose anthropology. Then I went off to Columbia university in New York City.

How did your undergrad and other graduate studies shape your approach as you moved into university administration roles?

Well, I’ve always said that you can do just about anything and call it anthropology since anthropology is the comparative study of the world’s cultures. And since anthropological research typically involves field work and participant observation. So, arguably, anthropologists are astute observers and analysts of cultural realities.

Leadership involves understanding the needs and culture of an organisation and formulating with the stakeholders in that organisation, forming a vision of where you’d like to get to and bringing people together around that vision.

I would make the case that anthropology’s a good preparation for that but I would imagine that lots of other disciplines are as well.

Is it true that your introduction to Augustana, or at least to apply for the position of dean, was a bit of a surprise phone call?

It wasn’t a surprise phone call, it was an email. I received an email telling me that I had been nominated for this position and I ignored the email.

A week or so later I got a second email that said, “Did you miss our first email?” And it was a busy time in my life, I was preparing for a trip to China and at the time, I was not on the job market. So I ignored the second email too.

Within about another week, I got a phone call from a very persistent lady from the University of Alberta at the promo office at north campus, Irene, who later became a good friend. Irene embarrassed me into paying attention to her emails. I felt guilty that I had ignored her and so she asked me if I could spare a bit of time to read the materials that she had sent and asked me if it would be alright if she called back in a few days to discuss the opportunity with me.

So, at that point, I was guilted into paying attention. After that Irene called, we had a good conversation, and I told her that, while I was intrigued by the opportunity, I wasn’t sure that applying was feasible because I was leaving for China in a few days and I had a zillion other things to do.

In any case, she convinced me that we could make it work and here we are.

What was it that initially intrigued you about Augustana?

I would say there were a couple things that intrigued me or led to at least an openness to consider the opportunity.

First of all, I knew Roger Epp, my predecessor, we had worked together at the Council for Public Liberal Arts Colleges and I had a lot of respect for Roger. And so I was intrigued with the possibility of being Roger’s successor.

I thought Augustana had an interesting story. It was still very young in its history as a public liberal arts institution having just merged with the University of Alberta in 2004. So, the merger was a recent memory. That offered opportunities to really have an influence and help shape where this institution, more than a century old yet young in this stage of its history, in where it was going.

As an anthropologist, I’ve spent a lot of time doing research overseas, travelling in other parts of the world; Canada wasn’t all that exotic but the opportunity to take up a job outside the United States was attractive as well.

Then I also found the ambition of the University of Alberta attractive. The ambition of the University of Alberta to be a player nationally in the post-secondary sector in Canada and to be recognised as a quality institution internationally.

I was frustrated by the fact that the University of Maine’s system operated on a belief that a scarcity of resources—because Maine was a fairly poor state in the United States—meant that the university system in Maine couldn’t aspire to compete with the top public universities in the United States. I always found that frustrating.

So, those were the reasons for applying. In addition, I had been in my previous job for 11 years. If you’re in a leadership position for eleven years, by that time you don’t really have any more creative ideas because you’ve already shared all your creative ideas, you’ve largely used up the political capital that you had as a new person coming in and I felt I had been very successful as a change agent and we had done some exciting things.

But I also felt that it was probably time for me to start looking at what the next step of my career might be and it was probably healthy for the university to be thinking about new leadership.

The president was also getting ready to retire. I had been asked to serve the following year as the interim president and I wasn’t entirely sure that was a role I wanted to take on. And I certainly didn’t want to work for a new president and have to teach that person how to do his or her job.

All those factors came together for my wife and I to say, “Yeah, let’s go out to Alberta.” The challenge for us was that Becky was a tenured faculty member back in Maine, so it meant giving up her tenure faculty position and coming to a new university.

So, you’ve come back for another 5-year term.

Yeah, the decanal positions in the university—actaully, all the leadership positions in the university—are structured with five-year terms. So, the president serves a five-year term, the vice presidents serve five-year terms and the deans serve five-year terms. The decanal position is renewable for a second five-year term and there’s also a two-term limit.

What was it about Augustana that made you think you want to do another five years?

First of all, we’ve got the Augustana calendar and first-year seminar. I felt an obligation to help ensure a successful transition and a successful implementation, but also to help fundraise for these new initiatives.

Our challenge now is to shift our fundraising away from infrastructure, away from bricks and mortar, to student programs. And what we are working on now is what I’ve been calling an “investors in innovation” fundraising effort.

The Objective Nine of the new strategic plan For the Public Good is something that we need to leverage. Objective Nine, I’m paraphrasing, says we want to invest in Augustana as a leading liberal arts college and as a centre of teaching and learning innovation to the benefit of the entire university.

This is hugely important for us because what we have is the University of Alberta saying that having Augustana is a great value to the entire university and that we need Augustana to help us understand what quality undergraduate education is and advance those principles, not just at Augustana, but across the whole university. And [the University of Alberta is saying that] by using Augustana as a place for pilot projects, as a place to try out new ideas, as a place to invest in innovative ideas related to undergraduate education, the entire university can benefit.

So we now can have an opportunity to make a case that an investment in Augustana is not just an investment in a small campus in Camrose. An investment in Augustana can have a transformational impact on the entire university. That’s very motivating for somebody like me to say “Wow, there’s a lot we can get done over the next few years.”

In addition, I came in here recognising, on the bricks and borders side, that Augustana needed to modernize its teaching facilities. That we needed to renovate and develop additional space in the classroom building and the science extension. That was clearly the highest priority five and half years ago. It’s frustrating to me that we haven’t been able to advance that priority.

In the meantime, we had opportunities to work on other projects. We had an opportunity to get the Performing Arts Centre done, an opportunity to get Founders’ Hall done, an opportunity to build a research station in Miquelon Lake, and an opportunity to create the Wahkohtowin Lodge. In some ways, I would have traded all those away for the opportunity to do the Classroom and Science Building.

So one of the reasons I am still here is because I want to see us reach the point where we have the full support of the university and the money from the province to start moving that project ahead.

We are going to take a baby step this next summer: We have two-and-a-half million dollars and a combination of federal and provincial money to renovate some of the labs in biology and chemistry—three labs and the related support spaces. It’s a baby step but it’s an important baby step so we can start building some momentum for a larger vision. And the vision is not just about labs, the vision is about general purpose classrooms.

We had the vice president for facilities and operations here the other day and it was his first visit to Augustana. I was so grateful that there were lots of classes going on while he was here. So, I had him peek into C-101 to see what C-101 looks like when every chair is filled in that classroom and the miserable teaching and learning environment that that really is.

It’s a classroom that is built for one style of pedagogy, lecturing. It has miserable sight lines and it is excessively overcrowded. And then I led him over to the single large lecture hall and it was full to the brim and was able to see what an inadequate teaching environment that concrete bunker is.

How do you describe your leadership style as a university administrator and how do you aspire to lead as a university administrator?

Well, let me be clear, I find leadership opportunities of higher education far more fascinating that the managerial responsibilities. In fact, I find the managerial responsibilities too often a distraction from the ways in which I would prefer to be spending my time. I don’t think any of us take on these roles because we relish dealing with messy personal situations or we relish dealing with messy student disciplinary situations or all the other kinds of things that crop up in the day-to-day life of the university administrator.

For me, to take on these positions is because you have a passion for quality education, you want to work with other people who have a passion for quality undergraduate education and then, how can you bring people together as I said earlier around an exciting vision. That’s what it’s all about.

So, if we take the Augustana calendar and the first-year seminar as an example, that initiative rose out of questions that I posed to the faculty. I didn’t offer answers to the questions, but I said to the faculty, “Here are challenges that we are facing with regards to our ability to accomplish what we said are critical priorities at Augustana. And if we want to move beyond where we are, we need to take a hard look at the status quo and consider what kinds of changes might enable us to invest in the things we value.”

Those things were experiential opportunities for students such as community service learning, international opportunities for students, connecting the classroom to the larger community and, in many ways, we were doing very well. But, in other ways, we were limited in our abilities to move beyond where we were.

This will be the fourth university where I have led the implementation of a first-year seminar program. My first administrative role was an assistant dean for first-year programs back at my first institution. We started a first-year seminar program there, we did the same thing at Franklin College, we did the same thing at the University of Maine Farmington and now we’re doing it here.

On the other hand, the Augustana Calendar or 3-11 Initiative emerged entirely through research and creative thinking of a faculty committee—it didn’t come out of my head. And yet I had an opportunity to support the work of that committee, to assist them in galvanizing the faculty around the change agenda.

The remarkable thing is, after two years of study, when the faculty ultimately had the opportunity to vote on an ambitious change agenda that arguably was hugely advantageous for our students but clearly would also involve a whole lot of extra work for faculty to implement to prepare for the change, 87 percent of our faculty came together and said, “Let’s do this.” I couldn’t get 87 percent of our faculty on a good day to agree that this colour is blue.

That’s the strength of faculty. Faculty come from different disciplines, different mindsets, different intellectual traditions. They bring a sceptical mind to things that other people may take for granted. They ask hard questions and they demand good answers. They are people who are highly intelligent, highly sceptical and live every day in that kind of culture.

To get them to come together around a common vision with that super majority is a huge achievement. I don’t personally take credit for it. I think we had a cohort of colleagues who were extremely affected in making a case with passion and with enthusiasm and helping their peers come on board.

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