The dean of the University of Minnesota College of Design look backs on her busy first year

Interview by Sheri Hansen

As you reflect on your first year as the dean of the College of Design, what are some highlights for you?

It’s been a year of learning, which I enjoy. I now know most people’s names, and I don’t need GPS everywhere I drive; these are small things that make for a good foundation for getting some work done. I’m also getting to know the academic programs and people at the U. I’m on the Twin Cities Dean’s Council. This year, I’m also on the president’s Senior Leadership Team, which is giving me important context for understanding things that are happening in the college.

The biggest thing from the past year has been engaging our strategic-planning process. We call it Coordinated Action Planning, or CAP for short. Through that process, throughout the spring, we engaged a wide array of stakeholders—students, faculty, staff, alumni, retired faculty, members of community groups, and firms with whom we work. And by listening to all of them, we now have a wonderful trove of data suggesting ways forward. The most frequent message we heard in those sessions was one of unity for the college, and we are talking about trying to embody that in some sort of “common core” curriculum.

What do you bring from your previous work as vice provost at the Rhode Island School of Design to developing and improving interdisciplinary programming in this college?

Inclusion of multiple perspectives is inherent in interdisciplinary work, essential to good design, and key to addressing 21st-century problems. RISD, like many institutions of higher education, has some pretty well-developed silos of disciplinary focus. So, the discussion there is about how to better connect the disciplines. Where interdisciplinary work happens most strongly at RISD is in the freshman foundation-year program. Members of the College of Design share this desire to hold strongly to our disciplines while better connecting them.

I also draw heavily on my experience at MIT. At MIT’s Media Lab, they brand themselves as “anti-disciplinary.” Their use of the term isn’t quite tongue-in-cheek, but they understand that it rides on the edge, and that’s part of the ethos. I loved the experience as a graduate student at MIT and then in Media Lab Europe. I led a research group around the notion of everyday learning. We can learn anytime, anywhere, throughout our lifetime.

Students in our working groups had a lot of latitude to choose the team members best suited to projects, from computer scientists to graphic designers, to anthropologists, to urban designers and developers. Project by project, the mix of people would change, and we were able to be very responsive to the stated needs because of the way in which the broad research agenda was framed. I think the value of interdisciplinary work is not just in mixing things up for the sake of it, but in really working with a clear direction and useful outcomes in mind.

How are you working to foster the broader design mindset across several programs and two campuses?

The idea of making the college “whole” pertains to a shared identity, an overall esprit de corps, and better connecting our physical spaces and programs. We are working on all of that.

The notion of a common-core curriculum is a significant concept we’re exploring to help bridge the gaps. It might mean a foundation freshman year, or only a semester. Maybe it’s only one well-positioned course. Perhaps it’s a full year, and it’s the senior year. As we have those conversations and begin to implement the ideas in our different curricula, my theory is that the experience of transfer students will also improve. Our CAP research was a first step toward developing some sort of shared curriculum.

Another big thing that people are calling for is more social space, meaning time as well as place. I think if we take an open and welcoming approach to creating more social space, we’ll get some interesting mixes of people, and over time that will help to improve the sense of social cohesion and shared identity among people in the college.

You are not an architect, but you’ve worked to build connections to the local architecture community. How have Minnesota architects been helpful to you as you’re working on your vision for the College of Design?

My graduate degrees are from MIT, from programs in the Media Lab, in the department of architecture, which was the first design program at MIT. The founder of the Media Lab had gone through the architecture program. Bill Porter and Bill Mitchell, both former deans of architecture at MIT, were very important figures in my development of knowledge about all things design; Bill Mitchell, in particular, became something of a mentor. So, architecture is more familiar to me than people might realize at first blush.

People in the Minnesota architecture community have been so welcoming and curious about what I bring to the table, what kinds of connections I see. There are several architects on the collegiate advisory board. We have so many adjunct faculty who are practitioners in the community, and their input has also been integrated into our strategic-planning data. Local architects have also been wonderful about sharing their views of where the profession is heading and how that impacts the future of our academic programs. They are very much involved, and I’m very grateful for their contributions.

We know that students think about how design can effect social change and solve big problems. How is the College of Design harnessing that mindset?

I’ve been very happy to consistently see and hear in all our programs the idea of designing with rather than for communities. Our students are taught throughout their coursework that they need to be able to collaborate with many different people in the communities with whom they work. It’s hugely important, and I think it’s very well understood in this college.

Data shows that the students in architecture programs are, as a group, much more diverse than the workforce in architecture today. What might help the profession retain this diverse body of students in the years ahead?

We need to change the image of architects in mass media, so young people can see themselves in the profession. We need to broaden our recruiting and provide support for the students while they are here.

The college has much more work to do in this area, which is not unusual. We must have as broad an outlook as we can, be as well traveled as we can be, and be as educated as we can be about what different kinds of cultures and subcultures are like. We also need to make sure that our environment is welcoming, and that we sustain that welcoming attitude and perspective.

We devote a lot of attention to sustaining a multi-perspective cultural climate within the college, which our students demand, and will demand throughout their careers. I’ve also been trying to extend collegiate-advisory-board invitations to new voices, to make the group sitting around that table a lot more diverse than it has been in the past.

We have the benefit of a generational wave of students who bring with them certain expectations about diversity and certain habits, ways in which they’ve already, in their own lives, been able to realize some of the things that older generations are still scratching their heads about. So as today’s students enter the workplace and start their own firms, they will just “make it happen” to some degree.

What’s ahead that you’re most anticipating?

We’re creating a collection of papers written by College of Design faculty and collaborators all around what it means to think like a designer. And more specifically, what it means to think like a designer in the context of a community-engaged university. We have an inclusive editorial team that will be reviewing materials this coming spring and summer, and we expect to have a publication soon afterward.

We’re also already looking out to 2021, the 15th anniversary of the college. We’ll do symposia, exhibitions, and publications. We’ll honor the past, celebrate the present, and create the future for our students and communities.