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First candidate interviewed for WNMU Dean of College of Arts and Sciences

As Western New Mexico University reorganizes into five colleges, a search for deans for the colleges has commenced. So far, candidates for the colleges of education and business have been interviewed.

Last week the first candidate for dean of the College of Arts and Sciences was in town.

On the second day of her visit, Tanja Pietrass said: "It has been a very nice stay so far."

She said, although her first focus was on foreign languages—English, French and Latin—because of a high school project in geophysics on the origin of the aurora borealis, she became more interested in the physical sciences.


She expanded on her résumé by saying she had majored in English and French as an undergraduate in Germany, her birth country. Along the way, she switched to the sciences, and during her Ph.D. work, she liked the combination of lab work and spectroscopy. "I had to find out who had the skills to do what I needed to help me. I was the only graduate student with my advisor."

Pietrass said after doing postdoctoral work at the University of California-Berkley, "I was torn between staying in the U.S. or going back to Europe."  She made the decision to go to Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France.

"Then I received an invitation to New Mexico Tech," Pietrass said. "I hesitated because I had never worked at a small school, but I accepted because when I interviewed everyone was so nice." She said she now considers New Mexico her true home.

"Because I had worked at only large schools, instead of operating on a whim, I had to do better planning," Pietrass continued. She rose from assistant professor to associate professor to full professor and became department chair during her more than 15-year stay at NMT.

"In 2008, to seek new challenges, I joined the National Science Foundation," she said. "I had applied for grants and for two year, no grants. I had the impression the foundation was hostile and anonymous. It was completely different."

She served as program director from 2008 to 2011. "When the foundation receives applications, it is an interdisciplinary process. There is a lot of opportunity to interact with scientists from other areas. I learned about acquisitions and regulations." And she is now acting director of the division of chemistry.

She was a representative to the NSF Advance grant recipients. "We worked to retain the underrepresented in the STEM  (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, in gender, race, ethnicity and disable. The goal was to increase diversity."

Pietrass was also a member of the Senior Executive Service, which is the equivalent of a brigadier general or admiral level. Her duties included oversight, management of staff, budget management, serving as liaison to the community, developing and implementing strategic priorities, and substituting for the director.  "Now as the acting division director, I delegate and am the representative to the outside community, and do budget development."

She said she also enjoys rock climbing and cave exploration. "Last Chance Gap is my favorite spot. When I lived in D.C, where there is a lack of topology, every night I did Kung Fu and Tai Chi. I'm also a diver and do competitive shooting."

For her vision for Western, she talked about her experience at New Mexico Tech. "I have 15 years in academia, five years as department chair, and two years as Faculty Senate president. During my five years at the National Science Foundation, I have three years as program director and two as deputy division director."

"I always like to experiment," Pietrass said. "I like to try new things. I was the first to co-teach online for the program between New Mexico Tech and the University of New Mexico. Students all over the state could be involved in their own programs at the university. More important is for the student to be successful. I also did implementation of radio responders in large lecture courses, and I was the faculty sponsor for the climbing club."

She said she believes in effective communication and relationship building. "If I want to achieve something I have to involve all the stakeholders. Before a first meeting, I have to understand the counter arguments. We have to come to a joint agreement."

Her studies include leadership training at Harvard's Kennedy School of Business. "It taught me how to listen. At the National Science Foundation, I could spend 20 percent of my time on research, so I began collaborating with a person I had known since my first post-doctoral work."

"Ethical standards are a must," Pietrass said. "We have to be role models for the students."

At the NSF, awards are made public, but deliberations are not.

"As for diversity, my goal was to change the culture. At Tech, the only non-STEM department was Humanities," Pietrass said. "I included everyone and helped them to succeed. The goal is to establish structures that will support science. I would focus on training the department chairs on how to hire; I would focus on recruitment of faculty and help them succeed. Little changes go a long way.

"At Western, I like that you have your core values on the website," she said. "If I come here, I want to support the WNMU vision. My vision is that we never forget whom we serve, and that is the students. It is up to the faculty to unlock the potential in every student."

She said the first thing she would want to identify at Western is how the College of Arts and Sciences can best serve the rest of the university. "I would want to build upon institutional research. I'm a scientist. I like data and am glad to see the report on retention. I would like to help Western grow in recruitment and retention, but don't grow too fast. You have to make sure each student has personal attention from the faculty. It is critically important to recognize faculty members and support and reward them. We must constantly evaluate student needs and improve services. Community outreach and involvement are critical. We need lots of opportunities for the college and the community to interact."

"I strongly believe in shared governance," Pietrass said. "Top down decisions are not popular, but if people understand why the top decisions are done, then all stakeholders have a voice to make well-informed decisions."

A question-and-answer session followed.

"During your tenure at New Mexico Tech, how many programs did you start," an audience member asked.

"I did not start any new programs," Pietrass said. "We had a bachelors, masters and Ph.D. degrees in the math department. It was hard to get the Ph.D. program, because all the entities in the state have to agree. The Ph.D. was specific in applied math—it filled a niche. I was heavily involved. On the science side here, I see a lack of physicists, but it is healthy to have a strong biology department. In order to offer a well-rounded program, I see room for expansion. The Chicano program needs full-time faculty. These are only my first impressions. I would want to know the needs."

A questioner asked what kind of relationship Pietrass envisioned between the colleges of Arts and Sciences and Education.

"There has to be exchange with all the colleges," Pietrass said. "The College of Education affects all of us. I don't understand enough yet overall how the school works. Each college has to have a spokesperson, but you have to understand all the colleges. We would work with the deans to understand which investment would provide the best benefit for Western."

An audience member asked about research.

"I'm not sure how much grant writing you have in the faculty on tools that are available," Pietrass said. "For grant writing, it is not just the intellectual proposal, but also the presentation that is important. I would like to put my experience at the National Science Foundation to work. I notice you have no vice president of research. I would like to see research grown, but there must be a balance between education and research."

The next audience member said one of the ways the deans have been sold to the faculty is that they would bring in increased revenue.

"I have no experience in fundraising," Pietrass said. "Alumni must be rewarded for their donations and feel valued and honored. Other ways revenues come in are regular tuition and state formula funding. The third source is overhead for grants. Research costs money, as do faculty and staff. That is not a good answer I know. Teaching labs is a large burden. Sometimes more student time is spent in labs. There should be a charge of credit hours for the lab. That's not so much an increase in revenue, but to counterbalance the investment of personnel."

"You said you wanted to unlock the potential of students, especially minorities. How will you do that?" an audience member asked.

"Through advising and tutoring," Pietrass said. "It becomes a resource problem. The student has to have a person he or she can trust and talk to. It doesn't end with recruitment. The student must not feel alone. Students who don't feel isolated do not feel like a singularity. A lot of research has been done on role models. The only thing that matters is developing a relationship with the student. If the student is struggling, he or she needs to be able to ask for help. We should try to create peer groups, when they first come in. Often they are paired with more advanced students, who know what they are going through. And you must reward faculty, if they go out of their way to help a student."

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