Mary Ann Danowitz, D.Ed., will step down as dean of NC State’s College of Education on Oct. 4 after leading the college through five-and-a-half years of unprecedented growth. Danowitz reflects on her time as dean in this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
When you began your tenure as dean of the College of Education on April 1, 2016, what did you set out to accomplish?
I had hoped that the college would really come together as a community to believe in their vision of doing all that was possible to improve education in North Carolina and improve educational success, especially in closing the achievement gap, which we know is an opportunity gap. And so that meant that our faculty, staff, and students would be really passionate about working together on a really important cause in North Carolina to give families and kids a better chance in life.
Of the college’s accomplishments during your time as dean, what stands out?
Some of the things that I’m especially proud of are the fact that we have intensified our research so that we can really apply the most current knowledge that solves educational problems in North Carolina, which are the same problems that exist across our country. Our research goes right into the classrooms, community colleges and communities to strengthen them.
Another thing that I’m really proud of is that, over time, we have gone against all the trends of declining enrollment for colleges of education and we have gone in the opposite direction with increasing enrollment. What that means is that there are motivated people out there who want to be educators to improve lives and they see NC State’s College of Education as the place to go.
I’m also really proud of the confidence that we generated for the Anonymous Trust to invest in our college so we can establish the Transformational Scholarships Program and prepare a future generation of high performing teachers from Eastern North Carolina. We are going to create a program that enables these young people to become teacher leaders who understand the broader context of education, policy and the world, and to go back to strengthen their communities, their schools and the lives of people like them. So for me, the Anonymous Trust’s investment in us is a vote of confidence, and it’s a set of expectations that the College of Education will carry forward.
One of the other most significant steps our college has taken in the last couple of years has been to make a commitment to be an anti-racist college. That means putting equity at the center of educational success. It recognizes that poverty and race have been barriers that have hindered some students and families from achieving lifelong success, and we must work diligently and urgently to avance diversity, equity and inclusion so all students and families have the opportunity to thrive.
What has been your favorite part of being dean?
My favorite part of being dean is knowing the successes that our students and faculty and staff have had. There’s nothing like commencement to be able to see our graduates, their families and our faculty and staff celebrating the accomplishments that have been so stellar and so outstanding — and often when it hasn’t been easy. Looking at the audience and seeing family members, often grandparents with tears in their eyes, knowing that their grandchild was the first to receive a bachelor’s degree and is going to go on to be a teacher to change lives. There’s nothing that can compare to that.
What has been the most difficult part of being dean?
One of the most difficult things is that we are recruiting for a profession that does not pay well compared to other professions where individuals prepare for four years. And so, the idea of knowing that our students would be capable of virtually any profession they chose, but they’ve chosen to invest four years — often to take out tremendous debt — to go into the profession to do something that will change the lives of others. So the most difficult thing for me has been knowing that NC State’s College of Education doesn’t have the resources we need for our students to follow their passion and to do good without going into debt.
But I’m very proud of our work to increase philanthropy to support our students, especially to increase our scholarship support for them. I believe focusing philanthropy on increasing scholarship support for students was the right decision because when we talk about student success, when we talk about going into education, it’s all about access and equity — and funding is an important part of that.
What will you miss the most about being dean?
I’m going to miss being in the middle of the action. I’m looking forward to going back to think, to read and to write about important things, which has been a good part of my life as an academic. But knowing that every day as a dean, you have the possibility of making a difference in people’s lives in a very direct way, whether it’s solving problems or whether it is elevating an issue for other individuals like the provost or the chancellor to attend to or advocate for.
So, it’s going to be a real change in terms of the pace, but also knowing that a dean is entrusted with incredible responsibility. And for me, that responsibility has been so important in my life that it’s second only to the responsibility I’ve felt in raising my two children. So I’m giving up that responsibility. It’s not really giving it up, but it’s passing it along to someone else to take the work of the college further.
Why step down as dean now?
I think the college is in a great place. We can look at how we’re seen externally. In the U.S. News & World Report’s 2017 Best Graduate School Rankings released in spring 2016, we were ranked 59th in the country. We’re now 37 out of about 362 colleges of education in the nation. So, what that means to me is that this is a good time to turn over the leadership to someone to take it to the next level. And I do not believe that there could be any organization that has more dedicated and talented faculty and staff who believe in what they do.
What do you hope people would say about your time as dean?
I hope the college will say that we worked hard, we did well and we have standards that we’ve set for ourselves and we will continue to work hard and do extremely well.
What are your hopes for the college’s future?
My hope for the college is that we will continue to grow. And by continuing to grow, I mean somewhat in numbers, but that we will be seen as the premier college of education in North Carolina and that we will never waiver from being deeply connected to our land-grant mission. We will change as the needs of education change and the needs of the land-grant university change, and we will be out there leading the change process and education.
What’s next for you?
As a dean, I have really focused on my role and responsibilities here. So part of it will be to take stock to return to a lot of the research that I’ve done in the past that focuses on governance in higher education and gender and diversity. So I will be re-engaging with my peers and thinking about how I can use the years that I’ve had as dean to come up with ways of helping others understand problems that may be beyond their reach and they haven’t dealt with and help provide solutions to my colleagues, researchers, faculty and administrative leaders in the U.S. and beyond.
Any final thoughts as you think back on your time as dean?
I’ve been fortunate to have a long career in higher education — five decades now. As I look back as well as look ahead, the role and responsibilities of dean have been the highlight of my career.
This post was originally published in College of Education News.