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Final Thoughts from David Hodge

Story by
Nancy Joseph

After more than three decades at the University of Washington, including eight years as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, David Hodge resigned in June 2006 to become president of Miami University. Before his departure, he discussed his years at the UW with A&S Perspectives editor Nancy Joseph.

You arrived at the UW as an assistant professor in 1975. How did your arrival compare with the experience of new arrivals today?

David Hodge.

David Hodge.

When I arrived, my department’s administrative assistant gave me the key to my office and said, “Welcome.” That was it. There was nothing designed to integrate me into the University. The assumption was that I would figure out what to do. Now we have Faculty Fellows, a fantastic program that helps new faculty become acquainted with other new faculty across the University. It also provides orientation and opportunities to improve teaching. All of those things make for a spectacular beginning compared to what we had in the past.

In 1990, you received the UW Distinguished Teaching Award. Did teaching come naturally or did your success come gradually?

A little bit of both. I believe that most faculty, while we may not have a lot of experience and may make mistakes, have the potential to be good teachers.

In terms of my own success as a teacher, most of it was due to hard work and a great connection with students. The single most important thing in students’ minds is that the professor cares about them. If students sense that, they will give you slack when you make mistakes. I’m very impressed by how a professor’s attitude shapes the way students come to interpret the class.

You were the chair of the Geography Department and a divisional dean before becoming dean. What has been the appeal of administration?

David Hodge was presented this caricature, created by A&S board member David Horsey, at the College's 2006 Celebration of Distinction.

David Hodge was presented this caricature, created by A&S board member David Horsey, at the College's 2006 Celebration of Distinction.

It’s the ability to be a part of helping good things happen. When I was in theGeography Department, I would see that people were working very hard but weren’t necessarily working as a team. I recognized that with just a little bit of organization and focus and energy, the results could be higher performance and greater morale and satisfaction. I’m always thinking about what’s down the road and how the pieces could be put together differently. I just have a hunger to do that.

In your leadership roles, what have you learned about the College that others might not recognize?

People might not recognize the unique role of this college in the University. Early on, with important help from the College’s Advisory Board, I came to understand that the College is the foundation for the rest of the University. It’s not a college that simply takes care of itself; it has an important role as a platform for the rest of the University. Recognizing this has profoundly influenced the way I think about the College.

[Arts and Sciences] is not a college that simply takes care of itself; it has an important role as a platform for the rest of the University.

I also have a unique vantage point for seeing commonalities among disciplines that, on the surface, seem to share little common ground. This has been particularly evident when my wife Valerie and I have had department chairs to dinner at our home. We have enjoyed hosting dinners with about ten chairs invited each time, from a variety of disciplines. The gatherings have been eye-opening for everybody at the table, including me. People who might never have crossed paths begin to see common problems and solutions and connections and really engage each other. Having the opportunity to see those common threads has helped when we’ve been looking at bigger issues in the College.

As dean, you updated the College’s mission statement, did extensive strategic planning, and worked toward a learning-centered rather than teaching-centered curriculum. What accomplishment are you most proud of?

When I started as dean, we were in the dark days of higher education. Every TV station was talking about government waste, our budgets were getting cut, we were just getting hammered. We were being asked to defend the University to the community. If there’s anything I hate, it’s being put in a defensive position. I’m most proud of moving us away from that defensive posture toward a “culture of possibilities,” to borrow a phrase from Geography Professor Vicky Lawson. We’ve created a common core in the College—a foundation of common belief and understanding and expectation that allows us to move forward in our individual ways but united in some common purpose.

How did you accomplish this?

Revisiting the mission statement and spending time on strategic planning were essential. That was our chance to ask who we are, to self-critique, to listen to what outsiders were saying about us, and to really ask ourselves whether we were fulfilling our mission. By doing that, we have been able to set the course of our destiny. Everything we do, every decision we make, wraps around the notion that we know who we are and what we are responsible for, and 
we are going to aggressively go after that, helping each other get there.

Where do volunteers fit in all this?

David Hodge (right) chats with alumni at an event in 2004.

David Hodge (right) chats with alumni at an event in 2004. Media credit: Karen Orders

Volunteers on the College’s Advisory Board sparked much of this. They were the first to say, “You keep thinking about yourself as the College. You need to think of yourself as the core of the University.” They dropped that seed and challenged us to think differently. It was also volunteers who said, “You are not thinking boldly enough about professorships. You need to push for more professorships, set a goal.”

The College then set the spectacular goal of endowing 100 professorships, and met that goal in 2005. Have those professorships had a big impact on the College?

In several recent cases where we were trying to retain exceptional faculty, the deciding factor was that we could offer a professorship. Being able to do this is making it possible for faculty to remain here and do great things. And while some of those funds go to the professor’s salary, a significant portion is used for other things—to hire students, pay for travel, do research, pay for speakers—that add to the life of the University.

We also have been working toward more private support for graduate students and undergraduates. The University must raise its tuition in order to backfill for the loss of resources from the state, and private support will be critical in making a UW education affordable to everybody.

Looking to the next decade, what do you see as the most pressing issue for this college and other colleges of arts and sciences?

Ensuring that students are active learners and scholars. In my generation, we were still being told what we needed to know. Students today are taking a more active role in their learning. Thanks to recent technology, information of all sorts is much more readily available to them. The challenge is to tap into that, developing in students a desire to relentlessly ask questions and search for answers—hopefully throughout their lives.

The other challenge, of course, is financing. We can just lay that blanket over everything.

You’ve described your years at the UW as “fantastic.” Why leave now?

For many days after announcing my decision to leave, I woke up saying, “What have I done? What madness has descended on me that I would leave this magical place?” But I’ve been dean for eight years and I have a hunger to test myself. I’m excited about facing a new challenge.

I didn’t go looking for Miami University. It found me. As I learned more about it, I was astonished at how well what I like to do and what I’m probably good at seem to map into what Miami needs at this moment in time. I feel I have a chance to take the skills and experience that I have gained at the UW and work with a wonderful community that has many of the same values as the UW community.

What will you miss the most about the UW?

It always starts with people—this matrix of people that I just respect so much. I also will miss being part of a university that is at the center of the community. On a personal level, I’ll miss being able to just go across the mountains and be in the desert.

And I’m already missing the fact I will no longer be a part of the ongoing initiatives at the UW. I guess somebody else will pick that up. It’s time for me to let go, although that’s very, very difficult to do after so many wonderful years.