Inside Iowa State
September 25, 1998
Keeping the focus on the client
by Kevin Brown
Education is to professors as water is to goldfish you're so immersed in it that you never take the time to study it.
Walt Gmelch, the new dean for the College of Education, has taken that simple premise and built a philosophy of education that seeks to "keep the passion burning." While he has generated insightful research in academic leadership, Gmelch hopes his philosophy will nurture College of Education faculty and staff members.
"Academic leadership should not be seen as a burden but as a refreshing opportunity," Gmelch said. "It is not enough to learn something. You need to help others learn with you. Part of the job of an academic is to launch others on to their careers."
A review of Gmelch's convocation speech finds words used throughout such as teamwork, consensus, value-added, community, scholarship and vision. Those words are more than ink on paper; they are his distinctive signature.
It is a signature born of years of research into how academic leaders become successful and maintain their momentum, and from his wide variety of leadership experiences. It also comes from the founding of the Center For Academic Leadership that he now co-directs at ISU and at Washington State University, Pullman, where Gmelch previously served as a professor and administrator.
He has held roles as an educator, management consultant, university administrator and business executive. He has conducted research and written books and articles on topics such as leadership, team development, conflict, stress and time management.
Gmelch said his business experience in managing an air freight company taught him "that my real passion is maximizing human potential, rather than profit."
After re-entering higher education, he focused on building and advancing leadership in K-12 education. When he was promoted to department chair, Gmelch said he noticed a dearth of literature about department chairs or succeeding in a higher education administration role.
His research niche was defined at that moment.
"My personal challenge as a dean is to find that balance between administrator and scholar," he said. "As you develop a research team, you can't let that team down. There are tricks to keep your hand in scholarly work ways to keep yourself active and involved. I strive to be a role model. Part of the fabric here is scholarship."
The vision he details for his college is not the same one he framed at Washington State. Gmelch believes that vision involves anticipating the needs of the clientele and building on the collective strengths of the college.
"You can't simply transplant models," Gmelch said. "Iowa State is a Research I university; what works at Washington State may not work here. I bring 18 years of experience in being flexible, in being responsive and in reacting to the needs of community. Because we are also a land-grant college, the state is our campus."
Teamwork is the foundation of Gmelch's vision for the College of Education. That teamwork will come both within the college and among other ISU entities. As examples, he mentioned the collaboration with the colleges of Business and Engineering centered around the 3M lab, and the university-wide teaching partnership tagged Project LEA/RN.
"There is more to be learned in collaboration than in competition," Gmelch said.
Within the College of Education, he said, "every department will need to find its centers for excellence."
He stressed that "departments must know what the clientele needs -- they need to stay close to the customer."
"We need to feel the pulse of what people need in the field. Skill needs have changed in the last 10 years. We need to listen to that change and then get a step ahead of the curve. We need to be well connected to the public schools and to the audience that we serve," he said.
One way to accentuate teaching excellence, he said, is to reinforce what Iowans look to the college for --teaching science, math and technology.
"We will be looking to see what programs we need to nurture or nudge," he said. "The key is to make these decisions collaboratively. It has to be 'we' did it. It is possible to agree not to agree on every decision but the decision must still be supported 100 percent.
"It comes down to what's best for the college and students, what's best for the common vision and service to the state," he continued. "We will build on what we do best here. That will include reinforcing our signature in the state the teaching of science, math and technology."
Service is a common thread in Gmelch's personal life, too.
"I really believe that we have an obligation to serve our community," he said. "We need to empower, enhance and invigorate our com-munities. Family is a vital part of that."
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