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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

April 15, 2005

From the ground up

From the smallest department on campus, Michael Whiteford now runs the biggest unit on campus

by Dave Gieseke, LAS Public Relations

Gone are the days when Michael Whiteford could dress casually.

"It's a very different life," said the first-year dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "But it goes well beyond wearing a tie all the time and shoes in the summer."

Open collar shirts and sandals were Whiteford's life for almost 30 years as a professor, and later chair, of the department of anthropology. Back then, he focused on teaching and research, in addition to running the smallest academic department on campus.

That all changed when Whiteford became first an associate dean in LAS, then interim dean before being named dean last April.

"Managing a department, even a small department like anthropology, prepared me for this job," he said. "Just like in anthropology, I have to manage a budget, deal with personnel issues and work on strategic planning.

"All of these are important things. Anyone who has been around here for as long as I have been, has been on a stack of committees. That gives you a great appreciation of how diverse this college is."

With its 22 academic departments, one professional school and countless programs, LAS is Iowa State's largest college in terms of faculty, both undergraduate and graduate students, student credit hours and alumni.

Whiteford is in charge of a unit with more than 500 tenured or tenure-track faculty members and a budget of $65 million.

"In one day here in LAS I see more issues than in two semesters in anthropology," Whiteford said. "The range of requests one has to filter through is outstanding. Rarely do I see a request that hasn't been thoroughly thought out."

All of which makes it tougher in these lean budgetary times. Cut after cut has eroded much of the college leaders' ability to make easy budget decisions.

Looking ahead

As interim dean, Whiteford appointed a college budget advisory group to look for long-term solutions to budget issues and develop a strategy to address ever-decreasing finances. The result of that effort is the "New Horizons Initiative."

Whiteford said "New Horizons" is a strategy to enhance excellence by leveraging the strengths of the college and meeting pressing needs that are central to its mission.

"The initiative also strives to overcome weaknesses in several critical areas caused by continuous budget cuts, and to fund needs such as faculty retention, partner accommodations and faculty diversity," he said. (More information about the report, including a PDF version, is online at

Among the report's recommendations:

  • Reallocate open faculty positions back to departments to address needs and strengthen excellence
  • Investigate faculty workloads
  • Conduct a review of all LAS majors
  • Explore restructuring the college's academic departments

"Ultimately, but not immediately, we expect that significant resources will be shared and redistributed on the basis of shared faculty, shared courses and shared majors," Whiteford said.

"Faculty issues are the biggest challenges this college -- and the university -- face," he continued. "We want to make good hires when we have openings. We need to make sure this is a place where people want to come to and want to stay."

Retaining freshmen

One "New Horizons" suggestion has Whiteford especially excited about the future.

The item calls for improving LAS students' first-year experience by designing a high-quality foundation year that will integrate orientation and academics. Whiteford has appointed a faculty committee that is working with staff in the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. Discussions will take place this summer and fall with the hope of having a program in place in 2006.

"The first-year experience was the least-developed component of 'New Horizons,'" he said. "But I hope that in two to three years, LAS will have in place a package of courses that will make Iowa State an even more exciting place for freshmen."

The goal is better student retention rates and, ultimately, higher graduation rates among all ISU students.

"We're looking at the types of things other institutions are doing with freshmen that excite them as well as engage them. We want to borrow what we can from others and improve on their ideas."

Whiteford said the intent is to build on the learning community idea, but "instead of perhaps one linked course, the same group of students might have as many as three courses in common."

LAS is the right college in which to have this discussion, he said. Coursework offered in the humanities, social sciences and sciences makes LAS important to students in all majors.

"We are so diverse that we could start our own little college," he said. "If we were to secede from Iowa State, we would be the fourth-largest college in the state.

"It's more than that, however. The academic disciplines offered in LAS make us the university's college."

Michael Whiteford

After service as interim dean, anthropology professor Michael Whiteford became dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in April 2004. Photo by Bob Elbert.


" . . . I hope that in two to three years, LAS will have in place a package of courses that will make Iowa State an even more exciting place for freshmen."

Michael Whiteford