New dean brings student-success mindset to Letters & Science

College of Letters & Science Dean Scott Gronert can relate to the uncertainty faced by many UWM undergraduates. A STEM-minded student at California State University in the early 80s, Gronert didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do and didn’t settle on a major until his senior year.

In many respects, he was a first-generation college student when a chemistry professor saw his talent and stepped up as a mentor to tell him, under no uncertain terms, that he should enter graduate school to become a research chemist. Gronert’s plan to get a job at a local oil refinery after graduation was out, and his path to teaching and research began. Today, as the top administrator in the College of Letters & Science, he is using his own college experience to focus on student success initiatives for L&S’ undergraduate and graduate students.

How are you finding life in the Midwest?

Milwaukee constantly exceeds our expectations. I’ve been telling friends and family: “You just don’t know what Milwaukee is until you come here and take a look.” It doesn’t align with stereotypes of an industrial Midwestern city. Between the culture and community, it’s a remarkable place.

My first visit here was my interview trip. After 12 weeks here, I’m feeling very good about the campus not only matching my expectations but exceeding them. I’ve been welcomed by faculty, staff and the administration, meeting people who are extremely dedicated to teaching and research, and it’s through them I’ve seen that UWM is an exciting place to be. I feel like I just got here, and I’m already starting my fourth month.

How does UWM compare to San Francisco State and Virginia Commonwealth University?

All three universities have in common the dual mission of faculty and students engaged in research and scholarship at high levels and opening their doors to the broadest, most diverse set of students. That’s been a defining part of my academic career. I’ve always been at institutions that are broadly focused on access and diversity and that place a high premium on research and scholarship. People might look at my career and see the research side, but I’ve spent a great deal of time looking at student success. I really appreciate both pieces of the mission.

During your tenure as chair of the VCU chemistry department, your department was ranked No. 2 in the U.S. for baccalaureate chemistry degrees awarded to women and No. 3 for baccalaureate chemistry degrees awarded to African-American students.

Those were very flashy numbers, but let’s start with the asterisks. VCU was viewed as the pathway to its health science campus, where they had the largest medical, pharmacy and dental schools in the state. We only offered chemistry, not biochemistry, so the degree numbers were not split between these two areas like it is at UWM. We had an unusually large number of chemistry majors because of these factors.

The way we were able to boost chemistry graduation rates was by refocusing and reinvesting in the undergraduate program. We dedicated a faculty line to advising, hiring a chemist with a PhD whose career had moved into advising. I could attribute a 20-30 percent increase in our graduation rate just to her work over two or three years. She found students who were one or two classes away from graduating, brought them into her office, told them what classes they should take and made sure they took them. Intensive, hands-on advising made a big difference.

We also examined the teaching in our introductory and foundation courses, which is absolutely key for continued success in the major. Improvements in this area were also vital – stronger and better-prepared freshmen and sophomores led to exceptional juniors and seniors who then went on to graduate. As an added bonus, it created a sense of community among the students and faculty in the program.

Could you see a similar approach, funding issues aside, working at UWM?

Dean Scott Gronert (middle) chats with faculty and staff from the College of Letters & Science during the College’s Fall Welcome celebration earlier this year. Photo by Sarah Vickery.

Every school is so different. We can’t automatically say we’ll do X and Y at UWM because X and Y worked at VCU. But I definitely think there are similarities among young universities – the processes that are in place now were built around a small institution that has grown and evolved in both teaching and research. The institution has changed, but the processes haven’t always grown at the same rate.

I am looking at many things — our per-student advising capacity in L&S, how we’re deploying instructors and faculty in entry-level and pipeline courses, and our degree requirements, to name just a few. What I’m trying to do is look at the student experience from the first touch in recruiting to graduation. Are there places where we have practices, systems, policies in effect that create obstacles to graduation but aren’t aligned with a desirable academic outcome? What can the faculty and I change to improve the student experience?

Do you have any early ideas on expanding the research portfolio in L&S?

It’s not that common that in a unit as big as L&S you have this number of departments doing truly outstanding research. We have strengths all the way across the college that are holding together very well during some really difficult times. Between faculty leaving UWM and departments shrinking, faculty are maintaining dedication to the highest level of scholarship and engaging students in that.

A new challenge we have is to look back at the impacts this downsizing has had on research and scholarship and ask ourselves how to make sure we keep those going strong. As we start having the ability to rebuild our faculty ranks, how are we going to leverage our current successes? We’ll be looking at areas where we can create new knowledge that benefits UWM, Milwaukee and Wisconsin – that’s where we need to invest.

What are your thoughts on the enrollment challenges Wisconsin universities face due to demographic trends – from how this impacts UWM as a whole to enrollment in the College of Letters & Science, specifically?

Half of the students at UWM are in L&S. Our educational pathways lead to attractive jobs – the types of jobs that dominate our economy and contribute to the function and growth of businesses big and small, nonprofit agencies, and governmental units. I’m more concerned with the ability of the university to react to demographic shifts – simply that there are fewer students in Wisconsin to draw from – than anything about L&S being less attractive. L&S embodies the liberal arts and sciences, and the liberal arts and sciences have a long tradition of producing successful people. I have a lot of confidence in the college’s ability to attract students.

Please describe your leadership style.

I like to make decisions tied to the best data we can get our hands on and create opportunities for discussion as a part of decision-making. I am a proponent of consulting with people and getting input before a decision is made. I like to talk with others, both individually and in groups, about my ideas and the pathways I imagine we might go down so that I can get feedback. From there, I move on to decision-making but still provide opportunities for people to continue to provide feedback, positive or negative, so that we can continue to improve.

My goal in leadership is to weigh options and make decisions in terms of the mission and values of the institution. We’re really focused on students. Offering them the best education means having the best faculty and staff work with them. Having the best faculty and staff requires that their work, their scholarship, and their research is supported. In turn, supported research creates more student learning opportunities. Leading is about understanding and building all parts of this looped cycle.

Your career was very focused on chemistry and the sciences until your last role at Virginia Commonwealth University. What does it mean to you to have oversight over humanities and social sciences disciplines?

The two mentors I had in chemistry both spoke German, lived abroad and were huge opera buffs. I have lived in France as a Fulbright Scholar, love to travel, and carry a wallet stuffed with museum membership cards. To build credibility as the leader in L&S, it helps to be able to work across and into the social sciences and humanities, rooted in a genuine interest and curiosity about those areas. Having a broad appreciation for what the college offers is critical. If you’re going to lead L&S, you have to love all of L&S.

By Angela McManaman, University Relations