Q&A with UNH President James Dean
James Dean Jr. became the University of New Hampshire’s 20th president in June 2018. It’s the latest stop in a career of over 30 years in public higher education, including, most recently, as executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where he began as a professor of organizational behavior and management in 1997. Before becoming provost in 2013, he was named dean of UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School since 2008. He is also the author of the newly published, “The Insider’s Guide to Working with Universities.”
Q. Now that you’ve been in New Hampshire for about a year, what is your take on how the university’s positioned?
A. I think we have a lot of opportunity. I’ve been particularly pleased with the caliber of people I’ve found here. They’ve been very strong, talented and willing to work hard — that includes students, of course, staff, faculty. The community here is really impressive.
Q. What about your relationship with the folks in the State House?
A. I think the relationship has not always been great — that’s not much of a secret I don’t think — but I’ve felt that in my meetings with elected representatives in Concord that they’ve been very open to enhancing the relationship with the university. They seem really open to making it better. I spent a lot of time in Concord this year trying to meet with people on both sides of the aisle. I’ve spent some time with the governor who’s been very approachable. Interestingly, he interviewed me for the job, he interviewed all the finalists.
Q. That’s interesting.
A. Yes, I thought so. When they said, “Hey, you’ve got an interview with the governor,” I went, “Wow, that really is different.”
Q. How did it go?
A. I was told that I was his pick, so I guess it went well. I think that it’s a bit of a new day in terms of the relationship between the university and the government. I hope the state as a whole, since you’ve almost certainly read about what we’ve been doing here, you’ve seen me embrace New Hampshire as a strategic priority. I think people are really happy about that, they’re happy to see it.
Q. A lot of people in the business community understand the role the university plays in the broader economy. Is there a greater understanding of that among legislators?
A. I think so, and it’s certainly something we’ve been working on for a number of years. Our communications team has put out a number of things around the theme of “UNH works for New Hampshire,” trying to show how many people we’re putting into the labor force, and so on. Of all the things universities do, producing educated talent is at the center of it. I think educational establishments in general – certainly UNH, but it’s also true of other state institutions and the private schools – play a really important role in that.
I think that’s one of the reasons that the business community here has been pretty supportive, because they know that we’re producing the kinds of people that we need and there are needs for people at every level of education. If you try to find a plumber, it’s hard to find one, but if you need to find a coder, it’s also hard to find one, or for that matter, a research scientist. We’re doing everything we can to try and address that.
Q. You’ve met with many business leaders since you’ve been at UNH.
A. We’ve worked with both government leaders and business leaders trying to identify what they perceive as being the most important issues in the state so that we can make sure that we’re aligned with them.
Q. What did you find?
A. They said, and you would’ve predicted every one of these: education, lifetime from K-12; healthcare, including behavioral health, mental health, opioids, all of that; the environment and particularly concerns around energy; and the economy and the workforce.
We actually, this summer did an audit across the university to understand all of the research programs and outreach programs we have around each one of those themes, and then we’re going to produce a report to share with people in the business community and the government to say, “Well, here’s what we’re doing around the issues you told us were the most important for New Hampshire,” and if we find that there’s gaps there, and there probably will be, then we can try and generate resources to try and do more.
I think that’s the role of the flagship university in a state — that we need to make sure that we’re aligned with the needs of the state. I think people will be pleasantly surprised that we mostly are.
Q. You’ve actually just published a book on university relations with businesses and the community — “The Insider’s Guide to Working with Universities.”
A. It’s written for businesspeople who are working with universities, either on boards or who take jobs as deans or presidents, and trying to explain to them the ways in which universities are like businesses and the ways in which universities are not like businesses so that they can more effectively partner with universities.
Q. As someone who was part of a business school for so long, what is your perspective of New Hampshire’s economy in general?
A. It seems very healthy. Certainly, the low unemployment rate, although it seems to be a constraint on the economy and would probably grow faster if we had more people. The national economy is also very low, but it’s low enough here that there’s not a single conversation I have with a business leader in New Hampshire that they don’t talk about the absence of people. That’s why I think attracting a workforce and preparing a workforce for New Hampshire is one of the biggest contributions that the university can make.
Q. The need for people is probably most obvious in the North Country. Is there a relationship between the university and the North Country in any way?
A. Well, probably the biggest one is through the cooperative extension. For many people in the state, especially in the North Country, Cooperative Extension is UNH. We have people operating all over the state, literally everywhere, for example, talking with dairy farmers about the latest techniques of trying to manage dairy herds and so on. Anything that’s grown in New Hampshire, we have experts trying to work on that as well as issues around soil conservation, the waterways. I was at Mount Sunapee last year to sign the agreements with Cooperative Extension with each one of the communities in each one of the counties. It was really palpable how much people appreciated the support that we provided.
I will also say that Plymouth State plays an important role there. From talking with Don Birx, the resident at Plymouth, he and they certainly take seriously their responsibility to people there.
Q. You have mentioned that, in talking with people from the business community, they see a need for more biosciences graduates. Are there other fields in particular that they talk about?
A. I’m not going to know all of them, but certainly computer science is one. The hospitality industry wants to have trained people. To some extent, they can grow them from the entry-level positions, but we have a program here that prepares people. They’re happy to have them.
Engineering, in general, underlies so many different industries. Then, of course, they always want more businesspeople in accounting and finance and marketing and so on.
We have a really good relationship with Fidelity. I went over to Merrimack and visited their campus, and I said, “What kinds of students are you looking for?” They don’t really talk about it in terms of majors. They believe that they can train people to do the kind of roles they have at Fidelity. They’re looking more at character, for lack of a better name. They said, “We want people who have empathy, who can listen to and understand other people and work collaboratively with them.” One student I recommended who they were really interested in was a social work major. They said, “Well, if you’re going to look for empathy, it is probably where you’re going to find it.”
There are some things that are hard skills, like coding, but then there are areas where people are going to have a broad career, and they want people who are broadly educated and have certain kind of broad skills.
The broader skills are an important part of what universities provide. Look at us – we’ve been in the workforce for decades. We’re well beyond our first job, our second job, or our fifth job. You’re not calling on that really specific disciplinary training or job training that you got in college, or even in your first job. We’re calling upon the ability to work with people, to communicate, to think broadly, to solve problems.
We have a responsibility, as a university, to try and provide those kinds of skills as well, and the knowledge that underlies them. Because there’s no way you’re going to give somebody training in specific skills in 2019 that will still be useful in 2069, but they’re going to be out there.
We are in the early stages of looking at our general education curriculum through the non-major curriculum now. I know that the faculty leaders I’ve talked to share a really deep concern about this exact issue of preparing people broadly for thinking about problems that we don’t know what they even are going to be.