Dr. Donald Wagner
In the next several issues of Update, we will profile the deans of our colleges and schools. In this issue, we highlight
Dr. Donald Wagner, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences.
What attracted you to the U of M?
“It was a variety of things. There was a well-recognized and highly valued program
already in place here. It was well known that the U of M had been preparing teachers,
counselors and educational leaders for many years at a very highly respected level.
So, I was drawn to the history and tradition of the College. I was also drawn to the
U of M because it’s not often that a dean of a college like this gets to serve with
a president that’s also a faculty member of the College. The fact that Dr. Shirley
Raines was here, because I was very familiar with Dr. Raines’ work when she was at
the University of Kentucky, I knew it would be an enjoyable experience to work under
her leadership. The other thing that really drew me were the enormous opportunities
and needs of this community. For every academic program in our College, there are
tremendous needs in the city of Memphis and throughout all of southwest Tennessee
that relate to the work of our faculty. I knew it would be a very enjoyable experience
to be able to work in the development and creation of partnerships where we could
do service to the larger community.”
You’ve had a lot of consulting work and experience internationally. Could you share
some of those experiences with us?
“I had an opportunity to be a Kellogg Fellow in international development. That was
a two-year experience while I was teaching at the University of Cincinnati to engage
in seminars and symposiums around Latin American and the Caribbean. In the course
of that, I learned so much about how you work in a different cultural context than
your own and learned a lot about the consulting skills that are necessary to be effective
in an inter-cultural exchange. It really drew me to want to do more work in international
development at the completion of the fellowship. There were 40 fellows from all over
the hemisphere representing different countries, different professions and different
perspectives on problems. It really opened my mind to the opportunity to share what
I knew with others, as well as to learn from them. That then led to me joining an
organization called Partners of the Americas, which is the largest voluntary international
development organization in the Western Hemisphere. The concept is that it matches
states in the U.S. with countries or regions of countries in Latin America and the
Caribbean. Initially, I was part of the Ohio delegation that worked with Parana, Brazil,
which has a lot of similarities to Ohio in terms of its agriculture and immigrant
patterns. Many people think of Brazil as a Portuguese-settled country, which it is,
but southern Brazil had the same immigration patterns from Europe that the U.S. had.”
What type of projects did you work on while in Brazil?
“Initially I did some work there on smoking cessation. I worked with an otolaryngologist
who started the very first smoking cessation program in Brazil that was patterned
after a program we were doing in Cincinnati at the time. While doing that volunteer
exchange, I met and interacted with people in both the federal and state public health
systems. The next thing I knew, I received a call asking me to be an adviser to the
Brazilian Ministry of Health. That was probably one of the most exciting and meaningful
experiences I’ve ever had. My task was to help them envision and design a national
plan of disease prevention and health promotion meant to educate people on how they
could to reduce their own risks to disease or injury. It also helped professionals
think more in terms of prevention of conditions, rather than simply cure, in order
to derive some of the cost benefits of a prevention model. So I traveled all over
Brazil and met with people from all sectors of the society to learn not only the problems
that they had, but also to learn about the strategies that would be successful and
effective within the Brazilian culture.”
The College of Education recently chose to add to its name, making it the College
of Education, Health and Human Sciences. What will this bring to the future of the
“One of the things I noticed after coming here was some of our alumni were less engaged
than others, especially those from our Department of Health and Sport Sciences, which
includes majors in things like exercise science, dietetics, nutrition and health promotion
and the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Research. They did not
feel as connected because their professional pursuits were not in the realm of education.
As we were moving into the Centennial, others began to talk to me about the possibility
of rebranding ourselves to be more representative of who we really are. This College,
like many colleges of education, grew and changed during the past few decades. So,
it seemed it was very timely for us to think about how we might reimage our name.
So I put together a committee that included representatives from each academic department
and I asked them to consider what other colleges were doing, and then think in terms
of what might work for us. There were a whole variety of names that were considered.
What we all settled on was the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences. The
point was to give more recognition to all that we do, as well as to reconnect alumni
during the Centennial year and help us recruit students who may not as easily find
majors not traditionally labeled under education. It also makes us attractive to donors
who realize we are more than a traditional education college. Even in its infancy,
we’re already seeing really good fruit coming from that name change.”
What is the most difficult aspect of being a dean?
“There aren’t enough hours in a day, and that’s probably the most trite thing a dean
can say, but it’s the most honest and true thing. There’s always so much more than
one can do as a dean. Eventually you get around to everything, but it doesn’t happen
on the schedule you might like it to because of the enormity of things that need to
be accomplished. The biggest challenge is prioritizing your time so that you are providing
attention to the most pressing and important issues, but not losing sight of everything
else that is also important.
What do you enjoy most about being a dean?
“I enjoy interacting with people. I thrive on it. The days that I dislike most are
when I’m buried in my office working on a report. I would much rather be interacting
with people in the College, on campus or in the community. It’s the relationships
and the connections that build success for a college — it’s not the quality of the
report that you write. Those reports are important, but the more relationships that
we build, the stronger the college will be.”
What did you want to be when you grew up?
“I wanted to be a jockey. My mother grew up on a farm literally on the Kentucky-Tennessee
border. Her family had horses and working mules. As a kid, I grew up absolutely loving
horses. I can remember seeing the Kentucky Derby on television when I was 8 or 9 years
old and thinking how much fun it would be to be a jockey. I had this dream of growing
up and being a thoroughbred jockey. Then puberty hit, and that dream quickly vanished
because I was no longer the size that’s required to be a jockey.”
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and who gave it to you?
“The best advice I got was from one of my professors when I was an undergraduate,
an influential mentor named Dr. Mary Wolverton. She told me, ‘I know you want to be
a health educator and work in schools and community settings. The place where people
go wrong is by doing what they want to do and not doing what is important to the people
they serve. Remember, programs come from problems.’ She then talked about how important
it was to engage people in talking about their views of what they need and what their
challenges are and to work from that, rather than your own values and perceptions
of need. From a very early point in my professional development, I quickly grasped
the importance of assessing needs and communicating with the target groups I was working
with in order to find out what they really needed and wanted.”
What are some of your hobbies?
“I am a basketball fanatic. I eat, sleep and breathe Tiger basketball. I follow college
basketball very, very closely. One of my hobbies is being an avid fan and attending
as many events as I can. I also love to read. My favorite authors are Vince Flynn
and Michael Connelly. Vince Flynn has made a fortune writing books that build off
of 9-11 and look at very believable and real scenarios of actual terrorist events,
with a superhero named Mitch Rapp. They’re just riveting. They’re the kind of books
that once you start reading, you better be able to stay up all night because you just
can’t put them down. Michael Connelly writes about a lawyer who partners with a detective to solve crimes in Los
Angeles. Also, I love to travel. I enjoy learning about other cultures and seeing
what the rest of the world has to offer.”