Update - The newsletter for the University of Memphis
More September Features:

Profile: Dean Wagner
Earning stripes with Tiger statue
Student embarks on jungle adventure
Football by Fuente
U of M scores big at conference
Law students pro bono work
Getting spoked with bike share
Names in the news


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Profile: Dr. Donald Wagner
Dr. Donald Wagner
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 College?

“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.”

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