Feature: New Dean Brings Vision of Collaboration to College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

The new dean of the Western Oregon University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Kathleen Cassity, arrived on campus Aug. 15, and while the move into her office in Bellamy Hall went pretty smoothly, the same cannot be said for the transition into her new home in south Salem.

Cassity most recently was the assistant interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, so the vast majority of her family’s belongings were transported to Oregon by ship. Then, there was a little snafu in which the truck with the shipping container could not make it up her driveway. She and her husband had to find a place where the container could be left – a kind neighbor offered a corner of his adjacent property – then they made multiple trips with a rented truck to complete the move.

Even now, unpacking has gone slowly because there are so many other things going on: running errands, starting her two children in school, buying a new car because her previous one died right before they moved. Still, Cassity has no regrets about her decision to take the LAS dean position at WOU. She’s already gotten started on her listening-and-learning period, and she expects that to intensify now that students and faculty are back at WOU.

“Everyone has been very friendly,” she said. “The campus is beautiful, and everything seems very easy to use. I’ve got great assistants. I know (now that) faculty and students are back on campus, it’s going to heat up.”

Cassity has many aspirations for the college, and she’s arrived as some long-term projects, such as the restructuring of the university’s general education requirements, already are under way. She’s ready to hit the ground running to help evolve LAS, the college that comprises just about every area of study except education and nursing.

“I liked the idea that I’m be able to oversee all these different types of programs,” she said. “We need students who can both program a computer and understand literature. Or they love history, but they also can read a spreadsheet. We need people in the workforce who can do more than one thing.”

Incorporating many different viewpoints, personalities and priorities is something Cassity relishes. She attributes her skills in collaboration to her lifelong love of literature; she started reading from a young age and learned to appreciate casts of characters.

“People have different motivations and perspectives,” she said. “Realizing that from an early age has enabled me to work with many different kinds of people with varying personalities and priorities. I tend to look at difference as interesting instead of as a negative.”

She’ll get to put her experience as a community builder to work during the gen-ed revision process, which will ongoing throughout the academic year with a firm plan expected by June. She’d like to see students embrace the requirements and understand why they are mandatory for a university degree.

“It’s hard, when you are 18, to see outside the tunnel (of your major),” she said. “Those of us who have been around the block for a while can see the bigger picture. As an institution, we need to help students understand why they are being asked to take gen-ed classes and what skills they can get from them, such as critical thinking and looking at something from different points of view.”

Imbuing students with an appreciation for life skills is another of Cassity’s priorities. She is quick to refute the reputation some liberal arts programs have for being “unmarketable” in the workforce, pointing out that the purpose of a college education isn’t solely about employment.

“We need to have a talk about employability in a way that makes it clear that humanities and liberal arts aren’t at odds with that,” she explained. “Part of what we do in higher education is to prepare people for careers, but that’s not all education is for. It’s also for expanding the way we think. There are many concrete skillsets that people gain from liberal arts, and we have to get better at articulating that to prospective students and their families. We also should be helping students see this for themselves so they can go to employers and say ‘Hey, I’ve got this English degree, and that means I can do this for you.’ ”

She also dismisses the cliche that higher education shelters students from the “real world.”

“College is real,” she said emphatically. “We are just as real as anything else, so I don’t like that dichotomy. I don’t agree with the idea that college is some sort of protected castle, exempt from reality. Things that we learn here are useful, and useful includes how you make your living, but it’s not limited to that.”

She herself chose vocational education right after high school rather than attending a university. It was pragmatic choice, both for financial reasons and familial ones.

“I understand why people make completely utilitarian decisions,” she said. “I did that too because I had to, but eventually I felt like something was missing. So I went back to school at age 30, not so much because I wanted a career change but because I loved learning. In the process, I ended up remaking myself completely.”

Shortly after beginning college, she left her hometown of Seattle and headed to Hawaii, where she foresaw an adventure that would last only a few years. More than a decade later, she’d received her bachelor’s (1994), master’s (1997) and doctoral (2005) degrees in English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She taught English for many years at Hawaii Pacific while simultaneously serving as an administrator. In fact, this year is the first one in a long time that teaching is not on her calendar.

When she interviewed for the LAS dean position, she focused on three aspects from WOU’s strategic plan and how she would address them. She chose student engagement, assessment and program review and working with budgets. The latter served, she hoped, to assuage any potential concerns.

“I didn’t want people to think that an English professor wouldn’t be good with money,” she said with a chuckle. “I’ve lived long enough to realize that if the numbers don’t work, nothing else does. So I’ve got a pragmatic streak, too. I think one of my strengths is being out to balance out the two needs.”

Ultimately, Cassity’s vision for the liberal arts and sciences is one in which the college is able to anticipate and address community educational needs.

“What we’d like to do is communicate with the community to see what their needs are as well as parents and students to see what their concerns are,” she said. “We can tailor what we offer, how we offer it, when we offer it and where we offer it so we can better meet the needs of the people in the surrounding community and all those whom WOU serves”

She’s particularly pleased with WOU’s mission and how it fits with her priorities as an administrator. It’s a strong match with her own background as well.

“I’m really excited to be here,” she said. “I am heartened to hear the president reaffirm the mission of the university to serve a lot of working class, first-generation, underserved groups and non-traditional students because that was me. I’m first generation. I think the mission of this institution fits well with who I am and where I’ve come from. I was really excited to hear that.”

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