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W&M’s three new deans discuss leadership, innovation amid pandemic

  • Video screen squares cotaining Katherine Rowe and three deans
    Community conversation:  William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe (top right) led a virtual talk Oct. 20 with the university's three new deans: Dean of the School of Education Rob Knoeppel (top left), Dean of the Law School A. Benjamin Spencer (bottom left) and Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences Maria Donoghue Velleca (bottom right).  Photo by Jennifer L. Williams
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William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe provided an inside look at leadership during a pandemic as she spoke in-depth with the university’s three new deans.

The 45-minute conversation highlighted innovative work by students and faculty, a reinforced commitment to equity and inclusion, and an increased focus on producing civic-minded leaders.

Rowe led the virtual talk Oct. 20 that continues a series of periodic community conversations she started in March. Her guests this time were Education Dean Rob Knoeppel, Law School Dean A. Benjamin Spencer and Arts & Sciences Dean Maria Donoghue Velleca. All began at W&M in July.

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Velleca is a distinguished neuroscientist. Spencer is a nationally renowned civil procedure and federal courts expert. Knoeppel has decades of experience as an educator and is recognized for his scholarship on educational finance innovation.

Rowe began the conversation by asking the deans what it has been like to take on such a role during this academic year, which is unlike any other.

“It’s been a wild ride, as you can imagine,” Spencer said. “Coming into a new position during a time of pandemic is an unprecedented situation. And we’ve really had to hit the ground running and learn as we go — a little bit of baptism by fire.”

Donoghue Velleca built on that theme by describing what her focus has been.

“My purview right now is to get to know my community and to figure out how I can be a good partner to the faculty and staff, and then really happily getting to know our students,” Donoghue Velleca said.

Knoeppel described how exciting the beginning of the academic year always is and how different pandemic conditions have made meeting people and learning about the university.

“So for me, I’ve approached the job by trying to find balance between the instructional continuity of our programs, but also having an ethic of care for our students, our faculty and staff,” Knoeppel said.

Rowe asked the deans how they see graduate and professional education changing under pandemic, and how the student experience is different this year. Spencer gave the example that students are being trained on how to deliver legal practice remotely, which while non-traditional, is a method that expands the ability to reach a larger community.

Knoeppel said that considering that the field of education is changing in real time and that the school’s students are predominantly part-time and working in schools fulltime, the focus is on how to build community virtually.

“It’s an exciting thing to think about, because research drives instruction and it drives practice,” Knoeppel said.

All three deans agreed that the pandemic has changed the way recruiters reach students, which has created newfound access to employers. 

“A lot of employers historically have not come to W&M Law School because they have to make choices about where to travel,” Spencer said. “Now, in the age of Zoom, you can really leverage that remote access to expand the opportunities for our students.”

Rowe said she has seen the same benefit in the virtual career fairs the university has hosted for undergraduates.

“There is a much-expanded reach that many of our students now have,” she said.

Harkening back to her roots as a Shakespeare scholar, Rowe asked the three deans to outline ways in which they found opportunities for innovation during the pandemic.

“One of the tenets of the artistic world that I used to study is that constraint enables creativity,” Rowe said.

“I’m thinking for the three of you, the moment that we’re in now is one of reflecting on lessons learned and imagining the opportunities that lie ahead based on what we’re discovering under the pressures and constraints of COVID.”

Spencer said that the law school has efforts underway to better understand the legal and policy issues that arise from the online sphere, including artificial intelligence and cyber security. For example, the Law School’s Center for Court & Legal Technology has partnered with the Commonwealth of Virginia on a cyber security initiative.

He added that the school’s Election Law Program is working at full force to protect the right to vote, the school’s Immigration Clinic is currently assisting in asylum cases and the school’s Virginia Coastal Policy Center is engaged with climate change policy and research.

“Even though COVID is here, none of these issues have gone away,” Spencer said. “They’ve become even more urgent.”

Velleca said Arts & Sciences has embraced the opportunity to innovate the curriculum. For example, the Classical studies department has adopted experiential learning techniques, bringing students into ancient cultures.

Knoeppel said the pandemic has brought to the fore the struggles Black and brown communities experienced long before COVID-19. He said he is using this time to operationalize the school’s mission: education is the conduit to opportunity. Faculty are taking a hard look at curriculum to ensure educators meet the needs of an increasingly diverse society.

“The pandemic has put a really big spotlight on populations that have been historically marginalized and underserved for generations,” Knoeppel said. “It has brought a needed focus on the now. We need to solve this problem now.”