Scholar-Educator Denise Bates Named University College Dean

July 1 appointment comes as the school enters its next phase of innovation and growth  

The first in her family to go to college, incoming University College Dean Denise Bates faced challenges navigating the complexities of higher education. “My family simply didn’t know how to support me,” she says. “I could have used some of the programming offered by University College.”

Bates, who will bring that firsthand experience when she starts her new position on July 1, currently serves as associate dean for student success and community engagement and faculty head and professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University. She is also a Thought Leader Fellow with the American Indian Policy Institute with ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions and a Senior Global Futures Scholar with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

In addition to serving nearly 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students and thousands of additional learners in ASU’s continuing education and universal learning courses, Bates has designed and taught courses in history, interdisciplinary studies, liberal studies, organizational leadership, and project management.

She has been involved in designing and implementing new instructional technologies at ASU and served as the faculty lead on a Gates Foundation-funded grant that resulted in the development and implementation of adaptive courseware for two U.S. history courses. She also developed the ASU Indigenous Leadership Academy curriculum in partnership with the American Indian Policy Institute and serves as the faculty lead for the master of project management degree program.

Bates’ appointment comes as University College is about to mark its fifth anniversary and enter a new phase of growth and innovation. “University College fills a unique role at Tufts, in fostering programming to inspire and support learning at all stages of life, and we are indebted to founding dean Joe Auner for his vision in shaping the college,” said Provost and Senior Vice President ad interim Caroline Genco. “I am confident that Denise Bates brings the collaborative leadership, creativity, academic rigor, and commitment to diversity and inclusion that will inspire future achievement and will position University College well for its successful next chapter.”

Tufts Now spoke with Bates about her journey, vision, and the synergies she’s found between academic scholarship and administrative leadership.

Starting with the big question, why University College? And why Tufts?

I began my university-level career teaching courses for a degree housed in a university college at Arizona State. There’s always been something very appealing to me about the role of university colleges in that they engage learners in every phase of their lives, from pre-college to post-career and everywhere in between. I see them as a mechanism by which universities create and support access and curate a community of learners around these efforts.

And I had an affinity for Tufts, which is amazing at making knowledge accessible along with rigorous academics and research. One of things that attracted me to Tufts was the university-wide strategy for education and research laid out by the Office of the Provost that centers on collaboration among the university’s schools to create an inclusive and supportive environment for students.

To do the work of a university college is to create these kinds of collaborative relationships. The esteem I have for Tufts and its community makes this an incredible opportunity for me.

Was your family background a catalyst for your own scholarship?

Yes. I was born and raised in southern California but my mother’s side of the family (Choctaw, Cherokee, and Creek descent) is Indigenous to the Southeast who later migrated west. I was particularly close to my maternal grandmother. She always told me, “Denise, get your education,” something she was not able to do growing up in Jim Crow Alabama.

As I went through school and learned about the civil rights movement in the South, I knew full well that Indigenous peoples were actively engaged in a movement of their own. Yet, this seemed to be absent from the history books. This seeded what I went on to pursue in my scholarship, writing several books focused on Indigenous leadership, activism, and political engagement in the South. While I spend my fair share of time in archival collections, I also work closely with several southern tribal nations collecting oral histories and collaborating on projects that help them in telling their own stories to the public.

How can University College advance Tufts’ commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ)?

University College is uniquely situated to help Tufts advance DEIJ efforts. It is the initial access point for many young learners experiencing a college environment for the first time and a place where knowledge can be accessed by other types of learners looking to advance their careers or engage with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Integrating DEIJ principles into the very fabric of all University College programing is just a starting point.

Such flexible and easily accessible programing also creates opportunities for building new pathways to directly address the needs of historically underserved populations. It’s about listening and understanding community needs and, of course, finding synergies and resources to support these efforts.

How can we make sure that pre-college programs and other offerings are available to students with limited financial resources and aren’t simply programs for the affluent?

That topic occupies a lot of my thinking. It’s about building relationships with those that have the means and are willing to sponsor and support our efforts. ASU, for example, has partnerships with Starbucks and a series of other companies that have supplemented the education of thousands of their employees. Similarly, we need to find allies who want to help us increase access to the educational opportunities that Tufts has to offer.

What do you see as the role for technology in higher education and University College?

I think we always want to evolve and explore new ways to teach. At ASU, I was one of the first faculty to teach a fully online course. From there, I went on to develop many more online courses and programs, experimenting with a variety of educational technologies along the way. I believe technology is key to access. The younger generation is very tech-savvy; their expectations are high and we need to rise to the challenge—but always with a balanced approach to ensure that we offer a quality educational experience.

You have a Ph.D. in history. You also have credentials from the Project Management Institute. How do the academic and administrative come together for you?

They complement one another. Much like historians, project managers research, analyze, and interpret information to make decisions. As a community-engaged historian, I gravitated to project management because it provided processes and frameworks for making scholarship more accessible to the public through such examples as documentary films and museum exhibits. These types of projects require collaborating with diverse stakeholders and my project management background has certainly assisted these efforts.

I know I have a seemingly unusual professional trajectory. I just followed what felt right to grow as a scholar and an educator.

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