Fourth and final College of Arts and Science dean candidate plans to advocate for inclusion on campus, increase funding for the college

Patricia Okker currently serves as the interim dean and said that, in that position, she learned about the inner workings of the college.

The fourth and final candidate for the College of Arts and Science dean position, Patricia Okker, presented to students and faculty on her goals and proposals for the position Thursday.

Okker currently serves as interim dean for the college and has been working at MU since 1990, when she was first hired as an English professor. She was then promoted to chair of the English department in 2005 and senior associate provost in 2015.

Okker spoke about the challenges facing the College of Arts and Science. She said she was warned to not be too “depressing” during her presentation and joked that she would have to speak fast. However, she said she knew it was important to discuss the downfalls of the college and then explain how she could combat them.

Those challenges include a decrease in the budget, staff and faculty and lower salaries for employees, among other things, she said.

Okker then listed her four objectives if hired as the new dean. First, she would advocate on issues related to inclusion and diversity. She said students and staff feeling safe and welcome is the foundation on which all the other priorities depend.

“We cannot get to full realization of excellence if we do not first embrace inclusion and diversity,” Okker said.

While MU and the College of Arts and Science has seen progress, such as hiring nine new staff members of color this past year, there is still work to be done, she said.

Okker would like staff within the college to become more aware and educated on general issues facing MU, she said. Her goal is for faculty to go out of their way to learn about different things on campus that tackle social problems. For example, someone working in the college might go out of their way to learn about the Green Dot program, a plan to help prevent violence by empowering bystanders.

Second, Okker wants to implement a sense of “shared governance.” This would involve an elected committee involved with policymaking and other decisions within the college. Also, she would consult more with student representatives, including student government and other clubs on campus.

To increase the communication between administration and students, Okker suggested college-wide meetings with faculty and students twice a semester.

“As dean, I would continue to move on with the principles of shared governance, to rely on collaboration and communication, which really are those hallmarks of academic institution,” Okker said.

Third, Okker said she will focus on student success within the college by increasing the number of students who study abroad and complete internships.

Other schools and colleges, such as the School of Journalism and the School of Law, have always seen higher student participation in these programs, Okker said. But she believes that the College of Arts and Science can have similar numbers and wants to encourage more students to engage and take advantage of the programs.

Lastly, Okker wants to support and enhance both graduate and undergraduate research in the college. To do this, she said she would increase fundraising for research protect “rip funds,” or funds that central campus allocates to support research based on external grants.

With an increase in funding comes an array of possibilities within the college. For example, Okker said the college would be able to provide more travel funding for staff and startup packages for departments beginning new research projects, as well as providing summer salaries for faculty who work at the college during summer break.

As for how she would go about fundraising, Okker said much of the funds would come from donors. The college already has done a lot of research in areas that donors and alumni are interested in, such as climate change and cancer, Okker said. Okker also hopes to increase the college’s communication with donors.

After Okker’s presentation, time was allotted for people to ask questions about her plans if hired as the new dean.

When statistics professor Larry Ries asked Okker how much time she would spend fundraising as dean, she answered that it depends on each week. As interim dean of the college, about 70 percent of her week is spent fundraising and she consistently speaks with alumni and potential donors.

Saadiya Aswad, business administrator within the division of biological sciences, asked Okker how she would use the “home-court advantage” that comes with being interim dean. Aswad mentioned that Okker worked with the college to shift the budget when cuts were implemented this last year and that she really admired how Okker handled it.

Okker said moving the budget and making the cuts was the hardest thing she’s ever done. With it, however, came a considerable understanding of the different budgets around the college.

She believes the individual faculty and staff around the college understand their own budget better as well. Because of this, Okker said there would be more understanding of where to invest if more resources or revenue were to become available in the college. Department chairs would be more prepared with how to balance their budget, she said.

Chemistry professor Silvia Jurisson also brought up Okker’s current position as interim dean. Jurisson said that, because Okker is the only candidate that would be hired from within the college, she might get hired for a “cheaper price.” She asked Okker how she would handle this.

Okker said that this was the second time that day she had been asked about this and she wanted to set the record straight that she was not the “cheap option.”

“What I will use in my favor is data and knowledge in advocating for this college,” Okker said. “There is no question that whoever is selected as the next dean will be in a position to negotiate the fiscal health of this college. I have knowledge about practices and budgets that other candidates don’t have.”

Okker also shared a story about her own experience as a first-year college student and how it shaped who she is today. Her parents, who had both not gone to college, urged her to attend. She said she is “forever grateful” to them for that.

“Going to college changed my life,” she said.

Okker said she shared this anecdote because it emphasized her very strong belief that education is transformative, not only for her but for every student.

She also said that she originally enrolled in Allegheny College in Pennsylvania as an undecided science major. She later switched to humanities after learning that there were other job opportunities other than teaching high school.

Okker said her story is not unique and that many of her colleagues also changed majors and some even careers entirely. This displayed the importance of discovery in college and teaching, involving traditional classroom work and research and also within oneself, she said.

Okker said there are a large number of people within Missouri and beyond that have had their lives changed by people who earned their degrees at MU.

“As dean, I want to tell your stories,” she said. “And perhaps, more importantly give you opportunities to tell your own stories.”

Edited by Olivia Garrett |

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