NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — As of July 1, I am honored to serve as the Interim Executive Dean of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and Interim Executive Director of the New Jersey Experiment Station. This letter is an opportunity to introduce or re-introduce myself to you and share a few words about the coming year.
For the past ten years, I have enjoyed being a member of the SEBS community. In my time here, I have served as Professor, Chair, Dean of Agriculture and Urban Programs, and Dean of Academic Programs. I came to my academic career out of a love of teaching and have had the pleasure to teach one of SEBS’ treasured introductory courses, EDA (Environmental Design Analysis), as well as other seminars and community-based studios. My scholarship on urban agriculture and community open space has found a perfect home in the Garden State, and I’ve enjoyed working in many diverse communities across New Jersey. I take on this new role as interim executive dean because I know firsthand that there is no stopping our community’s commitment to tackling critical challenges of our time –from climate change to food insecurity, from resource sustainability to human and animal wellness. And there is no doubt in my mind that our world needs the energy, passion, and vision within our school.
We are facing turbulent times that are changing our lives, our institutions, our world. We need to be part of the solution. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten human health and exposes deep social, political, and economic divides within our country. As national awareness of racial injustice grows, within Rutgers we are acknowledging entrenched institutional racism and taking action to support diversity, inclusion, and equity. Our financial crisis is severe, yet it cannot stop the work we must do. We don’t have the luxury of entitlement and the assumption that things will go back to ‘normal.’ Instead, we must take on the challenge and do the work to reshape ourselves in order to achieve the vision we recently framed in our strategic plan of “a healthy and sustainable future that balances the wellbeing of all living organisms with the health of the earth.”
We are well positioned to succeed in this shared enterprise, in part for having inherited a strong organization built by outgoing executive dean Bob Goodman, whom I’d like to publicly thank for his 15 years of service and commitment to SEBS and NJAES. The strategic investment in our faculty, whose expertise broadly and holistically prepares our students to serve human society and its needs, has firmly established the value of a SEBS education. A strong NJAES infrastructure of on-campus and outlying farms and centers continue to deliver on our historic mission and commitment to growing New Jersey’s agricultural base and allied industries, while at the same time, furthering our reach into New Jersey communities served by dedicated RCE personnel and programs in all 21 counties.
The complexity of managing both the school and experiment station is a challenge at any time, but I am more keenly aware that taking on the mantle of leadership at this time of profound change in our society and at the university itself, is no small matter. In these turbulent times, it will not be enough to keep the boat steady; we still need to forge ahead and strengthen our position. As such, I want to outline just a few of the priorities shaping how I plan to move forward.
Our school is a complex ecosystem. Even though I am not new to SEBS, I know there are projects, concerns, proposals, and visions that many of you can share with me. As such, I want to be available to meet individual or groups of students, faculty, and staff to hear about diverse experiences. I have already started reaching out to some of you. Please feel encouraged to email me at email@example.com to share your ideas or schedule time to talk. I will host a series of virtual meetings with small gatherings of students so that we stay connected to their concerns in this remote environment.
I am committed to sustaining and strengthening our community while assuring health and safety. We are actively working to restore research to campus. As more people return, we have to be responsible for each other’s health by following the university’s social distance protocols. At the same time, we must proactively support our needs for social engagement and interaction. Our school stands out as a vibrant community within Rutgers – we need to sustain this through activities that engage faculty, students, and staff. We will continue activities like Science Café, SEBS research mixer, and campus living labs in creative ways and also develop new outlets to support and inspire each other.
We need to proactively work to assure that SEBS is an inclusive workplace that supports diversity, equity, and accessibility. I honestly do not yet know all that needs to occur to work toward this goal – this will grow out of our conversations and a lot of listening and sharing. As a start, I seek to continue our commitment to shared governance by charging the Executive Leadership Team, the Dean’s Cabinet, and the standing school committees to activate their responsibilities and to engage frameworks of inclusion, equity, accessibility, and diversity within their work. In particular, our Committee for Diversity, Communication and Philanthropy has already reached out to start their work, which will include reviewing the Strategic Plan to assure these core values are foundational to our goals and initiatives as we move forward. We will use faculty meetings and staff assemblies as opportunities for our standing committees to report on their progress and to seek guidance from faculty and staff.
The only way we can set a course for meaningful progress and dialogue is to work together – honestly, openly, and in shared sacrifice – to achieve the goals that matter most to our SEBS and NJAES community. I am already profoundly grateful and honored to work alongside my colleagues who make up a strong, balanced leadership team and cabinet that will help guide the coming months of my transition in this new role.
Thank you for the welcome I have received over the course of my first full week as interim executive dean. It is an honor to serve our various constituencies, including our alumni whose success and relevance in the world count among the greatest testimony to the value of a Rutgers education. Please know that my door – even if it is virtual – is always open to you and I encourage you to stay in touch. You can reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
–Laura J. Lawson, Rutgers University