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A Conversation with Dean Gary M. Sasso

ISSUE No. 9 • FALL ’17
Gary M. Sasso
Gary M. Sasso, as interviewed by Mary Ellen Alu

College of Education Dean Gary Sasso will retire at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year, following a distinguished 10-year career at the university. Sasso is credited with increasing the number and quality of faculty and staff hires at Lehigh, aiding in the creation of its new Autism Clinic, creating a multi-disciplinary program in early development education and dramatically increasing federal grant funding. 

In 2015, he also served as interim vice president and associate provost for the Office of International Affairs during a transitional period. In this Q&A, Sasso talks with Editor Mary Ellen Alu about his legacy and the challenges ahead for k-12 education. 

Q: Your career spans more than 30 years as a classroom teacher, researcher, professor, and since 2008, dean of Lehigh’s College of Education. What do you hope will be your legacy when you leave here at the conclusion of the academic year?

That I spent most of my adult life trying to help children, and I did it as a teacher, as a researcher, as a consultant, as a faculty member and then a chair, and as a dean. And in all those positions, I always tried to keep one thing in mind, and that is, we’re here to make kids’ lives better, to teach them, to help them learn, to help them find the best path in life. If people
will know me for that, that will be enough.

Q: What do you consider your most significant accomplishment as dean?

When I got here, the College of Education up here on the hill [the Mountaintop campus] was kind of an outpost that operated not quite outside the rest of Lehigh but a bit apart. And because of that, it was a College that lived by its own rules, and sometimes those rules were not in the best interest of the college or university.  A lot of decisions that were made back then were not based on data or the best available information. I put together programs and helped define roles for staff that allowed us to collect data that we could use to make important decisions regarding specific programs. That helped us in how we were viewed by the rest of the university and allowed the college greater national recognition. They began to see us as a group that had serious contributions to make toward not only the university but to the educational community, nationally and internationally.

Q: One of the hallmarks of the College of Education has been the research generated by its faculty. Was it a priority of yours?

One of the first things I did as dean was to hire my own in-house grant professional. That allowed us to increase our research revenue by 30 percent for the last several years. That is significant, because we are in the business of knowledge creation. We need research dollars to conduct the kind of investigations that will allow us to move our fields forward. We need those research dollars to help support our students so that we can teach them how to be effective and active professionals and to base decisions on research.  We are truly a research to practice kind of College. The research that we conduct, the findings that come from our work, our faculty are active in working to ensure that those best practices make it into the schools—locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

Q: You’ve brought some controversial speakers to Lehigh—Diane Ravitch and Geoffrey Canada among them. Why was it important to bring them to campus?

One of the major issues over the course of my deanship has been school reform. I wanted to find ways to provide a forum that would allow us to try to find some common ground between those who are adamant about privatizing and moving more toward charter schools and those who fear that those efforts are going to take critical resources away from public schools at a time they really need them.

In the College, we have a belief that the public schools in this country are essentially the engines of our democracy, that creating schools that everybody can go to is the one thing in this country that will allow any kid, when done correctly, to say I can be successful. It doesn’t matter how much money my parents make, it doesn’t matter what social stratus I come from, it doesn’t matter what my race is. Public schools are the promise of equality and equity. So I’ve always felt that we should be able to find common ground between those who push for charters and those who push for public schools. At the same time, charter schools can provide quality educational experiences to underserved populations and act as a laboratory for effective practice if they adhere to their original mandate.

Q: The Autism Clinic is set to open in January 2018. Why take this step now?

A number of factors lined up to allow me to push that forward. I came from a university where I had an appointment in a College of Education, but I also had an appointment in a College of Medicine at the University of Iowa. I co-directed clinics there for kids with self- injurious and aggressive behavior. We worked in multidisciplinary ways to provide services to those kids. When I came here, I always wanted to do that. However, I got caught up in doing dean stuff. What is allowing this to happen now is that we have a new director of our Center for Promoting Research to Practice, Lee Kern. She is one of the leading experts in the area of special education, and she has done a lot of work in the area of autism. The other thing that aligned is that the special education faculty group developed a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) program to train graduate students to work with kids with autism using applied behavior analysis, the only therapeutic teaching program that is recommended for kids with autism. That program has already been recognized as one of the best in the country.

I provided initial funding and moved some people around, and we’ll be opening a clinic in January that will not only train graduate students to be certified behavior analysts but will also teach them how to teach others to work with kids with autism. It will allow us to conduct original research related to what works best. It will allow us to work with parents so that they can manage their kids more effectively, and it will be incredibly helpful to the community.

I want to see it up and running before I walk out of here. My father and my mother always taught me to not only start well but to end well. I’m going to do that and support this faculty and get them ready for new leadership, because it’s an exciting time for this faculty and for this College.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced as dean? Or is that time now?

There’s always challenges. When I came here in 2008 it was right at the start of the economic crisis. At one of the first senior leadership meetings with the president…the provost, the deans, all the other stems, we were trying to decide how to weather it in the best way. How do we maintain our status without cutting programs? How do we continue to do things in a way that makes sense? One of the things we decided…was that it’s a crisis but it’s also an opportunity. While other universities were cutting programs, cutting staff, putting faculty on furloughs, we moved money around so that we would continue to give faculty and staff small raises, we would continue to hire…. We were able during that time to build a stronger faculty, to recruit and bring in some really strong people.

Another challenge has been the visibility of the College. We’re incredibly productive, we have some of the best programs around, but we are small and, we are moving from a university that has been very undergraduate centric to one that is more in tune with graduate education and building a research model here that is compelling and thoughtful. We’ve been working on setting a strategic direction for this College in relation to where we’re going and what the future is going to be. Some of that is kind of looking into a crystal ball but most often it is an examination of national trends.

The other significant challenge for graduate Colleges of Education has to do with knowledge production. If you look around you, most of the discussions in this country, about our most pressing issues, are highly politicized. We have, in this country, divisions that are incredibly large right now, and people are picking the kind of information that will support their already held beliefs. Graduate Colleges of Education try to be as objective as possible and will tell you the truth even if they don’t like what the truth is. We also have a strong advocacy base for kids. So we will do whatever we can for them. But it is impossible to be an advocate for kids without the best available data. You don’t know if what you’re doing is really being helpful.  So you might be doing something that makes you feel good but doesn’t really help those we serve. 

Q: Tell us about the College’s new strategic plan.

We are going to be dedicated to the best knowledge production. We are going to be dedicated to theory to practice. We don’t just do research but also disseminate it as widely as possible. We’re going to continue to be very dedicated to international education because the world is smaller now, and we can have an impact. We need to take the best available data not only in this country but in other countries to help us find our way forward in our schools and in our programs.  We are going to be more dedicated to justice issues. We have a number of faculty dedicated to finding the most equitable ways to help children. Sometimes that becomes political, so our faculty walk a thin line related to what is equity without it becoming politicized in a way that detracts from what the best available data tell us we should be doing. Too many start with a conclusion and then seek to advance programs based on these conclusions without a careful examination of whether they are warranted.

Q: Any advice for your successor?

The new dean is going to inherit an excellent, motivated, productive staff and faculty. If that person supports them, they will make you look really, really good. ′