‘I’ve Never Regretted That I Came Here’: Liberal Arts Dean Susan Welch’s Tenure Comes To A Close
Dr. Susan Welch has served as dean of the College of the Liberal Arts since 1991, making her one of the longest-serving deans in university history. During that time, Welch has put together an astounding list of accomplishments.
All the while, Dr. Welch has remained a prominent scholar within the field of American politics. She received her doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1970 and made her way to Penn State from the University of Nebraska in 1991. Welch has 170 scholarly articles, six books, and two textbooks under her belt and has been named one of her generation’s most cited scholars in political science.
Welch will step down as dean of the College of the Liberal Arts on July 1, returning to faculty to continue her research. We sat down with Dean Welch to discuss her tenure, her future, and Penn State generally.
Students in Dean Welch’s college will have certainly noticed one thing by now: Opportunities for undergraduate students in the College of the Liberal Arts have flourished during Welch’s tenure. The Career Enrichment Network and the Paterno Fellows Program — an honors and leadership program within the college — have been integral to expanding the horizons of undergrads.
“I think the Career Enrichment Network has a specific genesis,” Welch said. “After the recession of 2008 and the job market kind of fell apart, we decided we needed to do more than we were doing for our undergraduates.”
With the support of alumni, the Career Enrichment Network has become the hub of student experiences external to the classroom. Liberal Arts students can find guidance on internships, full-time careers, and study abroad opportunities through this network.
The Paterno Fellows Program was an idea of former associate dean of the college Jack Selzer. Selzer viewed this honors program as a way to elevate the entire undergraduate experience for students with honors and leadership opportunities.
“I thought it was a great idea and I supported it,” Welch said. “Again, we had a lot of support from donors for that program. Then, we put the Paterno family name on it and that brought in more supporters.”
The program itself now even has an endowment to provide financial support for Paterno Fellows who are studying abroad or have internships. But Dean Welch’s tenure has gone beyond simply supporting students at the undergraduate level.
Welch has been integral in establishing a number of interdisciplinary centers housed within the college, including the Rock Ethics Institute, the Child Study Center, and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy.
“They aren’t usually my ideas — they’re the ideas of faculty, or groups of faculty, that say, ‘Here’s an area that we’re not doing that much in but is really important,'” Welch said.
Welch pointed to the Rock Ethics Institute as one particular example of an institute working to understand ethics — a perennial societal issue. Certainly, ethics is an area that crosses all disciplines, and Welch believed the College of the Liberal Arts was positioned to take the lead in such an area.
“You don’t think of the Liberal Arts as an applied field. Yet, the questions we ask and the things we study are so crucial to solving the world’s problems,” Welch explained. “We have the technology to solve a lot of things — climate change, for example — but we don’t have the will. It feels like it’s psychology, political science, and sociology that can help us understand that.”
Even the Richards Civil War Era Center is working to address the way we remember the conflict, along with the continuing freedom and equality struggle for African-Americans.
Welch says that, over her long tenure as dean, she is most proud of the faculty that her team has been able to bring together. She understood that bringing the best faculty to Penn State meant being competitive in terms of both salary and support, so she did just that.
Welch also set out to improve the graduate student experience, for which assembling a great faculty to attract graduate students is obviously important. She also worked to create competitive stipends to attract the brightest grad students.
“We are part of a market,” Welch said. “You can look around and say that liberal arts graduates are not valued when they first graduate, though they are in their careers. When you’re competing for the very best students and faculty, there is a competitive market.”
Taking advice from someone with Welch’s varied experiences and successes probably isn’t the worst idea in the world, and luckily she was willing to share some guidance for students.
“Take advantage of the things in your life that can help you and can help others,” Welch said. “Hundreds and even thousands of students have used our Career Enrichment Network, for example, but not everyone who could actually benefit from it.”
Dr. Welch is looking forward to a more flexible schedule after she steps down as dean on July 1, as well as being able to spend more time with her research. She hopes to have a closer connection to the political science department.
“I’ve come to love Penn State. I came here because it had aspirations to become a great university and I wanted to be part of that,” Welch said. “I thought there would be support for the liberal arts, which there has been.”
Welch believes the fact that they can say, “Welcome to the Penn State family” to new faculty members (and really mean it) makes Penn State special. Even the students seem to fall in love as soon as they set foot on campus.
“It’s just a great place and I’ve never regretted that I came here.”
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