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ARL Leadership Fellows Institute at Vanderbilt: Fellows and Connie Dowell Talk about the Program

projected word cloud at Vanderbilt University Library
Real-time projection of search terms at Vanderbilt University Library, courtesy Vanderbilt University

Last week the new cohort of ARL leadership fellows convened on Vanderbilt University’s wooded campus in Nashville, Tennessee, for the first of three strategic issues institutes. The ARL Leadership Fellows program, designed and sponsored by ARL member libraries, helps develop future executive-level leaders of large research libraries and archives.

The institute—hosted by Connie Vinita Dowell, dean of libraries at Vanderbilt, and facilitated by Elliott Shore and Mark A. Puente of ARL—featured a full week of sessions with such leaders as Richard McCarty, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Vanderbilt; John Lutz, vice chancellor for information technology at Vanderbilt; Beth Fortune, vice chancellor for public affairs at Vanderbilt; and Charles Henry, president of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).

One afternoon focused on students and their relationships with the library. Frank Wcislo, dean of the Ingram Commons, spoke about the first-year student experience in the “living and learning community” of the commons—a residential campus of 10 houses where all first-year students live, each guided by a faculty “head of house.” As part of the commons program, Wcislo introduces every first-year student to the library. Several Vanderbilt students also delivered presentations on the Dean’s Fellowship program in the library, as well as ways in which the library can work with student leaders.

A morning was devoted to talks about campus planning, sustainability, and the 2010 renovation of the Central Library, which was awarded gold certification from the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

Two ARL library directors from the region—Terry Birdwhistell, dean of libraries at University of Kentucky, and Steve Smith, dean of libraries at University of Tennessee, Knoxville—candidly discussed what they wish they had known before taking their current positions.

The fellows were also treated to several receptions and dinners, including an evening at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center with John Seigenthaler, journalist and founder of the center.

The Fellows

ARL Leadership Fellows at Vanderbilt University
ARL Leadership Fellows, courtesy Vanderbilt University, click to enlarge

When asked to reflect on the program so far, several fellows described it as “intense.” David Banush, associate university librarian for access services and collection management at Brown University, echoed that description, adding that the program is giving him and the other fellows “a lot of information to take in, sort through, absorb, and analyze.”  

Many fellows value the exposure to a broader perspective that the program offers. As Amanda Etches, head of discovery and access at University of Guelph, said, the “focus on university-wide and higher education issues that I don’t encounter in my day-to-day job is quite interesting.” Evelyn Frangakis, assistant director for preservation at the New York Public Library, said it was valuable to “see libraries through the provost’s eyes,” for example, and to hear him talk about his relationship with the dean, his expectations of the library, his perceptions of opportunities, and his views of higher education.

Several fellows mentioned how useful it was to hear Connie Dowell talk about building and maintaining relationships across campus. Patrick Deaton, associate director at North Carolina State University, noted the fact that John Seigenthaler devoted an entire “extraordinary” evening to the fellows, which shows how highly Seigenthaler values his relationship with Dowell and the library.

Beth McNeil, associate dean at Purdue University, was not alone among the fellows in noting the long-term value of building a cohort. The opportunity to interact for five days with colleagues from around the continent creates a peer group that the fellows will turn to throughout their careers. McNeil said, “They call this a cohort for the 18 months [of the program]…it’s truly going to be longer than that.”

On a practical note, Wayne Jones, associate university librarian at Carleton University, said that before the program started he was somewhat worried that it might be too biased toward “book learning” and management theory. He is delighted that this is not the case. Jones said that the program is giving him a good sense of what the library director job is actually like and what qualities a successful director has, citing, for example, the advice that Terry Birdwhistell and Steve Smith gave the fellows to be “affable non-dictators.” 

Caitlin Tillman, head of collection development at University of Toronto, noted that she has heard some fellows say, “The more we learn, the more we wonder, do we actually want to become library directors?” One of the good things about this program, said Tillman, is that, when the answer to that question is yes, “it becomes a better-informed yes.” 

One reason so many library leaders do say “yes” is that they feel called by the service aspect of the job. Evelyn Frangakis spoke of being drawn to the fellows program because she “wants to explore how she might make a contribution to the profession in a broader way.” Connie Dowell’s emphasis on supporting the university and the community it serves, especially the students, resonated strongly with Frangakis. She is inspired by Dowell’s pursuit of opportunities—such as the Dean’s Fellowship program—that nurture students throughout their experience at Vanderbilt and help make the library the “heart of the campus.”

Dean Connie Vinita Dowell

Connie Vinita Dowell
Connie Vinita Dowell

Connie Dowell shared her perspective as a library dean and host of the institute. She said she was “thrilled to be selected as a program sponsor and even more so to host one of the institutes.” As an ARL Board member, she considers this program to be “one of the top three most important things that ARL is doing right now.” Dowell believes the program will strengthen research libraries in the long run because it will give them better-prepared leaders.

For the institute agenda, Dowell invited vice chancellors, provosts, and other colleagues to reflect on the library as if they were talking with a new dean of libraries. She said they agreed instantly and some even changed their schedules to do it, demonstrating the value they place on the library and on their relationship with Dowell.

In a personal reflection, Dowell said, “I wish I’d been in a program like this early in my career.” She noted, as several fellows did, the value of the exposure to many perspectives from different professional positions—inside and outside the library—at multiple institutions. This experience takes the fellows out of their local situations and focuses them on high-level, strategic issues.

Dowell herself learned a lot about her own institution this week, having some “aha moments” about ways she could do things differently in her own job, moments brought about by the combination of different perspectives.

She said she was truly “wowed by the fellows.” She was also happy to see the diversity in their backgrounds, which shows the profession is changing from the days when she was told, “You can’t be a dean unless you follow a narrowly prescribed path.”  

The only regret that Dowell expressed about the institute at Vanderbilt was that it couldn’t span two weeks instead of one. There were many more people she wanted the fellows to meet and hear from, such as David Owens, a professor in the Graduate School of Management who specializes in creativity and innovation.

As fellow Patrick Deaton said, “Connie has set the bar high for the next institute.”

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