May 8, 2013 Issue
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A New Dean Takes the Reins - Dan Fallon

A New Dean Takes the Reins - Dan Fallon

Dan Fallon

Dan Fallon became dean of CU Denver’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) at the birth of the Auraria campus—and had to navigate the college through a new environment nobody understood. “Just before Auraria opened, I remember [CU Denver chancellor] Harold Haak saying, ‘The great experiment begins tomorrow,’” says Fallon. During his eight-year tenure he strived to transform the entrenched image of the Denver campus as an extension center into an image of the University of Colorado at Denver.

He started by restructuring CLAS. “It was important to have a stronger governance structure within the new university,” he says. He led the creation of college bylaws and established a CLAS council with faculty members elected from the departments as well as student members. He also established the first CLAS external advisory council, which included Denver community figures like Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole. With this structure in place he set about working with the faculty to improve the college’s programs.

Mathematics was one program that Fallon fundamentally rethought. “Math was a large credit-hour generator, but the department was being run as if its only function was to teach calculus to prospective engineers,” he says. “Although this role was important and had to be maintained, it was not appropriate at a major university for it to be the sole driver of the department’s existence. It was part of an inferiority complex at CU Denver. Developing a balanced math program was exceptionally difficult.” Fallon sought to strengthen the position of strong researchers within the department, such as Vance Faber and Roland Sweet, while working with the department leadership to broaden its perceived role and mission. He made it clear that new resources would not be committed to the department until an acceptable long term strategy was in place. As the department’s leadership changed through attrition, Fallon worked with a new chair, Zenas Hartvigson, to turn the department around. Together they laid the groundwork for an applied math program in which CLAS could invest. “I thought this was the wave of the future, the kind of math that supports today’s computer technologies,” he says. The math department began hiring in this area and ultimately created an applied math PhD program a few years after Fallon left CU Denver. “Things don’t usually happen exactly according to plan, but if you have a plan you can, over time, achieve something,” says Fallon. “This was one of those singular achievements.”

Dan Fallon

Dan Fallon

He is also proud of the faculty he helped recruit. One of his innovations was hiring academic couples. “People meet in graduate school, get married, and both have PhDs so it’s hard to find jobs together,” he says. He enabled academic couples to hire into a single position—each responsible for half the academic workload—while pursuing separate careers and being evaluated independently. “The most notable of these couples was Teresa and Gerald Audesirk in biology,” says Fallon. “They had strong academic careers, developed a research program in ecology, and wrote textbooks you’ll find on campuses everywhere.” Apart from couples recruitment, the late 1970s and early 1980s were good years for the academic job market, and CLAS made a number of strong appointments that reinforced its departments.

Fallon is grateful for all of the exceptional faculty he had around him, who enthusiastically and intelligently committed themselves to strengthening the institution and brought about positive change. “Most of the faculty were about the same age, hired during the boom years around the mid to late 1960s,” he says. “So there was a lot of ambitious energy bottled up. It seemed as though during the Denver Center days they were never taken seriously even though they were serious people—they were doing things big time and never lost focus and commitment. The idea that there was something substantive at CU Denver was very difficult for opinion leaders at the central office of CU to understand. Between 1976 and 1984 there was a shift that made CU Denver visible to CU and allowed it to be taken seriously.”

As Fallon and the rest of the university were striving for recognition, they celebrated their victories large and small. One symbol of legitimacy was the new Auraria Library. “If your faculty is serving older students taking classes after 5:00 PM, and you have few facilities, it is difficult to feel like a university,” says Fallon. “Once we had a real research library, suddenly we had a campus.”

Fallon remembers the first CU Denver commencement in 1977 as another important milestone. “When we were the CU Denver Center we had hardly any standing as a legitimate, separate academic enterprise that was part of CU. A tangible milestone was reached when we had a real commencement on the Auraria campus, in the library,” he says. As part of the commencement CU Denver was authorized to confer honorary degrees. “That tiny thing for many people made a big difference,” he says. “We gave one to [American historical novelist] Leon Uris, a resident of Aspen, who was extremely touched. He teared up during the remarks. It was the first time any academics had recognized him. He resonated with an academic institution dedicated to working people in an urban environment, which is what CU Denver stood for. Afterwards I thought, ‘Something has changed around here.’”

Fallon left CU Denver in 1984 to become dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M. In 1993 he took a position as academic vice president and provost at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he stayed until he became the chair of the Education Division at Carnegie Corporation of New York in 2000. He retired in 2008.

“I have extremely fond memories of my time at CU Denver,” says Fallon.

It was an extraordinary time and place with faculty who had a real sense of commitment, perseverance, and idealism. CU Denver was already an institution of substance when the CLAS faculty recommended I be appointed as their dean, but it had not yet emerged in public consciousness or in its own self perception as the strong university it actually was. I was lucky to have been part of the faculty during that singular time when its own exertion gave it the public stature it had earned. CU Denver still has complicated relationships, but people now take it seriously.

Jarett Zuboy is a CU Denver graduate student in history and a freelance technical writer.

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