UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls
All three of the colleges at UW-River Falls have a new dean this academic year. From left, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) Wesley Kisting; Dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES) Michael Orth; and Dean of the College of Education, Business and Allied Health (CEBAH) Muhammad Chishty. Pat Deninger/UWRF photo.
Sept. 7, 2023 – As a new academic year begins, all three colleges at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls have a new dean, a rarity that those leaders see as an opportunity to create innovative programs that will serve students in a fast-changing world.
Michael Orth, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES); Muhammad Chishty, dean of the newly established College of Education, Business and Allied Health (CEBAH); and Wesley Kisting, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), each began working at UW-River Falls this summer.
University officials said they are uncertain when, if ever, UW-River Falls has had the deans of all its colleges begin work at the same time. In recent years, the university had four colleges before the College of Business and Economics (CBE) and the College of Education and Professional Studies (CEPS) merged into CEBAH on July 1.
“It is certainly rare for a campus to have all deans start at the same time,” Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs David Travis said. “You almost never hear of that happening.”
The three deans come from decidedly different backgrounds. Orth has been at large universities, having worked as a faculty member at Texas Tech University and Michigan State University after attending the UW-Madison and the University of Iowa as a student. Chishty studied political science at Williams College and finance at Georgia State University and has worked at large regional comprehensive state universities as well as mid-sized private institutions, most recently serving as dean of the college of business at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. Kisting earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in English and writing in the Midwest before becoming a professor and administrator at Augusta University in Georgia, an institution that underwent significant changes to its mission and student profile.
Despite their differing histories, the trio said they quickly hit it off upon meeting each other. During a recent interview, the three deans laughed and joked, discussing everything from trucks to their childhoods to target shooting.
“We do come from different backgrounds, but we quickly learned that we like spending time together,” Orth said. “We formed this bond right away.”
Kisting and Orth connected with each other via LinkedIn and subsequently met at a River Falls Fighting Fish baseball game. They then met up with Chishty and now make it a point to meet often.
“This was a big reason why I wanted to come here, that there were these two other deans who were new too, people I could collaborate with,” Kisting said.
Chishty, Kisting and Orth gather regularly, get-togethers they said help them generate ideas and connect possible changes beyond their respective colleges and across campus. They hope those sessions will lead to big-picture initiatives that will enhance student learning and enable faculty to teach most effectively.
Since they arrived on campus earlier this summer, the trio said they have been impressed by the friendly, can-do spirit of campus and faculty’s commitment to fostering student learning. They have spent time learning about the university and its strong traditions.
However, the three deans said they know that they will need to devise new ideas for delivering education, and that they face challenges amid a lack of financial resources. UW-River Falls and higher education institutions in Wisconsin and across the country are experiencing declining enrollment and the concurrent lack of funding that comes with reduced student numbers.
“We see it as an opportunity to collaborate,” Chishty said of difficulties in higher education. “All three of us can work together to create interdisciplinary programs to benefit this university. We see a lot of threats on the horizon, so obviously we have to make changes in what we offer.”
The deans have been meeting with faculty and will do so more to discuss ideas about possible changes to curriculum delivery. Given enrollment concerns, they are considering ways to offer classes differently, potentially making greater use of flexible scheduling and online learning. Many of those good ideas will come from faculty, they said.
“I’m telling everyone to start thinking about what we can do differently to try to engage more students,” Chishty said, noting those efforts should include finding ways to engage learners 30 and older.
Kisting agreed that UW-River Falls, like other universities, must find ways to attract more students and boost enrollment. He said the campus focus on student learning through collaboration with talented faculty provides a strong educational base that will be improved by new, interdisciplinary approaches.
“All three of us share an interest in innovation and looking at ways to think outside the box and come up with innovative ways to do things for our students,” Kisting said. “I am here because all I see are opportunities for this campus.”
An interdisciplinary approach to learning – getting students to see connections between different areas of study – will be key to educating students who will be able to solve the problems of tomorrow, Orth said.
“Life is much more complex now,” he said. “Nowadays you’re not just thinking about farming, but you’re thinking about your impact on the environment and animal welfare and carbon credits and so much more. We need to get students to realize they can’t only specialize one area to the exclusion of others. You have to offer them more breadth.”
While having new deans at each of UWRF’s three colleges simultaneously could provide challenges, Chancellor Maria Gallo said that circumstance offers the right circumstances for innovation that will benefit the university and its students.
“Having three deans start at the same time offers a rare opportunity for close collaborations to develop from the very start,” Gallo said. “This will result in more interdisciplinary offerings, leading to the expansion of forward-thinking programs that will tremendously benefit our students.”
Provost and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs David Travis said he is happy to see the new deans working so closely together to identify cross-college opportunities to move the campus forward.
“This allows fresh perspectives and newly formed working relationships to bring renewed energy and collaborative opportunities to campus,” Travis said of the trio starting simultaneously.
The three deans said they are aware of the perils of pushing for too much change right away. They agree it’s important to listen to faculty and get a better sense of the university’s culture before altering too much.
“You can be the new sheriff in town, but you have to balance that with listening to people. We must make sure to listen to the people here,” Orth said. “They are familiar with this campus, and they have a lot of good ideas.”
The deans acknowledge that some changes may prove difficult. But moving forward may prove easier, they said, because they are all new to their jobs at the same time.
“That’s one of the big benefits of having three deans come into this school at once,” Kisting said. “So often that kind of change is difficult because it is hard to get across the different silos. But with the three of us starting together, we don’t have as many of those silos in place.”
And as they encounter challenges and attempt new ideas and approaches, Chishty, Orth and Kisting will continue to rely on each other to determine how best to forge ahead – and sometimes for a much-needed laugh.
“Being here with these guys, it feels like just the right mix of skill sets and approaches to make a positive difference here,” Chishty said. “And the work is always easier when you are doing it with people who are your friends.”