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Academic Leadership and How ASA Helps Members Grow as Academic Leaders

1 February 2022 No Comment

Katherine Ensor

Hello, ASA colleagues. In this month’s column, I want to focus on leadership—specifically statisticians leading in the university environment. Future columns will address leadership from other sectors of our community.

Our profession has many exceptional examples of statistics faculty who have embraced opportunities of academic leadership. Many developed their leadership style through active engagement with the ASA.

As a field, statistics is collaborative and outward facing. We collaborate with each other to develop new insights and methodologies but connect outside our discipline to advance science and serve society. Thinking deeply about new methods and data, coupled with the transformative growth collaborative science brings, provides an extraordinary environment in which to grow as an academic leader. My mentor H. Joseph Newton was a superb Dean of Science at Texas A&M.

How do you get on the leadership radar screen of universities? For academic leadership, the ASA Caucus of Academic Representatives (CAR) brings together leaders of academic statistics and data science programs. It is generally this community, but not always, from which our members move into the role of deans, associate provosts, provosts, and even presidents.

To identify the best next leader for positions at the level of dean and above, universities will establish a search committee often supported by an external search firm. Statisticians serving on these search committees are the voices for our community. By identifying individuals from our community and advocating for suitable candidates, the national/international pool expands to include statisticians. It is also important to know that search firms maintain lists of individuals interested in academic leadership positions. The search process is the unique opportunity for the candidate and university to explore their shared values and vision prior to a commitment.

The interdisciplinary nature of our field positions us to lead a broad array of intellectual and educational efforts. For example, let me point out the academic leadership of three previous ASA presidents. At Rice University, we were privileged to have Sallie Keller (2006 ASA president) serve as dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering. At that time, I was chair of the statistics department and had the pleasure of working with her. She truly advanced our programs and opportunities during her tenure as dean, and the monumental steps forward by Rice engineering are still with us today.

Sally Morton (2009 ASA president) is the executive vice president of Arizona State University’s Knowledge Enterprise and previously served as dean of the Virginia Tech College of Science. And Sastry Pantula (2010 ASA president) serves as dean of the college of sciences at California State University, San Bernardino. Their leadership is appreciated and praised by many.

In case you are wondering, being ASA president is not required to lead at the university level! There are many superb examples from our community. At the provost and associate provost levels, we have Hal Stern, provost and executive vice chancellor of the University of California, Irvine; David Madigan, who serves as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern University; Monica Jackson, deputy provost and dean of the faculty at American University; and Kumer Das, assistant vice president for research, innovation, and economic development and vice provost at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Moving to the role of university president, Mark Becker recently ended his successful tenure leading Georgia State University and, in July 2021, Montse Fuentes became president of St. Edward’s University. University communities benefit immensely from the service of these and many other remarkable members of our profession.

Monste Fuentes

I reached out to Fuentes to garner further insight into how her role as a leading statistician helps her lead a university. With her path-breaking leadership, Fuentes has served the ASA and profession in many ways. While editor of the Journal of the American Statistical Association, Applications and Case Studies, she established the reproducibility requirements for ASA journals, truly setting up our profession as a leader in reproducibility and replicability of research findings. In 2017, she received the Medal of Distinguished Achievement from the Environmental Statistics Section for major statistical methodology contributions, leadership, and mentoring. She continues as an active ASA member, currently serving on the Committee on Fellows.

How did your training in statistics prepare you for or cultivate your interest in university leadership? 

The inherently interdisciplinary nature of statistics as the science that transforms data into knowledge, combined with my own interest to put that knowledge to practice to transform society and improve lives, facilitated a progression of leadership opportunities that allowed me to bring the gift of an education to others. My own statistical training has inspired me and allowed me to promote effective university leadership by making data-driven decisions with transparency and appreciating interdisciplinarity and the contribution of different disciplines to advance knowledge. It has also given me the confidence to deal with uncertainty and provide stable leadership to those relying on me.

How did the statistics community, and specifically the ASA, help you develop your leadership skills or provide you opportunities in this regard? 

A very important aspect of effective leadership beyond the management of decision-making is the ability to communicate effectively and be inspired to empower others. The ASA has presented continued opportunities for mentorship by giving me access to individuals who helped and inspired me, like Sally Morton and Marie Davidian. It also provided networking and connections, while giving me the opportunity to learn, practice, and enhance my communication skills. I am committed to paying it forward by being a good mentor to others.

What have you enjoyed most about university leadership? Enjoyed least?

What I enjoy the most is the students. They inspire me every day to be the best I can be for them; they bring initiative and a desire to create a better world—they are our future. It is such a joy to be part of their journey to a better and enriching life.

There is a significant amount of invisible work for a university president in relation to personnel matters, legal concerns, and litigation that needs to be given the attention and diligence it deserves without taking away from the joy of being an educator. It would be surprising for many how much litigation and legal matters involve university leadership.

What advice do you have for mid-career statisticians who are interested in contributing to society through university leadership? 

I always recommend seeking mentoring and coaching so you can develop into the best leader you can be. The ASA provides a lot of opportunities in this regard. A statistician already has half the preparation in place to becoming an effective university leader due to their ability to make informed decisions, manage budgets and uncertainty, and promote strategic thinking. But I would recommend training to enhance communication skills and opportunities to see how much satisfaction you get from helping others to be successful. In any leadership role, it is important to put the interest of others beyond your own, and you need to find it rewarding and satisfying to see others become successful for that to be sustainable.

Anything else you might want to share with our community?

We are navigating through difficult times, as our world has gone through upheaval. A university president needs to make a lot of difficult decisions daily without enough information, and our faculty and staff are suffering burnout. But I never have a bad day at work, because the mission of my institution—St. Edward’s—and my own values and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion are in complete and full alignment. I have learned the alignment of your institution’s values and your own is the most important aspect of successful leadership, because all the decisions need to be guided by those values, and I have the privilege of leading with values already embraced by the community.

Thank you to Fuentes for sharing her insight and wisdom with the future leaders reading this column.

A quick search of the term “leadership” on Amstat.org brings up about 5,280 results, including a 2018 President’s Corner column by Lisa LaVange about building a leadership institute. As I peruse this list, I see many activities in which ASA members advance the leadership conversation, including a JSM leadership professional development workshop and a series of leadership videos by Eli Lilly. Recently, the Washington Chapter hosted a leadership workshop for its members. The workshops are well attended and received. In 2020, the Council of Presidents of Statistical Societies established the Leadership Academy Award to “recognize early-career statistical scientists who show evidence of and potential for leadership and who will help shape and strengthen the field.” Are these individuals future university presidents? It is a fantastic group and growing, so one can hope!

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