UNH welcomes its 20th president

Monday, October 22, 2018
Jim and Jan Dean

Photo credit: Jeremy Gasowski

Teddy Hagen can claim some credit for the one, non-negotiable item any university would have to offer if it wanted to add James W. “Jim” Dean Jr. to its short list of candidates for a new president: A nearby airport with direct flights to Raleigh, North Carolina.

Flying nonstop would make it easier for Teddy to visit the man he loves to play “horsey” with. The one who sings “Sweet Baby James” to lull him to sleep. The tall man with the cheerful laugh, warm hugs and big heart who can calm Teddy’s wickedest meltdown.

Those things matter when you’re two years old, like Teddy. He shares a special connection with his grandad and nanny, Jim and Jan Dean. So does his sister, Madi Ruth, 4. As do the Deans’ two adult daughters, Noelle Dean Hagen (Teddy and Madi Ruth’s mom) and Bridget Wamsley, and their extended families, all of whom live in the Raleigh area.

“I told Jan I wouldn’t consider any place that didn’t have a direct flight,” says Jim Dean, who was announced in April as the 20th president of the University of New Hampshire. “Why make it any harder to see them?”

Jim Dean and family
Jan and Jim Dean in North Carolina at the April wedding of their daughter Bridget Dean Wamsley. Photo credit: Kayla Coleman Photography.

Dean brings more than 30 years of higher education experience to UNH, and his impeccable credentials reveal a respected leader who earned promotions across three universities, along with an appointment as a program director at the National Science Foundation. Most recently, he served as executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he joined the faculty in 1997. He wrote two books about organization and management, and will soon publish a third, aimed at helping businesses and higher education institutions work together more effectively. They’re credentials that put him in rare company in public higher education.

But if you really want to know who the new UNH president is, it comes down to this: Jim Dean is a family guy. And you can expect to see his extended family visiting campus and exploring New Hampshire via direct flights beginning with the presidential inauguration during homecoming on Oct. 12.

Watch Dean's inauguration speech.

“I’m his biggest fan. And I know it sounds sort of cliché, but I can honestly say that my dad is my best friend,” says Bridget Wamsley, the Deans’ younger daughter and a global marketing executive for Cisco Systems. “To this day, if there’s anything, any challenge or any situation I want to talk about, professional or personal, I know I can call him up, day or night, and he’ll be there for me.”

Bridget was a competitive dancer growing up and, like her dad, she also played the clarinet and soccer. Despite a demanding work schedule, Jim Dean made it a priority to be there whenever she or her sister took to the field or stage. Today, Bridget can still hear her dad’s distinctive cheer rising above the crowd at her soccer games, always encouraging her to do her best: “Look up, Bridget! Look for the assist!”

Jim and Jan Dean with grandchildren

Jan and Jim Dean in North Carolina with their grandchildren, Madi Ruth and Teddy Hagen.

Not, “Shoot!” Not, “Go for the goal!” But, “Look for the assist!” Anyone who’s spent time at youth sporting events can tell you it’s not a cheer you’d expect from a parent, especially one like Jim Dean, who played soccer as an undergrad at Catholic University — and as a striker, or goal-scorer, no less. But encouraging his children toward teamwork, urging them to see the entire field and to look for goals that might be a few, well-placed passes away, gets to the heart of Dean’s style as a parent, mentor and leader.

Like her sister, Noelle cherishes the lessons he continues to share with her and, now, with her two children.

“I promised myself I wouldn’t get choked up when I started talking about him,” says Noelle, a marketing consultant with DuPont, who then pauses to catch her breath. “I could tell you so many great stories about my dad, but the best way to sum it up is this: He is seriously the most humble, genuine, fun and compassionate person you could ever hope to meet.”

Talk with Jim Dean for very long, and you get the sense that in the high-pressure, multi-tasking culture of higher education leadership, his family is a refuge, a warm and joyfully chaotic touchstone that offers comforting perspective at the end of even the most trying days.

“You go through a lot of changes in your life and throughout your career, but you only have one family. So, I try to keep that in mind,” says Dean, who grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., studied psychology at D.C.’s Catholic University and met his wife of 37 years while earning his doctorate in organizational behavior from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Dean’s father worked for the federal government, managing affordable housing projects for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The job provided a modest, middle-class lifestyle, and his dad’s stories about the challenges of working in a large bureaucracy sparked young Jim Dean’s interest in how big organizations get things done.

When he was first introduced to the UNH community at a reception in Huddleston Hall in April, Dean fielded plenty of questions about the big challenges he’ll face: issues around diversity, inclusion and equity; the budget; state support; research; student access and affordability; faculty relations; and strategic planning. Dean was well prepared, having fielded such questions many times. (Answer: It’s far too early to detail any initiatives Dean may direct. But he is listening, and learning everything he can about UNH and New Hampshire.)

Jim and Jan Dean
Photo credit: Jeremy Gasowski

Toward the end of the reception, someone asked Dean for his thoughts about leaving his longtime home in North Carolina. Dean’s blue eyes softened. He smiled, and thought a moment. And the old ballroom seemed to brighten as he spoke about being a proud grandfather, father and friend.

We learned that he and Jan were thrilled to be celebrating Bridget’s wedding at the end of April. That Madi Ruth and Teddy have their grandparents pretty much tied around their tiny fingers. That Jan, a nurse and a serious gardener, was scrambling to get their Chapel Hill home ready for the local garden club’s annual tour.

Jim Dean described their family’s frequent, busy and noisy multi-generational get-togethers as sort of a heaven on Earth.

Jan Dean agrees, and she laughs when asked what it’s like to be around the Dean family’s gatherings.

“If we go out to a restaurant, we’re the loud table,” she says. “We’re loud, but we’re also really fun and just really enjoy being together and meeting new people, too … In fact, a lot times the people around us end up joining us by the end.”

Jim Dean

UNH’s presidential search was kept confidential to attract the strongest pool of applicants. And although the 21-member search committee expected robust interest, John Small ’76, chair of the search committee and the University System of New Hampshire (USNH) board of trustees, says the quality and diversity were astounding.

“All I can say is that we were very, very impressed,” Small says. “It was incredibly gratifying, really. Because while we all know and love UNH, it was great to realize that so many incredibly talented people — including some highly accomplished and innovative leaders — look at UNH to be a real prize among public universities.”

And why shouldn’t they? During President Mark Huddleston’s 11-year tenure, UNH built an enviable record of achievements: Increases in student enrollments and national rankings. New schools of law, business, public policy and marine science. An expanded campus in Manchester. The new Wildcat Stadium. New business partnerships. And the historic CELEBRATE 150 fundraising campaign, which launched a host of strategic initiatives, particularly in the area of student support.

“In a lot of ways, they’re really stepping into an ideal situation,” says Nathaniel Stafford ’18G, who earned a Ph.D. in psychology in May and who served on the search committee. “For the right person, this is a terrific opportunity.”

With about 15,000 students, UNH is roughly half the size of UNC, which enrolls more than 29,000. That was a major draw for Dean. UNH’s smaller size, he says, along with New Hampshire’s much smaller population (1.3 million compared with more than 10 million in North Carolina) and geographic size makes it easier to know people, to meet face-to-face, to travel to every corner of the state and to accomplish things more quickly.

“It struck me going through the process that you can make a real difference in a state like this,” Dean says. “To join a flagship public research university like this is an incredible opportunity. I’m deeply honored and grateful, I really am.

So, what made Dean stand out in what John Small describes as a stellar field?

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu interviewed four finalists one-on-one at his State House office, and was impressed with Dean’s genuine desire to understand how UNH can work more closely with the state’s businesses and communities. Sununu says he was “struck by his thoughtful approach, experience and understanding of the need for the president of the state’s flagship public university to build relationships with businesses as well as the state’s leadership and its residents.”

Search committee members, ranging from students and staff to USNH board members and Chancellor Todd Leach, are remarkably consistent in their assessment of Dean’s character, echoing impressions such as, “genuine,” “authentic,” “trustworthy,” “open-minded” and “curious.”

“What really sold me on Jim is that he was genuinely interested in us and who we are. He wasn’t one of these people who comes in and only talks about himself,” says Charlie French ’08, who leads the community and economic development program for UNH Cooperative Extension. “He really listened. He asked great questions. It was a great conversation, almost like he was interviewing us as much as we were interviewing him.”

Jim Dean
Photo credit: Jeremy Gasowski

French was also impressed that Dean has worked at every level of higher education, rising from an assistant professor at Penn State to a tenured faculty member, dean and executive vice chancellor and provost at UNC.

In an interview with Seacoast Media Group following his introduction, Dean allowed as how faculty members often take a dim view of administration. “Yet here I am. I went from faculty member to associate dean to senior associate dean to provost and now a president. (You) see as you go up the ranks the importance of the work that gets done. You see the challenges.”

At his introduction, Dean also stressed that he’s committed to being accessible to students, and invited them to send him their ideas for keeping a dialogue going. Sure enough, just a week into the job, Dean received an email introduction from Tyler Anderson ’19, a senior majoring in sociology and the historian for the UNH student senate. Dean wrote Anderson back within a few hours — and invited him to have dinner, that night. The two met at Durham’s Three Chimneys Inn, and Anderson came away impressed.

“As a student, I’m very enthusiastic,” Anderson says. “It’s really impressive that he’s making the effort to be as public as possible and to hear as many perspectives as possible, right from the start.”

Jim Dean with students

Student perspectives will be especially important as Dean engages in ongoing efforts to improve UNH’s campus climate, which has been in the spotlight since a number of high-profile racial incidents in 2017. In North Carolina, Dean earned praise for his dedication to promoting diversity, exemplified in his hiring practices (he hired seven new deans) and his work with student groups. When it was announced he would leave UNC, he was praised for his collegiality, openness, warmth and compassion, and for his commitment to helping students from diverse backgrounds, especially first-generation and low-income students.

“Diversity and inclusion are really at the heart of what a public university is about,” Deans says. “So, if a university is not welcoming or doesn’t feel welcoming to all groups of people, then it's really not doing its job. Obviously, this isn’t a unique problem here in New Hampshire. We faced it at UNC Chapel Hill as well. And you could go across the country and every university has that challenge.”

Dean also earns high marks for the character he brings to managing people, building teams and mentoring those who report to him day-to-day.

“Perhaps the highest compliment I can give [President] Dean is that he would make a superb nurse,” says Nilda (Nena) Peragallo Montano, dean of the UNC School of Nursing. “He is a gentleman-leader, holding his impeccable standards in easy equilibrium with his compassion for those he leads.”

Nathaniel Stafford, the doctoral graduate who served on the search committee, isn’t surprised that the USNH board of trustees voted unanimously in favor of Dean’s appointment.

“To make it into the top few finalists, for me, I had to feel like the responses to my questions had to be genuine,” says Stafford. “It’s easy to tell if someone is giving you answers that were scripted, or if they’re really being genuine and from the heart. Jim Dean spoke from the heart.

Speaking from the heart comes naturally for Jim Dean. Not surprising for a man who puts his family first. After all, what else would you expect from someone who, despite all his professional accomplishments, defines his greatest moments in life in the joyful chaos of a busy family, including those games of “horsey” with Teddy?

Listen to President Dean's inauguration speech.