A life in transition: Q and A with incoming Dean Kate VandenBosch

Kathryn “Kate” VandenBosch will become the 13th Dean of CALS on March 1st. During a recent visit to Madison, she talked about the process of pulling up stakes—both professional and personal ones—in Minnesota and putting down new ones here.

How are you coming with wrapping up things in the Twin Cities and getting ready for life here?
Time is moving very fast. I am making progress, but there is still a lot to do. I’m still a department head in Minnesota, but we’re close to announcing my replacement. That’s a relief, because I’m ready to hand over a lot of files and give a punch list for things in progress. Life has been a little bit piecemeal with so many different avenues of responsibility. On the personal side, our house is not yet on the market. A year ago this move wasn’t on my horizon—I wasn’t looking for jobs—so we’ve been playing catch-up. We’ll be renting here in Madison for a while, so that will give us time to test out ideas about where we’d like to live.

What has life been like since you accepted this position?
Anything but boring. I was here for a couple of days in both November and a couple of days in December, and then all the week of January 30th. That has enabled me to put a toe in the water and meet a lot of people. In this most recent trip I was able to get out around the state a little bit to meet some of our external constituents. It has been really important to do some groundwork, so that I don’t feel like I’m doing orientation when I arrive. I’m going to be able to hit the ground running.

I leave the University of Minnesota with very mixed feelings, a lot of friends and the satisfaction of some good accomplishments. I had a wonderful decade-plus there and I love the institution. But if you’re going to be leaving, those are the terms you want to be leaving on. And I’m really excited to come to a new challenge.

Tell me about your recent week here.
On Wednesday I went with Bill Tracy and Kent Weigel to meet with Bill Bruins, Wisconsin Farm Bureau president, on his farm near Waupun. It was a great experience. It was fun to meet them, and Bill Bruins was excited to talk about the history of their farm and what the region was like. Later that day, I had a chance to meet with Kara Slaughter and Darin Von Ruden of the National Farmers Union. It was really interesting to talk with all of them and I hope it was satisfying for them to meet me and to hear about the way I’m thinking about the college.

On Thursday, Birl Lowery and I went to Stevens Point to the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers annual conference. I sat in on some of the talks of our Extension faculty, and I was able to meet with Duane Maatz, executive director of the WPGA and some producers, including Steve and Andy Diercks. Again, it was a get-to-know-you session. They had some tough questions about my viewpoints and about where the college is heading, and I got to hear from them about the issues facing their industry. On the way up and back, Birl was in his professorial mode, telling me about the geology of the region, the hydrology, the vegetation and the farming styles. We also were able to stop at the Hancock and Arlington research stations.

Surrounding these visits, I met with a number of faculty who briefed me on issues related to the state’s agriculture, natural resources and economy. I also met with former deans Abe Aberle and Molly Jahn, as well as with Rick Klemme, dean of Cooperative Extension. I know there’s much that I haven’t encountered yet in terms of current issues, but we’ve at least touched on a number of them, so that on March 1st I’ll have a sense of what’s on the docket.

What do you see yourself doing over the next three months?
I have had a chance to sit down with each of the associate and assistant deans to hear about the challenges they see coming up in the next year. When I was here in December I joined with the APC to hear from department chairs about their hiring priorities. But I haven’t been able to connect very much with departments yet. So one of the primary things on my schedule for March will be meeting with each of the department chairs to hear about past achievements and their hopes and challenges for the year coming up. I hope that in the remainder of the spring semester I’ll have a chance to meet with their faculties.
Listening and learning will continue to be a really important part of the next few months.

I also feel that it’s an important time to be planning for CALS’ future in a systematic way. My current intention is that we will go through a strategic planning process in the next academic year to establish a framework for decision-making. We’re faced with a choice of how to invest a very small number of faculty positions and other scarce resources. Without guiding principles and priorities, that’s a tough choice to make. So during the rest of the semester we’ll be planning how we’ll build that framework—what questions should we address, who should be involved and what data we need to inform the process. Over the summer, the Dean’s office staff and I will be assembling the material we need to begin in earnest in the fall. We are going to need input from faculty, staff, students, alumni and external constituents. We’re such a big and diverse community that we need to be thoughtful in how we engage people and use opinions. It will require some coordination.

I know that some people will be reluctant. I have served on a variety of task forces and planning committees at the college and university level. Some have been extremely impactful and effective, but for some we expended a lot of effort for not a lot of visible gain. I’m sympathetic for people wanting to avoid that second plight. I’m committed to making it an effective process, because I’m going to be spending my time on it too.

What makes you the most excited about the new job? 
I’m excited by the breadth and scope of the college and the depth of expertise and excellence. This isn’t just any college; this is UW-Madison CALS, and it’s really exciting to be here because of its identity. It’s exciting to be meeting people and transitioning into being part of the community. I’ve always had really broad interests, and I’ve changed directions myself a couple of times. I feel like being dean is the way to have permission to continue to be a student at some level and to participate vicariously in all of the areas in which we have expertise and reach.

What makes you nervous?
These are challenging times, no bones about it. Fiscally, it’s very challenging. I’d like to think that we’ve reached a low point and will rebound, but there has been a trend in disinvestment in state institutions, even before the downturn, so it isn’t just a function of the economy. I don’t think we will always have this level of fiscal challenge, but it is certainly going to be a predominant concern for some time. But I’m here because I wanted a new challenge, and the fiscal situation is one of the ingredients. It’s the hand we’re dealt. The real challenge isn’t the circumstance; it’s how can we be creative in redefining ourselves to surmount the difficulties. That doesn’t mean throwing everything out and starting over, but continuing to support where we’re excellent, being creative about new resources, being good stewards of the resources that we have and finding a way to support future endeavors that might not be on our radar right now but are going to be critical in the next couple of decades.

Are you bringing your research program with you?
I decided not to. I’m finishing up some publications from our experimental work, but I’m not going to put a lab together at this point, because I really want to focus on the job of Dean. In fact I had been at a point where I was beginning to redirect some of my efforts to spend more time on communicating science to the public. At the time I was thinking more about initiating some major writing projects. I don’t expect to have time to do a lot of major pieces, but boy, communicating science to the public is a big part of this job.

What flavor ice cream should they keep on hand for you at the Babcock store?
Coffee is my favorite. That comes from my graduate years in Massachusetts, where there were four standard flavors—chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and coffee. But the other part of the answer is that I’m lactose intolerant, so I hope that Babcock Hall will have a yogurt-based or lactose-free product. I do eat a lot of dairy products—I carry the lactase enzyme tablets with me wherever I go. I’m all about the dairy products where microbes have done the work in breaking down the lactose, so I can’t wait to become a lot more familiar with the artisanal cheeses that are available in Wisconsin.