A self-described farm kid who never thought he would attend college, Todd Rosenstiel is now at the helm of Portland State's largest school with his sights set on transforming the college for the better — even in the midst of an uncertain future. He says his own journey as a first-generation college student, collaborative researcher and, most recently, associate dean of research and graduate programs has prepared him well for his new role as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
It was at Northland College, a small liberal arts college in Ashland, Wisconsin, where he was grounded in the liberal arts tradition. Though he was a science major, some of his favorite classes were in the humanities, where he learned to think broadly about issues. He participated in undergraduate research — something he continues to champion today. He also had the opportunity to serve as a student trustee and got his first taste of leadership in higher education working alongside the college's president and board to advance issues of student success and experience.
"It taught me a lot about how colleges are run, the role of philanthropy in transforming lives, and how to run an integrative college of liberal arts and sciences," he said.
Rosenstiel then attended the University of Colorado, Boulder, for graduate school. He learned to overcome imposter syndrome and, after some fits and starts, honed in on what would become the focus of his research career: the effects of plants on the atmosphere and the effects of climate change on plants. He participated in a graduate teaching training program that later served as a model for the Certificate of Innovation in College Teaching that he developed with the Office of Academic Innovation's Jaime Wood to better prepare PSU's graduate students as future faculty.
As a postdoctoral researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at UC Boulder, Rosenstiel says he learned the value of faculty from different disciplines coming together to address major problems.
"That helped show me what's possible when you bring faculty from diverse disciplines together to focus on one collective problem," he said. "We have an amazing group of faculty across many areas. Once we begin to appreciate the bench strength of our researchers and scholars, my job is to help elevate the impact of their collective research and scholarship."
Building on his experiences and successes so far, Rosenstiel says he hopes to chart a new path forward for CLAS.
"My hope is that in three years from now, we will see a very integrated college of liberal arts and sciences with a true collective spirit and a mission goal of impacting students," he said. "I want it to be a place where faculty and staff can thrive, and all students feel safe, seen, protected and supported. If a student decides to come to PSU, we'll do everything we can to ensure they get their degree and are set up to have an impact-rich life."
DEI 'a central mission'
At the heart of that work is a commitment to advancing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
"It has to be a central mission — that means at all levels and all aspects of how we operate in this college," Rosenstiel said, acknowledging his own privilege as a white man and the need to check his daily actions and behaviors.
He says department chairs have begun having substantial conversations around how to advance DEI efforts and each department will be tasked with developing a DEI action plan. A deep dive into demographic data for each program will also help the college better understand where it is serving students and where it is falling short.
This summer, the college initiated a cluster hire in the School of Gender, Race and Nations that will bring together seven faculty members as a way to increase interdisciplinary research around a collective theme and increase diversity. Rosenstiel spearheaded a cluster hire in environmental extremes in 2017 and hopes the SGRN cluster hire will become a model for recruiting and retaining faculty of color.
He plans to expand opportunities for faculty to engage in college changemaking work through a faculty fellows program. He would also like to introduce new voices into the decision-making process through a student advisory council, a humanities research advisory council, and a community advisory committee.
"They'll help us work through the evolution and transformation of the college," he said.
Rosenstiel has also begun meeting with department staff from across the college to better understand their experiences so the college can find ways to better support them.
"Higher education is ripe with inequity. It's a system that advances liberal ideology, but in daily practice, it isn't actually engaged with the work of social transformation," he said. "Higher ed must be the place that shows the rest of society how to do it well. We're not there yet.
"If universities cannot walk the talk and truly advance issues of inclusion and equity, how do we expect other parts of our society to do the same?" he continued. "Our responsibility is to lead by action."
5 Questions with Todd Rosenstiel
Describe yourself in a tweet.
Curious, enthusiastic rabble-rouser
What brings you joy?
Helping others find their path — trying to figure out what I can do to help others have the impact they want to have in the world. That brings me a lot of joy.
As a first-gen student knowing what you know now, what would you tell your younger self?
Listen to yourself first. Listen to others second.
You've spent a lot of time in Antarctica. What lessons from your time there can be helpful in your new role as dean?
Successfully navigating hard challenges requires strong teams. You don't survive Antarctica alone; it takes a team. Whether it's navigating extreme environments or navigating higher ed, it's going to take a collective approach.
If you had one superpower, what would it be?
I would love the power to stop time for a moment.