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Sasso: “What a College of Education in the 21st Century should be”



Gary Sasso plans to continue the College of Education’s tradition of groundbreaking scholarly research.

Gary Sasso became the seventh dean of Lehigh’s College of Education on July 1, 2008. He brings to the position a passion for special education research and a lifetime of work devoted to children with autism. It’s his commitment to that type of research—the kind that transforms the way we think about our schools and, to a greater extent, our communities—that he says he shares with faculty in the College of Education.

Sasso comes to Lehigh from the University of Iowa, where, for seven years, he served as chairperson of the Department of Teaching and Learning. Now just two months on the job, Sasso outlines his early vision for the college and his plans on continuing the college’s tradition of groundbreaking scholarly research in this Q&A with Tom Yencho, associate director of marketing and communications at Lehigh.

You come from a university—and a culture—that has a different perspective than Lehigh. What has that adjustment been like for you?
What I see here is a research intensive university. We operate as a “Research I” university, even though we don’t have a Research I status. And that’s only because we’re relatively small. But the College of Education truly does outperform a lot of our peers in many ways—in terms of research, in terms of endowment money, in terms of grant dollars awarded to our faculty, and in terms of the breadth of our influence across the country and in Washington, D.C. This is a strong and vibrant place, and it really captures what I envision a College of Education in the 21st Century should be.

How much of a role does faculty play in helping to reshape the college in that light?
Lehigh has such a highly-regarded reputation among the education community already. There are world-class scholars here in the college that I have known both professionally and personally over the years. What’s impressive about Lehigh is that we are a research intensive university devoted to both our scholarship and to training professionals—not only to work in the schools, but training leadership personnel to go out and conduct research that changes the face of education. We want to train the next generation of top-flight scholars, the kind that can go on and teach at other top-notch universities. And we have faculty that promotes that kind of culture.

You’ve been at Lehigh for a short amount of time—just a few months. What is it that we do well?
Education is constantly changing and, in order to meet that challenge, we need to teach very well and have strong, interdisciplinary doctoral and masters programs that give our students something that other doctoral universities don’t—or can’t—give. We expect our graduates to not only succeed within one particular field, but to also have a breadth of knowledge that spans other fields, too, because interdisciplinary work is where most of the interesting research is being done today. It’s a necessary ingredient in developing new knowledge.

But we also need to have faculty who are engaged in cutting edge research. Much of the research already coming out of here is highly-regarded; my goal is to enhance that by putting into place a range of supports that help faculty do the work they need to do. We have a very lean administrative and support structure here, so I plan on opening up a new grant services office in the college to help take some of the administrative burden off our faculty. Most other universities already have that in place. With a little more help, we can be even more productive in the type of research we do and the number of grants we earn.

Can you speak about your vision and where you see the college heading in the next few years?
The college is going to be very focused over the next 5-10 years. We are headed towards becoming more interdisciplinary in our mindset and deliver research that has international implications. The world is becoming smaller and smaller, and we can more easily conduct joint research with our peers in other countries who are experiencing similar—or not so similar—problems. I think Lehigh is in a unique position to do comparison studies across cultures, across educational settings, and across disabilities—which manifest differently depending on what culture you are in—while also increasing our strengths in the areas of literacy. That’s why Dr. Gast’s vision for Global Lehigh is so compelling. Lehigh has global aspirations and that, as a dean and a researcher, I found very attractive.

Aside from its emphasis on globalization, is there anything in particular that made Lehigh an attractive opportunity?
One of the things that brought me here to Lehigh is that faculty here are passionate about using empirical evidence to make decisions about how we teach kids. What Lehigh is devoted to is to push this notion: we don’t tell the schools, the government, the state, or the funding agencies that something can be used unless we’re absolutely certain it should be used. We’re a very deliberative and transparent research team in that respect. There’s no FDA [Food and Drug Administration] in education … We don’t have those sorts of controls in education. A lot of interventions, a lot of teaching tools, a lot of ways of teaching kids—everything from math to literacy to special education—are incorporated into schools without much research to support them. And that can create some challenges. But Lehigh has traditionally been firmly grounded in empirical-based data and research.

--Tom Yencho


Posted on Friday, September 19, 2008

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