New dean, perspective

New dean wants students to get work experience while in school

Just as innovators think outside the box, Dennis Papini thinks outside the classroom. “We have an obligation to promote student learning,” says Papini, the new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, “not just in the classroom, but out of the classroom as well.”

Just as innovators think outside the box, Dennis Papini thinks outside the classroom.

Just as innovators think outside the box, Dennis Papini thinks outside the classroom.

To accomplish that, Papini has created a task force to track the success of educational experiences that occur away from the classroom, linking the educational opportunities available in SDSU’s living/learning communities with experiential learning.

Living/learning communities bring together students of like majors who live on the same floor of a residence hall. They are designed to enhance retention and boost graduation rates. Experiential learning, according to Papini, is “not just learning a discipline, but doing a discipline.”

Those experiences outside the classroom could include undergraduate research with faculty supervision, service learning, applied and community-based problem-solving, study abroad and creative activities like performances and presentations.

“These are things that we already do,” Papini says, “we just don’t take a systematic approach to them.”

As an example of students working outside the classroom, Papini points to the college’s newest department — architecture.

“Students learn to be architects by going out into the community and working on things,” says Papini, noting significant projects in Mobridge and Huron.

Faculty union role helped spark leadership skills

Papini’s desire to enhance the educational experiences of students was formed through his experience on the faculty at University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, Southeast Missouri State University and his alma mater, Western Illinois University. Papini came to SDSU July 2, 2012, from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, where he chaired the psychology department in the College of Behavioral and Health Sciences.

Papini follows David Hilderbrand, who served for one year as interim dean after Jerry Jorgensen became provost at Park University in Kansas City.

Papini credits his 14 years at Western Illinois University with helping him develop his leadership skills. An appointment to the faculty union taught him how the faculty and the administration each viewed issues like compensation, maximizing faculty talent and ensuring a meaningful academic experience for students.

“That turned out to be a wonderful learning experience,” Papini says. “The union kind of got me prepared for leadership.”

Papini’s leadership skills, as well as his eight years of experience at Middle Tennessee State, will serve him well as he helps SDSU deal with some of the same challenges and issues he faced at his last post. Those issues included the economic downturn, handling a decrease in the number of hours needed for graduation and academic realignment.

“I’ve had some experiences that I think can help us as we work through these transitions,” Papini says.

Those transitions will take place in SDSU’s largest college with 130 full-time faculty serving almost 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students majoring in disciplines offered by 16 academic departments.

As Papini has gotten to know his new college, there have been some surprises along the way. The most pleasant one was discovering how much research is taking place. A link to the list of research projects is now on the college’s website at

“It’s a rather impressive collection,” Papini says. “That’s not to say that we’re where we want to be.”

Believing most people would be surprised by the amount of research that goes on in Arts and Sciences, Papini wants the college to do a better job of telling its story. To that end, the college has introduced this glossy magazine, Transformations.

The magazine will be supplemented throughout the year with stories online, written by students in a magazine writing class. That’s right in keeping with the push for more experiential learning in the college.

“It’s students doing the very thing they’ll be paid to do after graduation as part of their education,” says Papini, who notes that visual arts students are working on some college projects as well. “Whenever possible we’re going to engage students in projects for the college.”

Leadership team plays important role

Overseeing a large organization like the College of Arts and Sciences is not new for Papini. His department at Middle Tennessee State had 48 faculty, 1,100 undergraduates and 200 graduate students.

“I try to keep my eyes on the big picture,” Papini says. “You’ve got to use your leadership team, keep them informed and provide them with opportunities to keep learning. I really trust my department heads.”

Papini predicts push toward partnerships

For the new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the “big picture” will only get bigger as he foresees a liberal arts element in a variety of partnerships and collaborations.

“Any problems that face humanity are rooted in humans,” says Papini, who notes that the arts, humanities and social sciences are designed to track human perceptions, experiences and patterns of behavior.

Asked for examples of the kinds of partnerships he has in mind, Papini names subjects as diverse as water conservation and wellness.

According to Papini, natural resource management depends on more than science to be successful. Long-term, viable solutions for water conservation problems will require a study of how consumers think and how they use resources.

“There is a human element in this,” Papini says.

Promoting wellness requires figuring how to get people to establish and adhere to a regimen of exercise as well as looking at the kinds of exercise that will help them throughout their lives.

“These are multidisciplinary approaches,” Papini says. “I think that’s going to be the pattern of the future, not the exception.”

Dana Hess



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