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Interim Dean Paola Sztajn: “I Want to Help Keep the College Moving Forward While Strengthening a Few Core Values”

Interim Dean Paola Sztjan

Paola Sztajn, a professor of mathematics education, began serving as the interim dean of NC State’s College of Education Oct. 5. In this interview, she talks about her role as interim dean, why she accepted the appointment, her leadership style, the biggest educational issues facing North Carolina and the role the College of Education plays in addressing those educational challenges. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you accept this appointment to be the interim dean?

I really love this college, and I respect my colleagues. When [Provost Warwick Arden] asked me, I thought it was an opportunity to serve the college as well as to support the provost during a transition. It didn’t even occur to me to say no. 

Prior to this appointment, I had served the college in other capacities. I had been a department head and an associate dean. So the opportunity to come back as interim dean made sense. When I began working at the university level [as a special assistant in the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost], I knew I eventually wanted to come back to the college. I think that’s where I belong and that’s where my heart is. 

What did you learn from your previous roles as a department head and an associate dean that you will apply as an interim dean?

I learned as the department head that I was responsible for everybody on my team. I don’t think I went into that experience fully understanding my responsibility as department head of a large group, but once I was there I really understood — I am responsible for everybody’s success. So I really carried that sense of responsibility for serving and supporting everybody when asked to lead. 

Then, as the associate dean, I had the opportunity to work more closely with staff from across the college and to understand some of their issues. We couldn’t ask for better staff. Everybody works so hard. They’re so dedicated. We all share a passion for the college. 

What do you see as your role as interim dean?

As interim dean, I want to help the college keep moving forward as well as strengthen a few values that I hold very dear, which are shared governance, transparency and open communication. These ideas are important to me, and I really believe there is an opportunity to strengthen them in the college in a way that makes us even stronger.

Then to think about the college externally, I want to help the college continue its growth trajectory. I hope to work very closely with the leadership team and the faculty, staff and students to identify priorities that are of immediate need so that the college is at an even better place when we get a permanent dean. 

How would you describe your leadership style?

I strongly believe that we are smarter as a group, and so I hope to create spaces for consultation where we can hear different voices. At the same time, I believe leaders have to make decisions. So I hope people will say that I made informed decisions in a collaborative problem-solving fashion, and I made important decisions when they needed to be made.

What do you think is the most important educational issue facing North Carolina right now?

Equity — making sure that all students have opportunities to achieve at their highest level. This is the issue of the moment, as it has always been. But I think we now know better what we can do to help all students learn, and we have the opportunity to do it. Of course that goes into every sphere of education. It’s important in the early grades. It’s important when we get to high school. It’s important when we get to community college. It’s important for our students who are here in higher education. 

But there’s plenty of research showing that not all groups are having the same opportunities to participate. Recently there was a survey from UNESCO about the biggest problems in the world. Number three on the list was the theme discrimination, and just about everybody in the world listed education as the way to solve that issue. 

So we have a huge responsibility as educators to address issues of discrimination and do everything we can to foster diversity and equity. There’s plenty of research showing that a more diverse society is better able to solve problems. We understand the world better when we work in diverse groups. 

What role can the College of Education play in being part of the solution to this issue?

I think the College of Education already plays a key role in being part of that solution. We are preparing teachers to understand and teach all students. We are preparing leaders who have an equity-minded approach to their leadership. We are working to support students in community colleges. We do research related to equity and how to make sure students of different backgrounds can succeed. So I think the college is already addressing this both in terms of our practices and our research. 

The college also recently created a task force for advancing diversity, equity and inclusion to look internally at how we can improve in these areas. I look forward to working with that task force and us looking at ourselves to make sure we are as respectful of diversity as it needs to be and that we have an inclusive working environment so that our faculty, staff and students feel that they belong. We need to make sure that happens not in just what we say, but in everything we do, including in our everyday interactions among colleagues in the college.

After your interim deanship ends, what would you hope people would say about your time as interim dean?

I hope they will say the college continued to grow its research portfolio, that enrollment continued to go up and that we haven’t skipped a beat. I hope people will say we are still doing what we need to do and that we’re in an excellent place to welcome a new dean.