Q&A with new CAS Dean Edie Sparks
Q: Student success and retention have been areas of focus for you in your career. What opportunities do you see to help students thrive in Suffolk?
A: First of all, I look forward to meeting the students. I have a deep understanding of transforming access to education and college graduation, and I am truly passionate about helping students achieve this.
I plan to have conversations with faculty in each department, get their ideas, and take inventory of what works well and what is needed. It will be important to pay attention to what the data tells us about retention disparities. We need to dig deeper, support students who have lower retention rates than others. I am absolutely convinced that counseling is a key factor in student satisfaction and a determinant of their success and success until the end. What questions can we ask to ensure we are providing a relationship-based counseling experience, so students develop truly meaningful mentoring relationships? Having strong connections with academic advisors that go beyond the transactional activities of course planning and requirements verification makes a big difference.
Q: Your academic background includes undergraduate studies in literature, as well as graduate and doctoral studies in history. Why is a liberal arts education still important and relevant for students?
A: We need to prepare students for the changing world they face. They must know how to solve problems and interact with others, work in a team, think critically and communicate well. These soft skills are exactly what a liberal arts education prepares students for.
Having such a diverse group of programs all housed in the College of Arts and Sciences creates opportunities for cross-disciplinary learning and working with people from different backgrounds with different strengths. These two elements are essential in preparing future citizens of the world to solve the problems of the 21st century. We have an exciting opportunity to help students transfer everything they do in their Arts and Sciences curriculum into the work they will do as future leaders in their careers and communities. What an important time to talk about engagement, problem-solving and citizenship skills.
Q: Your books, Capital Intentions: Women Property Owners in San Francisco, 1850-1920and Boss Lady: How Three Women Entrepreneurs Built Big, Successful Businesses in the Mid-20th Century, tell the often overlooked stories of pioneering women entrepreneurs and business leaders. Why were you drawn to these stories?
A: I’m fascinated by the way women get into places where historically they don’t “belong”. What is the process? What are the structures that make this possible? What are the market conditions that offer unique opportunities? And why did they want to do it?
Understanding historical conditions as precursors to our experience today is what fascinates me. I will never forget the first professional conference I attended as a graduate student. I looked around and thought, Oh my God. It has been a male-dominated discipline. I was entering a profession where women were clearly in the minority and had not yet reached parity. It was deep for me. I didn’t realize I was a pioneer. So that became a goal for me, while watching my own mother navigate her career.
Q: How have the women you studied found ways to persevere in spaces that have traditionally been closed to them?
A: They had to be creative. It is fascinating to study how these women spotted and seized market opportunities. In San Francisco, for example, the gender imbalance that began with the Gold Rush created opportunities for women in the hospitality industry. At this time in history, women were considered superior housewives. They traded on this belief to make money in restaurants and hospitality. Likewise, the women I studied in the 20th century also had a gender dimension to what each of them did. They used gender in how they marketed themselves, their brands and their businesses, leveraging stereotypical ideas about women to advance their market share and their own success. They were persistent and resilient and fought for a place where there was none before. I came away with so much interest, excitement and respect for how they managed to twist and turn the limitations that had been imposed on them into strengths.
Q: How will you help advance DEI efforts within the College?
A: Ensuring a sense of belonging for each student is essential to advancing student success and increasing graduation rates and student retention. I will regularly await feedback from students on this subject.
My take is that we don’t advance diversity, equity and inclusion until we have uncomfortable conversations. So I’ll ask everyone to be prepared to be uncomfortable because that’s how we find out where our implicit bias is influencing us to say things or behave in ways that we don’t realize that it alienates someone in our community. We need to have courageous conversations. I’m hoping for a partnership from everyone to really explore this topic and find all the places where we need to keep working hard. And the voice of students will be essential in this regard.
We know that students are truly positively influenced by seeing people like them in the institutions where they study, and this is also important for many of us in our own careers. When I think back to when I first took on an administrative leadership role as a young parent, I looked around and thought: Nobody does that. Is it only possible? We all need that example of someone who’s done it before to emulate.
Q: As a university leader, you have shown a dedication to experiential education. What are your goals for building partnerships and creating real learning experiences for CAS students?
A: In partnership with faculty, I want to create a baseline model for what a CAS degree offers every student in every academic program. Experiential education, community engagement, the Boston experience – I’d like to see these elements central to every student’s educational experience, regardless of major.
One thing that really excites me is including students in curriculum development. They are an untapped resource. So I want to engage them in the conversation, tell us what they want to see in their curriculum and academic programs, give feedback on proposed curriculum changes, and then help us in a cycle of continuous improvement.
Q: The past two years have been difficult for so many people. As you look forward to your first year at Suffolk, how will you help CAS students, faculty and staff build an even stronger community?
A: It is important to lead with compassion, understanding how we still carry with us the profound upheavals, fears and impacts of the pandemic and the racial reckoning that has occurred and civil rights. I have two LGBTQ kids and it’s hard parenting a trans kid. What happens in the world impacts different people differently in different ways, and leaders need to understand that.
I have a lot of optimism about the opportunities for CAS and Suffolk. Engaging in collaborative discussions, innovation and creation is energizing for me and everyone I have worked with. Where would we like to be in 10 years, in five years, in a year? It’s exciting to create this vision together. Our work ahead is to articulate a CAS strategic plan in alignment with the University’s strategic plan. A collaborative approach has a lot of power to inspire everyone and energize us to move forward and overcome the difficulties of the pandemic.
It will also be important to take inventory of what we have learned through the delivery of online courses, so that we do not lose the opportunity to grow from the knowledge we have acquired. I will seek to hear feedback from faculty, staff and students so that we can incorporate them into plans and vision for the future.
Q: You studied cities as an academic. How does this color your view of Boston and what excites you about the city as a place for students to work and learn?
A: I am very enthusiastic about the two towns where Suffolk is located [Boston and Madrid]. We can use these places as canvases on which to paint all sorts of new possibilities for students. I am impressed with the work I see CAS faculty doing to bring cities into the classroom – and students and their own scholarship into cities.
Part of what’s interesting about being a Californian coming to Boston is that the city prompts questions in a truly unique way, and not just historical questions. The city is full of history, but it is also a leader in the technology industry and a pioneer in the field of health. Being able to create learning opportunities with these dimensions of the Boston experience right outside our doors is fascinating.
Q: What’s on your shortlist to check once you arrive?
A: We really want to take advantage of things that we could never do in California. I can’t wait to see fall and experience the seasons. We are big fans of museums and historical sites, so I’m really excited to take advantage of all of this.
We are avid readers, so I plan to research all the best independent bookstores in the area. And since my youngest and I are fans of the Anne of Green Gables book series, now that we’re on the east coast, we can’t wait to take a trip to PEI and explore eastern Canada [where the books are based].
And there is one essential thing to find right away to make Boston feel like home. My husband is a Cuban immigrant and we love Cuban food so I will be grateful for any restaurant and market recommendations!