Straight from the Deans

The deans of Pepperdine's five schools share their thoughts on higher education, leadership, and the 2013–2014 academic year.

December 19, 2013  | 7 min read

What excites you about the upcoming year at your school?

RICK MARRS, dean of Seaver College: Each year I get excited in general with the influx of new students. We continue to recruit students who are both outstanding academically and most interested in coming to an institution that celebrates and honors our Christian heritage. They are especially interested in having an opportunity to explore their faith.

MARGARET WEBER, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Psychology: A new year brings new students, new faculty, and the chance to share the dream of GSEP with each of them. The opportunity to work with our students is always exciting—they are the most amazing individuals and bring such a host of experiences to the classroom. Their passion for making a difference within their communities is really inspiring.

LINDA LIVINGSTONE, dean of the Graziadio School of Business and Management: I am excited to see the growth and impact of new programs like our Online MBA and our concentration
in Digital Innovation and Information Systems, and the continuing influence programs like Education to Business (E2B), SEER (Socially, Environmentally, Ethically Responsible Business Practice), the MS in Entrepreneurship, and the Private Capital Markets Certificate have on the lives of our students and the business community. In addition, I look forward to serving as vice chair/chair-elect of the board of AACSB, the leading international accrediting body for business schools, because of the opportunity it provides to impact quality management education worldwide, and to give visibility to the significant work going on in the Graziadio School.

JAMES WILBURN, dean of the School of Public Policy: I have recently spent three days out of town with our entering class and they are accomplished leaders who, I am convinced, can change the world! After beginning classes, they are even more enthusiastic than ever, which reminds me of what a great future they are preparing to lead.

DEANELL REECE TACHA, dean of the School of Law: So many things! We have an outstanding entering class. Our unique Preceptor Program has successfully paired each first-year student with a practicing lawyer or judge mentor. We have added several extraordinary new faculty members. Among our blockbuster events this year are the School of Law annual dinner, featuring Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito; the William French Smith Lecture, delivered by Michael Chertoff, former secretary of Homeland Security; and the Straus Institute’s Women in Hollywood conference.


What challenges do you see for your school or your students in the upcoming year?

LIVINGSTONE: The economy continues to create an interesting and challenging environment for business schools and our students. Changes in company reimbursement policies along with a continued slow economic recovery make decisions about returning to school, either part-time or full-time, much more complex than they have been in the past. This also impacts the market for internships and jobs for students, which is improving, but still challenging.

TACHA: Applications to law schools nationwide have dropped precipitously the past two years. We are gratified that our entering class is so talented and robust, and we will strive to maintain this pattern of excellence. Also, the legal profession is undergoing significant shifts, resulting in fewer employment opportunities. Thanks to our loyal alumni and friends and the hard work of our Career Development Office, our graduates are doing very well, but that will continue to require much attention.

MARRS: The primary challenges will continue to be how we provide a truly transformative educational experience that is also affordable. We will continue to explore how we can effectively use technology to deliver enhanced learning experiences, and how we provide an educational experience for our students that benefits them not only immediately upon graduation, but creates lifelong learners passionate about helping change their communities for better.

WEBER: As a market-driven school and with the climate of education in the U.S. today, we continue to be challenged by the marketplace for incoming students interested in becoming teachers.

WILBURN: The challenges will be to make every opportunity for service and growth productive. We will have a crowded calendar of distinguished visiting professors and speakers, incredible internship opportunities, and a major national conference staged in the School of Public Policy that will test the energies of each student to make the most of the opportunities that surround them at Pepperdine.


What are your top priorities as dean or your top dreams for your school?

TACHA: My top priority is to maximize the value of a legal education: maintain the high quality of our curriculum, adjust to changing demands, and inspire students to be the outstanding lawyers of the future. I have so many dreams! I dream of refurbishing and reconfiguring the law school building; continuing to build resources to defray the significant cost of legal education; funding public-interest fellowships and expanding experiential opportunities for our students; and more.

MARRS: My top priority for this year involves the discussion we’re having about whether we might increase the size of the Seaver student body over the next several years. This has been labeled, “Growing Seaver.” We know that we have quite a lot of interest externally in our undergraduate programs, and so we’re hoping to explore fully what expanding the Seaver student body might look like. We’ve already done quite a bit of work on this topic, but have much more that will need to be discussed.

WILBURN: We will have the nation’s top leaders from schools of public policy on our campus for the national conference on the legacy of James Q. Wilson, the leading social scientist of the nation for the past 50 years (according to the New York Times), and it will be a challenge to put our best foot forward for what may be one of the most important events in our history as a school. My priority is to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to feature the Pepperdine School of Public Policy.

LIVINGSTONE: A key priority for us is to ensure that we are providing students an exceptional, innovative, and personal learning experience that will meet their educational and career needs while transforming them personally and professionally. It is also critical that we continue to develop an environment for our faculty and staff that provides them with the resources and support to deliver this type of experience for our students and to develop quality scholarship that shapes business practice.

WEBER: Continued emphasis on excellence in our programs where students are challenged academically and find a sense of purpose for leading through service. Continued review of our programs for excellence and relevance that prepare students for the coming decade.


How has your thinking about higher education changed since your deanship began?

WILBURN: Higher education is going through one of the most revolutionary transitions in my 50 years in higher education. Which schools remain relevant, strong, and vibrant during this transition will depend on courageous choices and extraordinary vision. More than ever, I am convinced that Pepperdine has a historic opportunity to lead in this chaotic and challenging environment.

LIVINGSTONE: The landscape for higher education has changed dramatically since I came to Pepperdine as dean of the Graziadio School in 2002. Rapidly changing technology, increasing student debt, rising global competition, growth of for-profit providers, and increasing government scrutiny are just a few of the significant factors putting tremendous pressure on traditional institutions of higher education. All of this has reinforced for me the importance of innovation and the need to be nimble in a rapidly changing environment while ensuring that we remain true to our mission and the core values that have been critical to our success.

WEBER: The classroom environment is a community where learning is reciprocal and when you create communities of practice that are collegial and respectful, learning is about the whole person and has a greater impact. Also, much greater emphasis on assessment from the federal and state governments, along with the accreditors adds an important element to the way we think about delivery for impact on students. This concept weighs into everything we do.

TACHA: My thinking about higher education has not changed much since I became dean. I knew that I would face significant challenges in admissions, resources, and cultural change. Having been around higher education nearly all my career, I have watched great institutions of higher education play a critical role in reminding society that education is the necessary prerequisite to a flourishing economy, a functioning government, robust civic life, and indeed, civilized society itself.

MARRS: One of the main areas for me has been how much more integrated the cocurricular experience has become with the curricular experience. Years ago the two areas were considered distinct and did not have much conversation with each other. Today we work hard to integrate the two areas, since we know that as much, if not more, learning occurs outside the classroom. We have faculty and student affairs staff working closely with each other to provide a holistic educational experience for our students.

A second key area involves the continued move from passive learning to more interactive pedagogical models. In higher education we talk about “high-impact practices” (HIP). These are educational practices that have clearly demonstrated an ability to provide a richer learning experience. Although we practice all the HIP pedagogies, four of the key practices we especially highlight at Seaver are: undergraduate research, international programs, service learning, and internships.


What is unique or special about leading at Pepperdine?

WEBER: With our Christian mission, the opportunity to educate not just the mind, but also the heart and the hands, offers us a wonderful mission for interacting with our students, our staff, our faculty, our alumni, and our friends. Our approach to the learning environment is a caring, constructive, and nurturing place for all peoples: people of differing color, gender differences, age differences, and faith perspectives to name a few.

WILBURN: My experience as provost, vice president, and as dean of two of Pepperdine’s five colleges, is that there is no other university that is as open to innovation and bold new initiatives as Pepperdine has been, and it explains why I have consistently resisted invitations to join other universities through the years. Most encouraging, I believe that Pepperdine has not lost that edge.

TACHA: Leading at Pepperdine is a privilege and a position of important stewardship. I feel a deep responsibility to maintain the vision of George Pepperdine in preserving and enhancing a Christian university with a national reputation for excellence. This task requires constant attention to maintaining the Christian mission, while at the same time adapting appropriately to the rapidly changing world of knowledge and inquiry that will propel us into an informed faith-based future.

MARRS: For me, the unique challenge involves continually ensuring that the academic standards at Seaver are top-tier while maintaining a vibrant commitment to the Christian faith. While huge sectors of the academy consider those two endeavors mutually exclusive, if not impossible to achieve, I’m convinced keeping the two in meaningful dialogue provides a truly transformative educational experience.

LIVINGSTONE: Leading at Pepperdine is a joy because of the people that I have the opportunity to work with—whether that is the faculty and staff of the Graziadio School, my fellow deans, or University administrators. They are all deeply committed to our Christian mission and to transforming the lives of our students—making even the challenging times well worth the effort because the work we do at Pepperdine has eternal significance.