A Q&A with Dean DeWalt

The new CBS dean shares her thoughts on leadership, key opportunities for the college and acclimating to life in Minnesota.
September 15, 2023

Dean Saara J. DeWalt made the cross-country trip from South Carolina with her family in late August. Even before her first day, she was learning about the college while simultaneously participating in a Minnesota rite of passage – a visit to the State Fair. In addition to sampling a pronto pup and Sweet Martha’s cookies, she checked out the Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories booth, chatted with students and participated in a bird-call identification activity. (She got 3 out of 5!). Now a few weeks into her tenure as dean and a flurry of start-of-semester activity, Dean DeWalt took time out to share a bit about herself and her plan for the coming year. 

You spent nearly two decades in South Carolina as a faculty member at Clemson University. How has the transition to Minnesota been for you and your family?
We have family ties here in the Twin Cities and visited several times over the years, so it isn’t totally new territory. This has always been a place we looked forward to coming back to. It’s been great getting to explore the University of Minnesota campuses as well. Since CBS has a footprint in both St. Paul and on the East Bank, I feel like I get to experience the best of both worlds. But of course, the people make the place and everyone has been tremendously warm and welcoming. It already feels like home.

I’m also working on getting to know more about Minnesota through my reading. I’m listening to The Sentence by Louise Erdrich as I walk back and forth to work and home and looking forward to reading Minnesota’s Natural Heritage.

You’ve been here less than a month. What’s made the biggest impression on you so far?
On my first day as dean, I attended Convocation and then had the chance to welcome first-year students at College Day. I even got to join the “fellowship of the shirt.” It was great fun and a wonderful introduction to the college. Students are always an inspiration. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the CBS Conservatory, spend time in faculty research labs and tour the active learning teaching lab, as well as with alumni. I’ll be heading to Itasca and Cedar Creek in the near future as well!

What are your plans for getting to know the college in the coming months?
I intend to spend a lot of time listening and learning. My calendar is rapidly filling up! I plan to visit  department meetings and staff meetings, check in with the Student Board and connect with student groups. I’m also looking forward to meeting more students, alumni and supporters at our annual recognition and appreciation dinner in October. I hope to hear as many perspectives as possible. I am interested in what our students, faculty and staff are excited about. It’s important to me that the needs and priorities of this community inform our next steps. 

How would you describe your approach to leadership?
I tend to take a collaborative approach. I think it’s very important for people to feel heard and to build trust. Regardless of what your role is here at CBS, we all share in common a mission to advance knowledge, educate students and bring what we learn to the community. That’s the baseline. My goal is to develop a strategic plan premised on our strengths that will allow us to have the greatest impact. As dean, I know I will make many decisions and not all of them will be popular, but my hope is that by engaging the community in shaping a shared vision, the rationale for the choices will be clear.

Advancing diversity, equity and inclusion is something that you’ve said will be front and center. How do you plan to approach this work?
I see my role as advocating for, valuing and recognizing all members of this community. Right now, I am learning as much as I can about what is already happening, what work remains to be done and what we can do in the short term to make CBS as welcoming as it can be. It’s important to get things right, but at the same time we need to make sure to keep the momentum. There’s much to be gained from diverse perspectives, but to realize those benefits we must foster a culture of belonging so that members of the CBS community feel not only safe but supported in sharing their experiences and expressing their identities.

Based on what you’ve learned about the college, what do you see as key opportunities and areas of growth
Biology is a nexus for so many different areas of inquiry. As a college focused on biological sciences, we have breadth - from molecules to ecosystems - and also a depth across those biological scales not found in many other places. That’s a huge strength. I want to make the most of it. At the moment, we are growing our biotech footprint in exciting ways. We have a new biomanufacturing building in St. Paul coming online early next year. We also just launched a biotech minor. Going forward, I see great opportunities to build more connections with industry and our alumni working in those companies, and connect our students with opportunities outside of the classroom that will help them succeed in a variety of careers.

What are you most looking forward to in the next year as dean?
Without a doubt, getting to know this community is what I most look forward to. It’s one of the best parts of this job. I’m also focused on learning  the ins and outs of the U so I can be as effective as possible in navigating this complex environment as well as identifying opportunities. This is a huge institution and there are so many possibilities for collaboration and cross-pollination. As dean, I will have the chance to help connect those dots.

Read more about Dean DeWalt.