‘It has been the highlight of my career’

Diana Hess reflects on a legacy of growth, excellence, and innovation in leading the School of Education


Diana Hess announced in October that she will be stepping down from her role as dean of the UW–Madison School of Education this summer — leaving behind a legacy of growth, excellence, and innovation at one of the nation’s most highly regarded schools of education.

“It has been the highlight of my career to serve as the dean of the School of Education,” says Hess, who started her position in August 2015.

Hess says a priority of her deanship was to create a “one-School ethos” to ensure the School’s 10 departments and range of units and programs across the arts, health, and education all could thrive.

Dean Diana Hess

“It has been wonderful working with such remarkable staff, faculty, students, and alumni from across the School of Education and beyond,” says Hess, who holds the Karen A. Falk Distinguished Chair of Education. “Their efforts have enabled our School to offer new and innovative academic programs, to expand and strengthen the impact of our research and artistic contributions, and to deliver on the promise of the Wisconsin Idea.”

As an academic, Hess has focused her research on examining how teachers engage their students in discussions of controversial political and constitutional issues. After stepping down as dean, she plans to continue this important work, which includes coauthoring a book about The Discussion Project with Program Director Lynn Glueck. Founded in 2017, The Discussion Project provides intensive professional development on how to create engaging and inclusive classroom discussions. It already has served 1,200 instructors at UW–Madison and other campuses, and teachers in schools in the U.S. and abroad.

Hess began her career in education as a high school social studies teacher in Downers Grove, Illinois, in 1979. She arrived at UW–Madison in 1999 as an assistant professor with the School of Education’s highly ranked Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Hess went on leave from the university in 2011 to become a senior vice president at the Spencer Foundation. She returned to campus in 2015 to serve as dean of the School of Education.

An internationally recognized scholar, Hess was elected to the National Academy of Education in 2019.

“Since starting my career as a high school teacher, I have had the pleasure of enjoying several great jobs,” says Hess. “But being dean has been — by far — the best. It also has been the most challenging in some ways, but definitely the most interesting, intellectually rigorous, and fun. I am very grateful.”

Gathering in the Education Building’s Morgridge Commons, Dean Diana Hess delivers a warm welcome in September 2019 to the School of Education’s then-newest cohort of first-year students. (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

At the end of 2023, Hess sat down with Todd Finkelmeyer, managing editor of Learning Connections, to discuss her time as dean. Following are highlights from their conversation:

Question: Why did you decide that now — at the end of the 2023-24 academic year — is the right time for you to step down as dean?

Hess: I think the School of Education is in really good shape and we’ve reached many of our goals. Because things are in good shape, I think it’s time to bring in a new leader. And for me, personally and professionally, it’s a good time to focus on some other things. We’ve been collecting data on The Discussion Project for several years now, and it’s time to start digging into that and writing a book about those efforts.

Question: You’ve noted how much you’ve enjoyed your time as dean. What has made being dean of the School of Education so special?

Hess: One thing is the excellence of students, faculty, staff, and alumni from across this School. Before I became dean, I knew the education side of the School pretty well. But one thing I’ve become really impressed with is the great strengths we have in the arts and health areas as well.

Another thing is that we’ve had very strong campus leadership and a lot of support from campus to try new things — and to do things we’ve been doing for a long time in new ways. I never felt like we encountered barriers to what we wanted to do. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Whether it was providing start-up money for the Grand Challenges initiative or former chancellor Rebecca Blank helping us create the Teacher Pledge, it has been wonderful.

Question: What are you most proud about accomplishing as dean?

Hess: One thing I’m proud of is how hard we’ve worked to provide students with access to our School and its transformative learning experiences. We’re now fully funding our PhD students — which was an enormous accomplishment. We have a new Dean’s Excellence Scholarship, student support via the Teacher Pledge, and new scholarships for our students to study abroad. We’ve worked hard to make sure students have access to our outstanding programs no matter their financial situation.

I’m proud of our new academic offerings, like our undergraduate programs in Health Promotion and Health Equity, and Education Studies. We also have outstanding new online programs at the graduate level, including our Master’s in Educational Psychology: Learning Analytics program; a master’s in Sports Leadership; and the Wisconsin Idea Principal Preparation program. We also have many new certificate offerings and now have more students than ever from across campus taking our classes. I’m excited about the new classrooms we’re building and the new Conway Adapted Fitness space that recently opened in the Bakke Recreation and Wellbeing Center.

I’m also proud of the strides we’ve made in diversifying — broadly speaking — both our student body and our faculty, although there is still much to be done.

Question: The School of Education is consistently ranked among the very best in the nation. For each of your years leading the School, it has been ranked among the top five education schools in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report’s Best Graduate School Rankings — with a current ranking of No. 3. Why is the School so highly regarded?

Hess: First and foremost, it’s the people we attract and what they do when they’re here. We have phenomenal faculty, staff, and students. We’ve hired nearly 80 new faculty members since 2015, and in virtually every case our first choice said yes and came here. That leads to excellence in teaching and research — and a big part of what those rankings are based
on is research excellence. A key aspect of research success is our Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER), which provides a research home for approximately 140 grant-funded projects and staff. WCER is a huge strength and is one of the key reasons I came here many years ago.

Dean Diana Hess works with Libby Hladik, who is pursuing a PhD in kinesiology, with a focus on occupational science, on a series of sensory and motor function assessments. (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

Question: You’ve said you didn’t know as much about the arts and health areas of the School before you became dean. What have your learned about those areas?

Hess: In the health areas, I have been struck by the breadth of what we are working on — from physical health and serious ailments and diseases like stroke and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, to a range of mental health projects and people working in community-based health. I didn’t understand the breadth of what was taking place until I became dean. We are incredibly strong in these health fields — including the No. 1-ranked Rehabilitation Psychology program. These areas are also growing very quickly and are a reflection of what students are interested in pursuing.

I’ve always been very interested in the arts, so have really enjoyed getting to better understand how our Dance, Theatre and Drama, and Art departments operate. I’ve enjoyed so many wonderful performances and exhibitions. And here as well, I was struck by the diversity and breadth of work being done. Bringing the arts, health, and education together in one school of education is what makes this place so remarkable and outstanding.

Diana Hess enjoys some screen-printing work alongside students in Professor John Hitchcock’s (right) class in the Humanities Building. (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

Question: Broadly speaking, efforts related to equity, diversity, and inclusion have been important to you. You hired the School’s first associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion, and established the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Why is this work important to you and the School?

Hess: I think great public institutions need to serve everyone. And unless we are really focused on access and making sure we are broadly accessible to a wide range of people, we can’t reach our potential. I really care about democracy, and democracy demands diversity of thought and representation. There’s no way we can create a healthy democracy unless everyone feels like they’re being given opportunities. There’s also overwhelming evidence that diverse groups of people working together do a better job of solving problems and creating opportunities. We have plenty of problems in this world that need solving.

In this photo from the fall of 2019, Dean Diana Hess shares a smile during a conversation with the School of Education’s Board of Visitors. Hess explains how the Board of Visitors has “provided invaluable advice and counsel over the years” on a range of important topics. (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

Question: Being a great fundraiser is something that’s expected of deans. During your time as dean, you’ve played a leading role in helping to raise more than $122 million that has been used for things like undergraduate and graduate student scholarships and supports, new professorships and faculty fellowships, updated classrooms, and much more. Why do you think you’ve been so successful as a fundraiser?

Hess: A lot of it is because of our talented development team and the time we put into building relationships with our alumni and friends. In particular, I’ve enjoyed working closely with our amazing Board of Visitors, which has provided invaluable advice and counsel over the years on everything from Grand Challenges and Impact 2030, to the Teacher Pledge, Dean’s Excellence Scholarships, and so much more. The Board of Visitors has done an extremely good job of helping us develop strategies around many of these efforts and in providing financial support. Our Board of Visitors and other alumni and friends of the School are interested in solving problems and creating opportunities, so another key is having powerful, strategic goals that are interesting and attractive to donors.

Question: The donor-funded UW–Madison School of Education Wisconsin Teacher Pledge has been wildly successful. This past fall, more than 750 students had already taken the Teacher Pledge — and 350 Pledge alumni were teaching in classrooms in 87 different Wisconsin public school districts and 13 private schools. What’s next for the Teacher Pledge?

Hess: This spring we’re continuing to raise money with the hope that the Teacher Pledge will run through 2029-30. In addition, I’ve had multiple conversations with legislators and am hoping that we can work with them to get the state seriously interested in supporting the Teacher Pledge long term. The Teacher Pledge was designed to be a program that has bipartisan appeal. Everyone is worried about the need to have great teachers in all schools. The Teacher Pledge also is a program that was designed to be studied so we can examine whether it’ll have an effect on the teacher shortage. But it’s not the kind of innovation that can be continued forever with donor support. I think finding ways to have high-quality teachers in all schools across the state is something deserving of public support.

Question: Recruiting and retaining great teachers remains a challenge in Wisconsin and across the country. Are you hopeful for the future of teaching as a profession?

Hess: I am, in part because I think there is growing and broad recognition of the value of having high-quality teachers. If you want to have great engineers, you need great teachers. If you want good nurses and doctors, you need outstanding teachers. There’s virtually nothing in our society that is important to accomplish that doesn’t demand high-quality schools and really great teachers. I think people understand that — but we also need to keep reminding them.

Dean Diana Hess celebrates as the UW Marching Band arrives at Union South during the School of Education’s annual Homecoming Tailgate event in October 2021. (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

Question: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during your time as dean?

Hess: One challenge early on was to figure out what’s the right kind of leadership structure for the School, given the kinds of innovations I anticipated we would be developing. Pretty early on we restructured the leadership to make sure that all three parts of the School — the arts, health, and education — were accounted for in the leadership structure. That type of reorganization was challenging but important.

When COVID-19 hit, that obviously was a huge challenge to everything we did. Almost all of our classes were face-to-face — and then they had to be moved to a virtual delivery mode practically overnight. Students had tremendous needs and there were so many unknowns. But I’m also proud of how we responded to the pandemic. We developed Bridge to Success Scholarships to support students who were facing need during this period. These scholarships supported 367 students with $1.34 million in support during the 2020 summer term. A second round of Bridge to Success Scholarships for the 2020 fall semester helped 502 students with $1.04 million in support.

It was exhausting and challenging work, and the pandemic forced us to solve problems we had never thought about previously. But if there is one thing we learned, it’s that this university can move quickly and effectively when necessary. We have retained some of that even as things have largely returned to normal. One example is how we were able to work with campus colleagues to develop our new Dean’s Excellence Scholarships, which support undergraduate students with financial need with four-year scholarships across the arts, health, and education. These scholarships were a massive effort in partnership with the campus’ offices of Admissions and Recruitment and Student Financial Aid, and with the Division of Enrollment Management. But it was done quickly and effectively.

Question: Do you have any regrets?

Hess: I wish we were further along in the process of building new facilities for our Department of Kinesiology and our Art Department. I wish those buildings were being built right now. But we are making progress. Both departments are very large and growing, and new facilities for them are critical to the success of the School and campus.

Question: What are you going to miss most about being dean of the School of Education?

Hess: Our School’s faculty, staff, and students are amazing and fun to work with. I’ll miss them. I’ll also miss how interesting it is to do this job. I’ll spend part of a day thinking about a new Kinesiology building and then I’ll work on Dean’s Excellence Scholarships. Then I might interview finalists for a faculty position and then meet with some of our alumni. I’ll also miss working with the other deans from across campus. Every day is so interesting and I will miss the breadth of the work.

Question: What will you miss the least about this position?

Hess: The schedule can be intense. Even if what I do all day long is interesting, sometimes all day long is really long. I’ll appreciate having more time to do things like read and write a book.

Question: What’s next for you?

Hess: Right now, I’m really excited about the spring semester. I’m looking forward to our School’s reception April 12 at the American Educational Research Association’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. I can’t wait to connect again with our Board of Visitors when they visit campus April 18-19. Our spring commencement celebrations in May are always a highlight of the academic year. And then, beginning in June, I’ll spend the next year working on a book about The Discussion Project and working with The Discussion Project team as that program continues to grow on our campus, across the Universities of Wisconsin, and beyond.

Read more about Hess’ lasting legacy, and what others are saying about her leadership.

Pin It on Pinterest