Arriving at the University of Redlands during the COVID-19 pandemic, School of Education Robert A. & Mildred Peronia Naslund Endowed Dean Mario Martinez has faced an unprecedented beginning to his new role. Challenges aside, Martinez seeks new ways to increase the visibility of the School of Education and its commitment to educational justice. Mika Elizabeth Ono and Katie Olson of the Bulldog Blog spoke with him about his goals for the future.
Bulldog Blog: You’ve been at the University of Redlands for two months—what are your first impressions?
Mario Martinez: One of the things that attracted me to Redlands is the complement of professional schools with the arts and sciences because that helps create an integrated and diversified institution of higher education. Additionally, we have regional campuses, including in Marin with the recent acquisition of the San Francisco Theological Seminary. This makes for a strong strategy because we are diversified academically and regionally. The Redlands’ path fits with my skill set and experiences. In addition, the passion that the School of Education faculty have for educational justice and social justice is very apparent. The confirmation of those first impressions has been very important to me, especially in these uncertain times.
BB: Which aspects of your background dovetail with what you just described?
Martinez: I've spent a lot of time in my career working with administrators and policymakers and consulting on projects as a researcher of higher education. That Redlands is implementing ideas associated with good strategy is reassuring. I hope to help advance the School of Education in its next chapter and build upon all the great work of [former dean and current professor] Andrew Wall.
BB: How has arriving in the middle of a pandemic been?
Martinez: It has been interesting, for sure. Students arrive on our campus and get the sense of Redlands’ beautiful physical location, which adds to their experience and feelings about the University and School of Education. Without “place” the pandemic has challenged us to make sure we continue to elevate the Redlands student experience and define what that means.
The second challenge is budgetary. As an incoming dean, there's a difference between presiding over a time of plenty versus a time of scarcity. In my previous professional experiences, I was fortunate to work at a few places during times of growth. It was easy for me to say “yes” to many proposals. At Redlands, I've had to say “no” more than I've said “yes,” and that’s a challenge for an incoming dean.
BB: What are the challenges and opportunities you see for the School of Education?
Martinez: I think to be an academic leader—whether you're a program coordinator, a dean, a provost, or a president—you have to have the mindset that within challenge there's opportunity—you just have to find it. I firmly believe that. In the School of Education, teacher education is a major part of our portfolio. Right now, that's being challenged because we don't know the commitment of the state to fund education, which influences us, our students, and how people think about their job prospects. However, we’re also diversified within the school. We serve students in a variety of levels. Our counseling and Ed.D. programs have grown during the pandemic. Overall, though, we need to focus our strategy on how best to serve students, while navigating challenges. The biggest opportunity I see is the School’s focus on educational justice. Now is a time for us to amplify our voice and have that conversation in a new and meaningful way.
BB: In your words, what is educational justice?
Martinez: The overarching vision in the School of Education is to advance a just society. But when it comes to educational justice, it's a little more specific. Educational justice means strengthening equity and justice through education, from preschool to graduate studies. To me, educational justice also is the process of identifying issues and taking the steps to address those issues. It means understanding yourself, your classroom, and your school in order to figure out how to accentuate strengths at each level and address areas of challenge. It means listening to divergent viewpoints, to those you agree and disagree with. I would add that we will actively work to identify the students for whom we are underperforming in an effort to correct that and serve them better. Educational justice is a theme that defines our School, and there’s never been a more necessary time for it than now, when there is such a focus on justice and education. This is our opportunity to lead.
BB: How does your own background influence your perspective on educational justice?
I come from a family where my parents weren't educated, and I grew up in a small Northern New Mexico town that was 96 or 97% Latinx. Four out of 120 of my graduating class went to college. That sort of background highlights the power of higher education. While it's not the cure for all ills, it is certainly a powerful tool for social mobility, with the benefits of a mindset of continual learning. My background really informs my work.
BB: Have you had time to develop goals for the School?
Martinez: One of my early goals was to expand participation in the Center for Educational Justice and increase its reach, because it needs to be a University and community asset that everybody knows about. Beginning this fall, we’re starting additional projects that relate to equity and justice. One of them is quantitative the other is more qualitative. They will complement some of the activity we've been doing for years, such as webinars and hosting dialogues with K-12 leaders.
Another goal is to increase the visibility of the School as a whole. That requires a concentrated communications and marketing effort. Telling our story requires us to know ourselves well—the better we understand ourselves, the better we’ll be able to communicate to the outside world.
BB: What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned over the course of your career?
Martinez: I've learned that every organization is made up of people and, even though we think we're unique, the reality is we aren’t. So, many institutions suffer from the same problems we are grappling with. The difference is between the organizations that explicitly acknowledge and take steps to work on the problems and those that don’t. I’m not one to avoid problems; I want to solve them as positively and collaboratively as possible. Issues will only get worse if left unaddressed.
BB: Can you talk about the campus climate survey and how it might dovetail with your views on systemic racism?
Martinez: These are two different but interrelated topics. With the campus climate survey, we will gain insight into perceptions and attitudes of students, faculty, staff, and administration on various issues related to diversity. The survey is a tool and a guide. It's one piece of the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) puzzle. It's not going to address all of our challenges. What survey results can do is inform and feed into conversations. My hope is that the climate survey will give us some real and useful insights into describing our current diversity climate and comparing it with peers and among our own administrative and academic units.
Part of why I love being in higher education is because I can be honest and say that my views on systemic racism and my understanding of what it is are evolving and being informed by my colleagues and different student groups and organizations. It’s O.K. for me to say that I do not have an absolute definition. I'm growing and appreciating different views on how people understand and think about racism, equality, and the role of higher education. As we define issues and steps to make improvements in our DEI efforts at the School level, even faculty will have areas of agreement and disagreement. We are all committed to the same high-level vision, though—to advance a just society. Having a common starting point is our first step on our journey together in the School of Education.
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