Joanna Olmsted steps down as Dean of Arts and Sciences

May 7, 2014
Joanna Olmsted

Joanna Olmsted will step down as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences on July 1 after two decades of University leadership.

“Joanna has contributed immeasurably to the progress that has been made in strengthening arts, sciences, and engineering, and we are hugely in her debt,” says Peter Lennie, provost and the Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering. “In every dimension of our activities, Joanna’s distinctive attributes—incisive thinking, unflinching integrity, great personal humility, and unfailing generosity—have moved us powerfully forward, and have earned the respect and affection of all those who have worked with her.”

In the coming weeks, Lennie will announce transitional leadership for arts and sciences as well as a committee to lead a national search for Olmsted’s successor.

“Joanna has been an exemplary dean, and her influence extends far beyond arts and sciences,” says President Joel Seligman. “She has been a particularly valuable advisor in fostering collaborations among all of our schools. I will really miss her.”

Olmsted juggles one of the largest portfolios among the University’s deans, working closely with chairs and faculty from 18 departments and 12 programs in the humanities and the arts, social sciences and natural and physical sciences. She is admired by colleagues for her broad interest in and genuine respect for research across all disciplines. “She embraces the whole University,” says Richard Feldman, dean of the College.

Olmsted’s legacy is perhaps most strongly reflected in the University’s core strength: the high caliber of the faculty she has helped recruit and retain over the years. “Joanna meets all candidates and works tirelessly with departments to help them hire the strongest faculty. Her involvement has often been crucial to the success we have enjoyed,” says Lennie.

Olmsted’s wisdom and comprehensive understanding of the University are a godsend for newcomers, says Robert Clark, senior vice president for research and dean of the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who arrived from Duke University in 2008. “If I need to come in and talk about an issue, she always has an open door.”

As a first-time dean, Feldman also has appreciated Olmsted’s guidance and friendship. Several times a week, at the end of the day, he stops by her office on the way home. “I just sit down and sort of decompress. Just chat. And, you know, we always laugh. There is a sense of humor and a willingness to not take ourselves too seriously. When she told me that she was stepping down, that was the first thing I thought of. I know I will miss that.”

Olmsted joined the Rochester biology department in 1975, after completing a postdoctoral appointment at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and her doctorate at Yale University. Supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, she explored the function and regulation of cellular organelles, with particular emphasis on cytoskeletal components. She served on editorial boards, as a councilor of the American Society of Cell Biology, and chaired the NIH Cellular Basis for Disease Study Section. In 1995, she was appointed the inaugural associate dean of faculty, later serving as dean of faculty development and interim vice provost and dean of faculty, before becoming dean of arts and sciences in 2007.

Olmsted’s scientific grounding shines through in her leadership style, say colleagues. Her approach is to ask questions, to listen and absorb, to keep an open mind, and not to jump to conclusions, says Feldman.

“She always approaches issues from an impartial, calm, analytical perspective,” adds Lamar Murphy, University general secretary and the president’s chief of staff. “Joanna defines precisely what the goal is, and from the goal, she finds the right strategy. In a quiet but powerful way, she has made immensely valuable contributions to the University. She is a wonderful colleague and has earned the trust and respect of faculty and staff throughout the institution.”

As a successful researcher at a time when few women made it into the ranks of faculty, and now as one of the University’s most respected administrators, Olmsted has helped to open doors for women, adds Murphy. Her example of excellence and unfailing high standards are an inspiration to both women and men, she says.

Above all, Olmsted “has made the University a much better place for faculty and students,” says Lennie.

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