The Compassionate Collaborator

May 11, 2011

Susan Melnick champions academic outreach, student needs as long-time leader in the college

Many doctoral students in the College of Education get to know Susan Melnick. They know she will make time for them, for advice, for a chance to test their thinking about teaching or another topic.

She may have taught one of their courses, she may have been on their dissertation committee—or maybe not. Melnick, assistant dean since 1999, is known for putting the personal and intellectual needs of students first.

And, not surprisingly, she has been the college’s leader when it comes to serving students studying beyond the traditional bounds of the university community: off-campus, overseas and online.

Each of those domains represented new or evolving endeavors for the College of Education during Melnick’s time as an administrator and, fellow faculty members say, she has set a precedent for successful forms of academic outreach. She retires this summer after 30 years at MSU.

“Susan’s versatility and willingness to step to the plate when called upon has led to many significant contributions,” said Associate Dean Cass Book. “She is endeared by many, many graduate students, and her breadth of influence spans from the department to the college to the university.”

Advocating quality off-campus

A former high school teacher, Melnick came to Michigan State in 1980 to work with Teacher Corps, a project focused on improving teaching in low-income areas. She brought a deep scholarly interest in issues of race, poverty and class to her work as a faculty member in the Department of Teacher Education.

Colleagues say Melnick’s commitment to equity and high quality in education has persisted as a centerpiece of her administrative decisions.

“It’s hard to be connected to those issues if you are not that kind of person,” said teacher education associate professor and friend Avner Segall. “She has gained a lot of respect from faculty as a thoughtful and caring colleague.”

Melnick collaborated with faculty members across the college to offer degree programs for educators in places such as France, Thailand and Switzerland. The Graduate Studies in Education Overseas (gseo) programs, which were phased out due to declining enrollment a few years ago, grouped mostly expatriate teachers who were working in international schools into cohorts that took courses during the summer months.

Off-campus programs in locations across Michigan also grew under Melnick’s leadership, helping hundreds of practicing educators complete a master’s degree at times and places convenient within their professional lives—without sacrificing access to the rigor and tenure-stream professors that set MSU apart.

Today, the college’s Educational Technology program continues to operate the only remaining off-site programs, including a certificate course sequence in select Michigan cities and a master’s degree in Rouen, France.

Melnick said the college was quick to embrace a new frontier in online learning when economic and logistical realities began threatening the viability of face-to-face degree programs off-campus. Today, there are six online master’s programs that build on the college’s history of successful academic outreach in other formats.

“We learned a lot about making courses connect with what people needed to know, and I think we managed to cement our reputation for learning about teaching,” Melnick said. “(Going online) expanded our goals by broadening the audience with whom we could work, and that’s proved to be true—especially with the all-college maed program (see below).”

Entering the Online Frontier

The online Master of Arts in Education (maed), directed by Susan Melnick and conceived by Carole Ames, has been one of the most significant College of Education success stories in the past 10 years.

Ahead of the curve from its launch, the program paved the way for an era of online teaching and learning at MSU and has enhanced the careers of more than 800 graduates—teachers, school administrators, coaches and adult educators.

By the year 2000, few faculty members understood how to design coursework that would be effective in an electronic format. After inquiring about their interest, Ames convened a task force that, led by Melnick, went on to spearhead special training opportunities for faculty, financial incentives for early adopters and the first online courses in fall 2001.

With six concentration areas to choose from, the maed exposes students to in-depth content within their interest area as well as a breadth of knowledge about key issues in education. They become part of a dynamic online community, no matter where they are in the world or how their careers differ.

“Dr. Melnick has provided a great deal of leadership in developing the program’s structure and high quality,” said Dean Ames. “Its success was huge for the field, and for this college.”

Along with the maed as an anchor, three departments now offer online-only full degree programs, and the additional tuition revenues have been increasingly returned to the departments to support student fellowships and other activities.

Other leaders in the college say the breakthrough into web-based academic programs came about by empowering faculty members to explore new, entrepreneurial projects with appropriate support from both college- and central campus–level administration—a process that has often repeated under Ames’ leadership.

See page 42 for a taste of the types of students that have enrolled in the maed, and what they think.