Longtime college leader, researcher, guitar player retires
By Nicole Geary
In the field of education research, there are experts on statistical methods and there are philosophers.
In universities, there are scholars and there are administrators.
And in the Michigan State University College of Education, there was Robert E. Floden.
Rarely does one person excel at these contrasting roles throughout their career. But Floden is a man who wore all of these hats (and looked dapper) while adeptly leading one of the nation’s most renowned schools of education and overseeing the intellectual output of national initiatives intended to shape the future of teaching, among other tasks (like leading, playing guitar and singing in the college’s own rock band).
After an incredible 45 years on the faculty, Floden retired at the end of June 2022.
He completed his time as dean a year before, having served more stints as dean (including interim terms) than anyone in the College of Education’s history and shepherding it through some of the university’s greatest challenges.
He is known for his scholarly contributions across a range of disciplines, with research funding totalling $50M, and he has received several of the highest honors bestowed by MSU and by peer organizations in the field. In 2022, he received one of the nation’s most prominent awards for achievements influencing teacher preparation and policies that play out in classroom practices: the David G. Imig Award for Distinguished Achievement in Teacher Education from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE).
Colleagues say Floden has been a model for the mission of MSU: committed to the utmost excellence in teaching and research but also, always, focused on service.
For his part, Floden says he has never been a person with a set career path.
“I have followed opportunities that came to me and continued asking myself: ‘Can I do a really good job? Will there be great people to work with? Do I think I can make a contribution to move the university, or the field, forward?” he said. “I feel pretty good about how it’s all worked out.”
“UP POPS THIS GUY FLODEN”
In 1976, Lee Shulman was hosting a visiting doctor from Australia—one of many who came to MSU from around the world to gain a master’s degree in medical education—named Kenny Cox. Sitting in Shulman’s Okemos living room one day, Cox asked if his friend could help him look through applications for an evaluator position to be filled at a medical center in Sydney.
Shulman began sorting them into piles of candidates worth considering or not.
“Then I hit one, read it quickly and it doesn’t go into either pile. I put it behind me,” Shulman recalled. When Cox asked about the hidden resume, “I said, ‘That one’s for me.’”
It was Floden, a Princeton graduate and philosophy of education doctoral student at Stanford University. He was part of a consortium at Stanford, led by testing and measurement giant Lee Cronbach, using statistical methods to evaluate programs across a range of fields, including education.
With Judy Lanier, Shulman was in the midst of a million-dollar project: a new national institute on research in teaching that laid the foundation for Michigan State’s momentous impact in teacher education and a new multidisciplinary generation of faculty.
Floden had been a math teacher in New Jersey for only one year, and he knew nothing about research on teaching. But they hired him to join the Institute for Research on Teaching (IRT).
“He just looked intriguing, super capable, not afraid of risk,” said Shulman, who later joined and retired from the Stanford faculty and served as president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “MSU is a special place because you can plant a seed that looks like it’s going to grow into a certain kind of plant and it grows into something different. We just watched Bob grow.”
The IRT was the first in a series of large federally funded centers at MSU that spawned powerful lines of research, such as studies on connections between policy and teaching practice, international comparisons of student and teacher learning, and assessment of teachers’ knowledge.
With other scholars who became major players like William Schmidt, Andrew Porter and Sharon Feiman-Nemser, Floden used his knack for dueling talents to combine methods and perspectives.
It was the beginning of a career throughout which he uniquely mixed empirical data with core values about education to influence real change in schools.“What few people know about Bob is that he is an excellent statistician as well as a true philosopher. When you are a true philosopher, you think about things very deeply and you see connections that other people don’t necessarily see,” said Barbara Schneider, the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor in Education and Sociology at MSU. “I have always admired the thoughtful way he thinks about challenging problems.”
When Floden wasn’t busy answering questions such as the connections between teacher education policy and practice effects or the best ways to prepare mathematics teachers, he was, increasingly, leading solutions needed within the MSU College of Education.
He took his first role as an academic administrator in 1987 as assistant to the dean for graduate study, adding oversight of research activities in 1989.
Floden was an always-calm, always-honest leader. He repeatedly accepted and served in roles that benefited the people of the college–and its reputation for making an impact.
With Schmidt, he co-directed the Education Policy Center, a precursor to what is now the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC), that helped cement MSU’s commitment to using research to inform school policy and support policymakers, especially in Michigan.
As associate dean for research, the administrative role he held the longest, Floden helped continue the legacy of impactful research–with sizable grant funding and national stature–that makes MSU stand out and brought him to his academic home in the first place. Today, the college’s Office of Research Administration (formerly the Institute for Research on Teaching and Learning) is a model for outstanding pre- and post-award support to faculty members who are building or sustaining lines of research in numerous fields.
Floden took his third stint as interim dean following Donald Heller’s tenure in 2016. When he officially became dean in January 2016, he could not have predicted the challenges ahead for MSU. But he helped the college forge through the Larry Nassar situation, the global COVID-19 pandemic and deep national issues of racism and other divisions with grace and, still, great accomplishments.
“I will remember you as the dean who transformed the leadership culture of this college of education,” Sonya Gunnings-Moton told Floden at a farewell event in June 2021.
Gunnings-Moton was promoted to associate dean of student support and engagement by Floden, making her the first Black individual in the college to hold that title.
Colleagues credit Floden for elevating the continuing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion across various aspects of the college. Now, in fact, the administrative team is the most diverse in the college’s history, with two associate deans, the chief of staff, a director, two department chairs and the new dean all being persons of color. Notably, he also supported the creation of the Support Staff Advisory Committee, which has provided a more formalized community and voice for the needs of all staff members, and the Faculty Equity and Inclusion Committee. The College of Education was one of the first on campus to establish such a group as a collegewide effort, and to formalize it as a standing committee that has shared responsibility with the dean and other leaders.
Floden also moved to appoint tenure system faculty members to serve in the position of assistant or associate dean for diversity and inclusion, first Dorinda Carter Andrews and now Terah Venzant Chambers.
Yet, there is always more work to be done while striving to reach goals such as equity and justice in education, as Floden would acknowledge.
He would also listen to learn what improvements are needed. For example, he heard faculty, staff, students and alumni were asking for better communication from college leadership. So when COVID hit, he instituted a frequent internal newsletter and held regular town hall meetings for the college community.
During Floden’s tenure, the college led breakthrough international research on project-based science learning, became headquarters to the national organization of researchers in educational leadership (University Council for Educational Administration), continued expanding its Department of Kinesiology and maintained top-10 rankings for several graduate areas, including online programs. In fact, MSU was ranked #1 in the world for education by one international resource (ShanghaiRanking) in 2019.
By the time Floden decided to retire, he didn’t stop to reflect on where his career, or the college, had been over time. He was focused on launching a strategic planning process intended to set up its future students, staff, faculty and the next dean, for success. These themes include continued and expanded commitments to educator preparation; urban, rural and global communities and contexts; leadership and policy and more.
Floden continues national service as the chair of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Books Editorial Board, and as a member of the governing Boards of the AACTE, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation and the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate. He is also external evaluator for a National Science Foundation-funded STEM teacher education project led by Sasha Wang at Boise State University, and recently consulted with the teacher education groups at the American Museum of Natural History.
Like Shulman said, Floden came to MSU like a seed with raw talent, and he bloomed in an environment enriched by both high expectations and humanity. In turn, he hired, taught and mentored many other talented Spartans along the way, and they each share in the legacy of great leadership that makes the MSU College of Education so distinctive.
“You work to help people hire great people,” Floden said. “And you listen to them. I just think that’s really important.”
THE FLODEN FILE
- Ph.D., Philosophy of Education, M.A., Statistics, Stanford University; A.B., Philosophy, Princeton University
- University Distinguished Professor
- Faculty member in several program areas: Teacher Education, Educational Psychology, Education Policy, Mathematics Education and Measurement and Quantitative Methods
- Member & Former Secretary-Treasurer, National Academy of Education
- Fellow, American Educational Research Association
- Board Chair, American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
- Fellow, American Psychological Association Division 15
- Former editor, Journal of Teacher Education, Educational Researcher and Review of Research in Education
- Former co-director, Education Policy Center at MSU
- Former director, Institute for Research on Teaching and Learning (now the Office of Research Administration)
- Recipient, David G. Imig Award for Distinguished Achievement in Teacher Education from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE)
- Recipient, Margaret B. Lindsey Award for Distinguished Research in Teacher Education from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
- Recipient, Crystal Apple Award, MSU College of Education
Floden was one of four distinguished leaders who retired in 2022, including Sonya Gunnings-Moton, Daniel Gould and Michael Sedlak. Please consider supporting their favorite fund(s) to celebrate and honor their hard work and innovation.