He comes from the No. 1-ranked graduate program in the nation and has studied the issues that nearly every university must face, from financial planning to setting the conditions for struggling students to achieve success.
More importantly, he has been putting his expertise to work within the heart of administrative discussions – and before policymakers at all levels – when some of the most significant educational policy decisions must be made.
Officials at Michigan State University believe Heller’s experiences, combined with his open, even-tempered approach to leadership, make him a fitting addition to the Spartan team.
He becomes dean of the MSU College of Education on Jan. 1, 2012, leaving his post as professor and director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University. Carole Ames, who has been dean for 18 years, stepped down in August.
“Heller knows the roles of a research university and how a college of education fits within higher education,” said Robert Floden, a University Distinguished Professor currently serving as interim dean of the college. “He has been successful talking to a wide variety of policy audiences and that can add to the influence and visibility of the institution, which is important to us.”
Heller also cares deeply about promoting diversity and equitable opportunities within the educational environment, the focus of his scholarship over 15 years. His core values, which he shared during his first visit to campus, have resonated well with faculty, staff and students in the College of Education.
“We have a great responsibility educating students who will be future educators, researchers and leaders,” Heller said. “It’s also important that people look at the College of Education and think of it as more than a place to learn or to work – to feel that there is a larger sense of community.”
“An effective advocate”
Heller will be on campus to begin meeting alumni, students and staff during Homecoming weekend at MSU, Oct. 21-23, 2011. Not surprisingly, he plans to spend the early part of his tenure talking to faculty and other groups about what is going well and what can be improved across the college’s four departments.
For now, the College of Education – described as “a big ship with a lot of momentum” – is in stable financial shape after recent budget reductions and set to continue focusing on critical goals such as preparing high-quality teachers, improving mathematics and science education, and addressing challenges in urban education.
“For me, the most exciting part will be working with the people in the college, who share a sense of accomplishment and see great opportunities for additional work,” said Heller, who comes to East Lansing with his wife, educator Anne Simon, and two teenage daughters. “My inclination is to do a lot of listening during the first few months. I’m not going to come in on Jan. 1 and say, ‘Here are my 10 priorities.’”
Fortunately, Heller is already familiar with some of the social and political contexts in which the college conducts academic programs, research and service projects.
Penn State and its College of Education, where Heller has been a faculty member since 2002, share MSU’s land-grant mission and, with it, a central commitment to meeting the needs of schools and educators across the state. Teacher preparation is a critical component.
Aside from his own teaching and administrative duties at PSU, Heller chaired the Faculty Council in his college this past year and has helped reach consensus about interdisciplinary issues, including difficult program consolidations. He has also served on several university-wide committees.
“Don has been someone who I have relied on to provide strong scholarly input for our strategic planning process,” said Penn State President (formerly provost) Rodney A. Erickson. “He is nationally recognized as an expert on higher education and clearly one of the most often-quoted scholars in the areas of student financial aid, tuition and competition.”
A first-generation college student himself, Heller became interested in policies and practices that can bridge racial and socioeconomic gaps in educational attainment while a graduate student at Harvard University. He is most known for illuminating how financial aid programs affect under-represented students’ ability to go to college. Among many other publications, he is the author of two notable reports on that topic from the Civil Rights Project, a research and advocacy organization now based at UCLA.
Heller has also served as a consultant to university systems and policymaking organizations in at least 10 states, been an expert witness in federal court cases and testified before Congressional committees and state legislatures. Tennessee lawmakers, for example, were the first to give merit scholarship recipients from low-income families more money than their higher-income peers based on recommendations from Heller and others.
“Policymakers don’t always listen to the experts, but I feel I have been an effective advocate for policies that promote educational success at the state and national levels,” he said. “As dean, I won’t do as much research, but I will be able to expand my portfolio and become a voice for other education policy issues and decisions.”
Heller is particularly familiar with the educational climate in Michigan having been a faculty member at the University of Michigan School of Education from 1997 through 2001. Prior to that, he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Massachusetts.
He has also worked on issues related to the education of LGBT students, first as a commissioner of the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth in Massachusetts, and later as a member of the Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Equity at Penn State.
The public connection
Besides challenging his students to a competition at the bowling alley at least once each semester, Heller likes to break from the intensity of academia by playing golf, tennis and volleyball, and through cooking an “eclectic repertoire” of recipes.
He also loves technology.
Before completing graduate school, Heller was an IT administrator in charge of the design, development and support of administrative computer systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His decade-long career at MIT, which included overseeing a 50-person, $3 million department, gave him a preview of the administrative skills he now brings to academic leadership roles at Penn State and, soon, Michigan State.
Maintaining excellence is not new to Heller. The PSU Center for the Study of Higher Education, which he has directed since 2007, consistently recruits talented graduate assistants to work with nationally regarded faculty members and assist with research projects averaging $1 million in annual funding. Two journals, Perspectives on the History of Higher Education and the student-managed Higher Education in Review, are also based at the center.
“He has been a real leader in regard to higher education and public policy and particularly in doing work that informs public thinking, which is a distinctive contribution,” said Ann Austin, a professor of higher education in the MSU College of Education. “I think he brings people together and listens to them; he will be able to help our college position all of the excellent research that happens here within the broader dialogue.”
Heller has not been removed from the challenges facing K-12 education. He co-teaches general education policy courses with colleagues from those fields and has been called to consult with various boards and panels as they review issues at stake for students transitioning from secondary to postsecondary education.
He is interested in the best approaches for bringing international perspectives into today’s classrooms – he has lived abroad as a visiting professor at the University of London’s Birkbeck College in England.
And Heller says he is particularly concerned about the continuous public attacks on teachers, as well as teacher education. He plans to create more exposure for the many MSU faculty members who have expertise and research in those areas and, if there are critical areas where the college lacks expertise, look at recruiting even more top scholars.
“Given our current situation in Michigan, I hope – both as an alumna and a K-12 educator – that our college would be a strong voice of reason in those debates,” said Wendy Darga, president of the College of Education Alumni Association. “I have been impressed with Dr. Heller’s ideas about engagement and outreach and I look forward to working with him.”