The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth

Volume 19, No.1, Summer 2002

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Embracing the Journey

The career paths of five faculty members converge on the campus of UMD

A resume, a curriculum vitae and a blurb on the inside of a book cover might look like a detailed blueprint for a carefully planned professional life. But in reality, many UMD professors have pursued academic careers that more closely resemble the map of an explorer, with unexpected twists, turns, obstacles and opportunities.

This look at the career paths of five UMD faculty members shows the impact of seemingly insignificant events — a brief conversation in a hallway, a colleague on sabbatical — which can have unexpected, and lasting, consequences.

Tom Isbell
Sabra Anderson
Paul Sharp
Helen Mongan Rallis
Jon Pierce

Tom Isbell

“Skeasy isn’t even a word ...Katie Couric called me skeazy on national TV. There’s nothing else to live for.”

Associate Professor Tom Isbell knows all about plans. After graduating with a master of fine arts from the Yale Drama School, he contracted with an agent and they came up with a plan: Tom was looking for film and theater work but he wasn’t interested in television. Two weeks after moving to New York City, he landed a general interview with producer Bert Metcalf. Isbell remembers, “When I got home, there was a call from the agent with an offer for a TV show. When I reminded him of our game plan, he told me how much money they were offering and I said, ‘Forget the game plan. I’ll take it!’ “

Isbell grew up near Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and then went to the University of Illinois where he earned his BFA. He began his acting career with the solid academic credentials of a graduate degree from Yale. It was no surprise that his first TV role led to others and eventually took him to Los Angeles.

Isbell laughs when he recalls a highlight from that chapter of his life. Isbell played a sexual harasser on the show Sisters. One morning his own sister called from Chicago and told him to turn on the Today Show. “Katie Couric was interviewing a woman who had written a book on sexual harassment. When they showed a clip from my show, Katie Couric said, ‘I saw that episode and that guy was so ‘skeazy’ he made my skin crawl.’” Isbell said, “skeasy isn’t even a word. I thought, I’ve been to the mountaintop. Katie Couric called me ‘skeazy’ on national TV. There’s nothing else to live for.”

The next career move had little to do with talent or opportunity — and a lot to do with seismology. Isbell decided that the 1994 North Ridge earthquake was his last one. While in Los Angeles, Isbell taught extension classes at UCLA, and found the experience more satisfying than TV work. Teaching was always something he wanted to do. “My family was a university family, and I grew up near the University of Illinois. The earthquake provided the impetus I needed to change careers, and I sent my application to UMD three days later.”

He said, “I looked for a school with an interesting program and four seasons that was far away from tectonic plates.” Flying into Duluth for his interview — in April — Isbell’s plane was delayed until early in the morning because of a snowstorm. “It was fun to see the snow,” he says. He started that fall. “And,” he says, “it has been a very fun chapter.”

UMD has provided Isbell with a brand new series of adventures and he is appreciative of the freedom and support he has found. He currently serves as vice chair for the regional playwrighting division of the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival. Next year he will become chair. What that means, he says, is that he gets to travel around and see what other drama departments are doing.
“It’s tempting for me to go to a bigger school with a bigger theatre program, but it would be a dangerous step because there’s no guarantee that I’d be allowed the kind of creative freedom I’m allowed here,” he said.

While acting and teaching in L.A., Isbell also found time to explore life as a playwright, producing several one-man plays based on the life and times of real people including John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Walt Whitman and Isbell’s father. That talent created an incredible opportunity for the theatre department when Isbell applied for a grant that would allow him to write and produce an original play at UMD.

The result of the grant was Dear Finder, a drama about the Holocaust based on documentation recovered after the end of the war. “It was a real risk,” Isbell says. “The script reads like an encyclopedia, but the college told me to go for it, so we kept working.”

In 1997, he traveled to Washington, D.C. to consult with historians at the Holocaust Museum. Gary Gordon, a member of Duluth’s Temple Israel, guided the writers and actors, who also attended Friday night services. Seven student writers pooled their findings, meeting every night for five weeks in the summer.

“We ended up with a four-hour script. I started trimming. The faculty got behind it, and we put it on the schedule for the fall of ’98. There was no turning back.” Isbell cautioned actors that the material was tedious and dark. He told them if the audience seemed offended or walked out, they should just keep going.

The audience wasn’t offended; they embraced it. “There’s nothing more satisfying in the world,” Isbell says, “than an audience that understands what you’re going for.” Dear Finder played to sold-out audiences and was subsequently nominated for inclusion in the American College Theater Festival (ACTF) at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Isbell also directed The Movie Game, the UMD play that was included in the ACTF at the Kennedy Center this April.

Isbell is pleased to be able to launch students on their own journeys. And the university is pleased as well. This spring, Isbell received the 2002 Horace T. Morse Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

“We encourage student participation in everything,” he said. “Because we’re not a graduate program, students get a wide range of experience as actors, designers and now writers. Since 1985, we’ve taken five shows to Washington for the American College Theater Festival — that’s amazing.”

Sabra Anderson

“Of the 250 schools of engineering in America,
I was only the second woman to become dean. Even now, there are fewer than ten.”

Sabra Anderson’s long professional journey with UMD has been filled with unplanned detours. She looks back and smiles at the list of all the things she said she would never do.

“Well, I never wanted to be an administrator. I came to UMD in 1969 to teach mathematics because that is what I love to do.” In 1977, the new Dean of the College of Letters and Sciences recruited Anderson to serve as associate dean. “I said no,” she remembers distinctly. “Then he asked again. I agreed under one condition: I would advise him as long as my administrative position was at zero percent.”

Apparently the dean’s understanding of percentages differed from that of his star mathematics professor. He left to do research in the Middle East and was incommunicado on Anderson’s first day when a faculty member (who was medically incapacitated) confronted a local sheriff with a shotgun. The new associate dean was called in to handle the situation and get help for the faculty member. “That was a lot of administration for the first day on the job,” Anderson says. “Over time, of course, it grew to more than zero percent. Even though I came to enjoy it, I eventually left the position and went back to teaching math and later became chair of the department.”

While Anderson was teaching math and directing UMD’s Study in England program, the College of Letters and Sciences was reorganized; science and engineering became its own school. And the new school needed a new associate dean. “I agreed under one condition,” she says, recounting a now familiar strategy. “I knew very little about engineering so I asked to have nothing to do with it. When I returned from England, what was my first project? Coordinating the accreditation process for the engineering department! So I learned a lot about engineering and we got accredited.”

When the dean of the College of Science and Engineering retired, the search for his replacement began at Anderson’s door, a door she closed quickly and firmly. “I did not apply,” she says. “But when the first search ended with no candidate, I applied the second time around, got the job and spent 10 years at it. And it turned out that I loved it.”

Anderson quickly discovered she had opened a new door that few women had passed through. “Of the approximately 250 schools of engineering in America,” she says, “I was only the second woman to become dean. Even now, there are fewer than 10.”

As Anderson struggled to become accepted by her peers, her husband Dennis, history department chair at the College of St. Scholastica, also confronted stereotypes. “At the annual meetings, there are always special activities for wives,” Anderson explains. “One year when we checked in, they handed Dennis — a great big flowered brooch. I tried to get him to wear it to the banquet but he was too polite. He continued to attend conferences with me and the group of spouses sort of adopted him as their mascot.”

Anderson was accepted by her colleagues at UMD and by engineers in the Duluth community. And she’s pleased with the growth and development of the new school under her direction.

Computer science grew and expanded. The electrical and computer engineering program was established. And close partnerships have formed between the College of Science and Engineering, the Large Lakes Observatory, the Natural Resources Research Institute and the School of Medicine. “Look at the Duluth businesses that have developed partly because of UMD, for instance, Cirrus Design. I remember when the Klapmeier brothers came to Duluth looking to see if this would be a good place to build their first plant. They wanted to locate in a community with an engineering college. Our industrial engineers worked with them on their first aircraft designs and they’re still collaborating.”

Her position as dean posed one other challenge she was unprepared for. “You’d think I’d know better by this time, but when I was appointed, I told Chancellor Ianni that I wouldn’t do any fundraising. He assured me that deans were not expected to help raise funds. Since then, development has become part of everyone’s responsibility. We hired a development officer to help and I discovered it was fun. I learned there are people who want to give money away and you just have to convince them to give it to you.”

By her own admission, 10 years was enough time away from a job she loved and she returned to the Study in England Program. “I had been separated from close connections with students for about 15 years,” Anderson says. “In England, we spend a lot of time with the students. It’s wonderful to take 50 students, most of whom have no travel experience, and spend a year abroad with them. Their perspective on the world changes. And I changed, too.”

At each fork in the path, Anderson asked for a promise. And each time, the promise disappeared after the job began. “But each time,” she admits, “I discovered something new. I like administration. I like engineering. I like fundraising. I just had never done it before.”

Paul Sharp

“Even people who hate each other need to talk.
I’m interested in understanding the discussions and the challenges involved
for foreign ministers, ambassadors and diplomats....”

In the field of diplomacy, Professor Paul Sharp had done it all before — or at least a lot of it. Throughout his career in international studies, he quietly researched and published books and articles on diplomacy. At UMD, he directed the Royal D. Alworth Jr. Institute for International Studies, a 14-year-old public policy program administered through UMD’s College of Liberal Arts.

Then, as the events of September 11 unfolded, everyone searched for answers. Why did our international relationships yield such catastrophic results? How can we resolve the conflict? Sharp was prepared to guide the dialogue.

“Even though events were moving quickly, we very deliberately tried to help people make sense out of the crisis. Those of us who study diplomacy would make poor journalists. Rather than coming up with quick explanations, we take an historical viewpoint to give distance to the situation.”

Sharp’s career has included some geographical distance as well. A native of Great Britain, he notes, “I have lived almost half my life in North America, which was an unanticipated development. I don’t belong on either continent, really. I am perpetually an outsider. It lends a different perspective and an interesting vision, but you pay a price.”

Sharp met his wife, Janny Walker, when she was a student with the Carleton College year-abroad program. After they married, Sharp applied for entrance into British Ph.D. programs but established himself at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, instead.

By 1984, Sharp found that he was finally able to stop battling for grants after receiving a lectures


hip from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “That’s when I knew it was real,” he says. “I knew I had a chance at making a living at what I was interested in.” Shortly thereafter, he and Janny were both able to find positions at Minnesota colleges.

While teaching at St. Olaf and then UMD, Sharp published books and articles addressing foreign policy in Ireland, Great Britain and Russia.

At UMD, Sharp found the resources and encouragement he needed to continue his research. His most memorable project was a book entitled, Thatcher’s Diplomacy: The Revival of British Foreign Policy, published by Macmillan in the U.K and the U.S. It sold out in hardcover and was released in paperback — a sign of success, especially for an academic work. In it, Sharp argued that Thatcher was one of the few leaders of her time tackling the big issues in international relations. “She was a fascinating study,” Sharp says. “Most people know her from the Cold War and for her partnership with Ronald Reagan, but I think that her policy toward the European Union is far more interesting. She was asking the right questions related to reconciling national independence with membership in this emerging organization.”

Then at a conference, Sharp’s work made a transformation. He met four people – two from Great Britain, one from Israel and one from the United States — who were “enthusiastic about the work I was doing,” Sharp says. “They offered advice about how to shape it and who to consult. They even pushed me to set up a diplomatic studies section of the International Studies Association in the United States.” Sharp was named section chair and now sits on the governing council for the association.

He still seems amazed by this turn of events. “I was sort of plucked from obscurity.” Sharp’s work now examines the theory of diplomacy, drawing upon all of his experiences related to political and cultural diplomacy. “Even people who hate each other need to talk. I’m interested in understanding the discussions and the challenges involved for foreign ministers, ambassadors and diplomats. These are the people who actually communicate with each other.”

Besides teaching undergrads, Sharp employs his interest and passion for diplomacy to bring world events to the shores of Lake Superior. He directs the Alworth Institute, which sponsors seminars, conferences and round table discussions of policies with international consequences. Programs presented by the institute have had a strong following since it was established in 1987.

When the United States was thrust into the international spotlight this fall, Sharp and his colleagues were prepared to share their expertise within an established structure designed for intelligent public discourse. They responded immediately by scheduling a series of noon presentations on campus and a large group presentation on understanding Islam at a local church. That session drew an audience of more than 300 people.

“These presentations, like my classes, do not advocate for any one position,” Sharp says, “As a professor, I introduce the students to arguments. Similarly, the Institute provides a platform for discussion. But the Institute takes no position itself, other than advancing its mission to increase international understanding.”

Helen Mongan Rallis South African classrooms...Rallis observed firsthand how profoundly teachers could affect young minds by what and how they taught, and bythe ways in which they treated their students.

Helen Mongan Rallis, associate professor and head of the education department, has journeyed the farthest of the five to arrive at UMD. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and educated at Rhodes University and the University of the Witswatersrand, Rallis taught for three years at a white school. It was in this South African classroom that Rallis observed firsthand how profoundly teachers could affect young minds by what and how they taught, and by the ways in which they treated their students. “The nature of the learning experience not only affects what students remember,” she says, “it affects how they feel about themselves.”

From an early age she knew apartheid and racism were wrong. Her family employed a black woman, Maria Khumalo, and Rallis couldn’t make the connection between the racism she saw on the streets and her love for a woman who was part of her family. “She was like a mother to me. We held long discussions in the kitchen and those conversations are still with me today.” As a geography and physical education teacher, Rallis refused to join the South African Teacher’s Council for Whites “because of its apartheid stance and its policy which refused to allow non-Christian religious viewpoints. I knew I would ultimately have to join the council, give up teaching or leave the country,” she says.

She supported the anti-apartheid movement but couldn’t condone the increasing violence in South Africa and realized that she could contribute more by leaving than by staying.

Her sojourn to the U.S. began by visiting her brother, who was attending the University of Miami, Coral Gables, where she eventually enrolled to work on her masters in geography. Her thesis dealt with the effect of apartheid on squatters in South Africa. She then was accepted at Penn State where she worked on her doctorate in curriculum instruction.

On every step of her way, Rallis has acted from honesty and integrity. That is easier to do when one is in the mainstream of a population, but infinitely more difficult when one is from a minority population. “I couldn’t go back to South Africa; my calling was here in the United States but I couldn’t get a green card.” Other people in her situation — young, educated, and personable — simply married an American. And so, even as an affirmed lesbian, Rallis married as well, into a very happy, albeit unconventional marriage. She married a good friend, the gay friend of her brother, and a man that she says, “ I loved, and still love, very much.”

But life took its turns and after she completed her Ph.D., she developed a strong relationship with a woman. Rallis and her husband divorced.

And that brought her to UMD where she “fell in love with the program and fell in love with the people in the department and their spirit of collaboration.” One person who was especially influential to her as a “mentor, role model and friend” was, then head of the education department, Terrie Shannon.

Rallis says, “The department lets me know that I am valuable because of who I am, not in spite of who I am. I grew up seeing oppression. I come from a historically oppressed minority and I am a foreigner in this country. I bring a perspective that helps us teach students to be good teachers, not just for mainstream children, but for children from all kinds of situations.” She says the gay and lesbian university students are especially encouraged to have a role model, “who is an ‘out lesbian’ in a leadership position.”
Rallis, who has developed a specialty in teaching technology in the classroom, has been on the front line of bringing technology to all parts of UMD. For that work and for her strength in the college classroom, she received the 1995 Horace T. Morse Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Now, because of all of these positive experiences at UMD, she is excited about the opportunity to give something back to the university. She has taken the department head position. One of her first challenges was to hire nine new tenure-track faculty into the program. “It is exhausting and exhilarating and I couldn’t have done it without Assistant Department Head Bruce Munson.” The Education Department has grown to 1,250 students in Early Childhood, Elementary, Secondary, Special Education and Graduate Education programs. She says, “We needed new faculty and we need them right away, and my department, with its incredible spirit of collaboration, counted on me to help make it happen.”

Jon Pierce

“... it was not uncommon for employees to work for one company for life...
How loyal will this new generation of employees be,
especially as they experience sudden,massive layoffs...?”

Professor Jon Pierce began working on his Ph.D. in 1972, working out of an oak-trimmed Bascom Hall office at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It was from this office, gazing out at the waters of Lake Mendota, that the ideas for his life’s work first began to take form.

When Pierce enrolled in the doctoral program in organizational behavior, the graduate school faculty that he chose to study under were involved in research about complex organizations and their individual effects. Madison was a powerhouse in this particular field at this particular time. It was, he says, “like finding a pot of gold at the beginning of the rainbow.”

“Two groups of outstanding scholars — a group of organizational sociologists and a group of organizational psychologists — just happened to be in Wisconsin at the same time I was there. It was an intellectually rich environment. And there weren’t many doctoral students, so those of us who were there got a lot of close attention and assistance.”

Pierce recognized his good fortune and took full advantage of the mentorship available. While he was still in graduate school, he published articles in several top journals in the field, including the Academy of Management Review. “I left with a doctorate from a very strong program — and a friendship with an advisor who became a colleague and a real cheerleader throughout my entire career.”

While studying the structure of complex organizations, Pierce was intrigued by the relationship between the individual and the organization. “That interest in organizational psychology has defined my research agenda. I wanted to explore the connection that attaches individuals to organizations.”

One recent concern that has caught up with Pierce’s research is the issue of corporate loyalty. “In my generation and certainly my parents’ generation, it was not uncommon for employees to work for one company for life. They became very loyal, very dedicated organizational members. There are a lot of question marks now as to how loyal this new generation of employees will be, especially as they experience sudden, massive layoffs and organizations without ‘heart and soul.’ By the time some of our UMD graduates are out of school for 10 years, they’re on their third or fourth job.”

Pierce was hired at UMD right out of graduate school and continued to publish while he taught. His very linear academic career path took an interesting leap when he co-authored an article addressing the concept of employee ownership. In the article, Pierce noted briefly that physical ownership is not as critical as psychological ownership. “In other words,” he explains, “owning something doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll take care of it.”

The editor was intrigued by the concept and recommended to Pierce that he write an entire article on that specific topic. This suggestion presented Pierce with a new quest that combined his favorite disciplines: psychology and organizational behavior.

In search of the origins of psychological ownership, Pierce traveled to the University of Waikato, in New Zealand, as a visiting scholar in the psychology department, spending several months researching literature addressing child development and animal territorial behavior. He started his new adventure with a new question: Is there a human tendency toward possessiveness or is it a learned behavior? He is now busy designing surveys and gathering data, methodical work that demands commitment and perseverance.

Teaching for the School of Business and Economics at UMD, he says, enables him to pursue research that is both compelling and valuable. “I have been intimately interested in each of the major research agendas I’ve had through the years and I’ve been able to stick with it until I decide I want to explore something else. This career has afforded me incredible freedom.”

As we see from these five journeys, UMD students are gaining powerful lessons in life-long learning from some real pros who have shaped careers — and lives — by remaining open to choices and risks.

— Molly Stein and Cheryl Reitan


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