A true human ecologist, Dean Soyeon Shim holds three advanced degrees in Human Ecology, including a PhD from the University of Tennessee–Knoxville. For more than three decades she has been a leader in higher education and research, including her own APLUS work on young adults’ financial knowledge and well-being. Since taking the SoHE dean position in 2012, she has been a force on campus, launching numerous programs and initiatives for UW–Madison and beyond.
In this Q&A, Dr. Shim shares some hard-earned leadership advice—including how to engage employees and alumni—and reflects on a handful of her career highlights.
Defining Your Mission, Finding Your Niche & Creating Partnerships
Q: Looking at your impact on the UW campus, you’re quite good at strategic leadership. You say you start every project from a place of empathy. Can you explain?
SS: Well, I develop a strategy by asking, “What do people want?” If you think about it, everyone wants happy families, financial security, well-being, and to be entrepreneurial and innovative. That’s human ecology.
To be highly strategic, it’s important to know your strengths and what makes you unique. Our Prenatal to Five initiative started this way. Everyone wants young children and families in poverty to be successful. And what does SoHE have that is unique? We have the Child Development Lab.
But let’s back up. Before pursuing anything, a good mission needs to be in place. For SoHE’s, I looked to the larger university. As a land-grant institution, UW–Madison’s mission is teaching, research, and outreach. SoHE’s mission needs to embrace that and make sense for our audience, which is students, parents, and faculty members.
Missions must align with aspirations. Who do you want to be when you grow up? What are you going to be next year or in two years? I encourage people to think both big-picture and who they want to be tomorrow. Without achievable short-term goals, aspirations can go unrealized. You reach your goals by focusing on outcomes. I do this through partners who have the same or similar goals.
Q: Tell us more about the professional partnerships you’ve created.
SS: Our Mind-Body & Family Well-Being initiative came from partnering with Richie Davidson of the Center for Healthy Minds. He has such notoriety in his field but needed what we have—insight into children and families. And what made us unique? Our Child Development Lab, plus faculty member Julie Poehlmann-Tynan and her child development research. We were also working to bring in new faculty Larissa Duncan and Charles Raison, experts in well-being.
We could see our individual strengths, so we pulled them together into a strong partnership. Through it, we were able to draw in new people to UW–Madison and work with the Center for Healthy Minds, which continues today.
It’s an example of why it’s important to identify your strengths. To know what makes you unique.
Another example is design. No one has Design Studies like ours. No one has a 50-year-old textile collection like ours. No one has galleries like ours. SoHE has incredible facilities, but they were underutilized and confined to our small Design Studies programs. I began by asking, how do we make design bigger at UW? The answer I came to was design thinking.
I saw design thinking happening nationally and that UW needed to be part of it. I sought partners who could see its benefits for students. One partnership came through our alum Elizabeth Holloway Schar and her husband Mark, a Stanford grad who knew about design thinking from his alma mater. But to be impactful, I needed campus partners—and I wanted the engineering and business schools. I presented the idea to other UW–Madison deans even though at first they were not connecting to my vision.
But I wasn’t stopping to wait for them either. Michelle Kwasny came on my radar as the design thinking expert we needed. I worked with UW’s Continuing Education Division, which saw her value for all of UW and agreed to finance her. Because of her work, UW–Madison now has an MS in Design + Innovation.
While the MS was being developed, Chipstone came along with financial support that’s really been key in moving the needle on design thinking. They believe in it as well! Thanks to that support, our Center for Design and Material Culture has been bolstered to lead the way in design thinking. And, we acquired the leadership of Sarah Carter (the center’s executive director). Now, design thinking has a home base and is taking off in ways we never imagined.
From vision to reality, getting to this point was an eight-year journey, but the timing along the way allowed for the right people and supporters to join in and make the process stronger. And we did it for our students. To make them stronger thinkers who can make a difference in our world. So the big strategy question was, “How can we make this bigger so others can benefit?” Again, it was partnerships. And patience!
Q: You seem to excel at getting different people, groups, departments, and corporations to work together. What’s your secret to making that happen?
SS: I have been thinking a lot about how the bulk of what I’ve been able to accomplish to date was done through building partnerships. It’s a lot of work. Seeking people out, bringing them together, and sharing my vision. That requires showing them where I want to go, what I can do for them, and what I need to make it happen. When people can see your vision, they get excited! I am very focused on having a vision for where SoHE is going. I think about it every day.
Creating a Stronger School
Q: You mentioned building up SoHE at UW–Madison, which is a Research 1 institution with more than 40,000 students. In what ways have you been able to elevate human ecology on such a large campus?
SS: I always come back to building on our mission, asking, “What is important to us? How is it related to what we do? What does it mean for our future? Is it going to make us better? Is it something we should be doing?”
Our Personal Finance major is unique on campus. And, who needs financial literacy? Everybody! Particularly college students. We partnered with the chancellor and a local credit union to create the popular Financial Life Skills courses for every UW student, from incoming freshman to outgoing, job-hunting graduates. Creating that coursework was an initial step in proving that SoHE is a strong campus partner. The Life Skills courses grew into the opportunity for our Personal Finance program to become UW–Madison’s first fully online degree. It’s historic! Then, when COVID-19 closed our campus, SoHE’s hard work in online education set the stage for the entire university to go online, keeping students learning and earning their degrees.
Q: You seem to be able to recognize opportunity when it is presented.
SS: Just recently, campus’ Native American Environment, Health, and Community Cluster was formed to better connect with our region’s tribal communities and sovereign Native Nations.
But it really began five years ago. When Paul Robbins of the Nelson Institute got Chiefs and Native reservation leaders together, they all agreed on a need to address environmental issues, but they really wanted more children, family, and youth work. Our CSCS department already had a good reputation working with Native American students, so I started to see an initiative for SoHE.
Working with faculty, UW Extension, and System, the Nelson Institute started an initiative with Native people based on resources, water, and environment. Now, in 2020, SoHE has launched the Indigenous EcoWell Initiative to build a community of scholars, practitioners, and students focused on well-being. Thanks to a campus cluster hire, too, we now have four Indigenous scholars at SoHE who we can provide a platform for success. Through them, SoHE is making a mark on campus. We are elevating our school but also really contributing to what is needed in the region.
Earning Faculty Trust, Finding Common Ground
Q: Please share more about providing faculty and staff with platforms for success.
SS: We need to help faculty succeed as a group. Individually, they become so good that other schools come along and pluck them up, leaving a void. I want to give faculty a “glue” and a reason to be at UW. And, if someone does leave, the system doesn’t crumble. We have solid platforms for people to continue the work and build on.
I’m interested in not just bringing excellent people, but creating a system that can sustain them. I want to make sure they have the resources they need to succeed and the resources for us to continue if they do leave.
Q: How did you develop this platform system?
SS: Early in my career, I got really impressed with excellent people. I thought if I brought in endowed chairs that everyone reveres, they would make us look good.
Instead, I quickly learned two things. One, there are prima donnas who can actually discourage the people around them. I need people who elevate everybody, not just themselves. Success can’t hinge on a limited number of people. Everyone should contribute to the greater good of the organization. Excellence must incorporate everyone. The second thing was that the truly excellent people are those who build up the systems and the people around them. I’ve become a system-thinking person because nothing works in isolation.
Q: Was this a way of establishing trust with faculty and staff?
SS: When I arrived as dean, I started from ground zero. There was no reason for people to not trust me, but no reason to trust me either. This was very different from my previous position, where I had built the program and hired most of the staff. At SoHE, I stepped into someone else’s team and agenda.
So I brought everyone together to work on visioning and strategic planning alongside budgeting allocation. Long story short, everyone got what they wanted and succeeded more than they had imagined. I earned faculty trust by giving them the power and resources to build a vision. Then we worked together to reach those visions.
This initial planning for SoHE has been key through the years. For example, going online with the Personal Finance program required a lot of hard work, and I could have met a lot of internal resistance. Instead, our people seized the opportunity. It’s part of our strategic plan!
SoHE priorities didn’t come from me—they came from everyone. When the chancellor asked us to lead the way (in getting Personal Finance online), we were able to say “yes” right away because we know our priorities. Plus, when you are small, you want to be the first. If the chancellor is behind it, I know we can succeed while also being innovative. When you take risks, they should be calculated risks.
Q: In what ways has the school changed under your leadership?
SS: SoHE’s visibility on campus and at the national level has increased for its significant impact on students, research, and outreach, while representing a diverse population of faculty, students and community. For example, the student body has doubled, from 800 to more than 1,600 undergrads, plus a 40% increase in graduate students. These students need to be supported and represented by growing a diverse faculty. We now have five Black faculty and staff members and growing. Before we only had one. Today, 35% of our faculty consists of people of color instructing a student body of 19% under-represented students. Each and every hire has been strategic and part of our collective vision.
Fundraising with Vision
Q: How are you able to provide so many supportive platforms for such rapid faculty growth?
SS: Fundraising is a big part of this. You’ve got to have to have vision. You have to have internal partnership with all of your faculty members knowing they are busy running their initiatives, research, and scholarship. I look to external partnerships for help. Someone that sees your vision gives you the money to reach it.
I work hard to get initial funding, show funders what we can do with it, and, often, they give you more money to do more. It’s a repeat give. And as you continue to show impact, each gift gets bigger. $10,000 becomes $100,000. $100,000 becomes $1M. $1M becomes $10M. You work to cultivate your relationship and provide stewardship. That’s very important to donors. Fifty-dollar donors, which was the case with the Morgridges’ first gift, can become billion-dollar philanthropists. That’s rare, but SoHE now has many supporters who gave here and there, then connected to a vision and became million-dollar donors. It’s a giving pipeline on a spectrum. My job is to create that pipeline to support SoHE.
Donors fund ideas. Who is funding design thinking? Chipstone is primarily covering Sarah Carter’s position, along with several others in the CDMC. Michelle Kwasny is funded by Continuing Studies to date with a plan for future income supporting her position. Human ecology has several salaries that I do not pay directly; donors do because they see value.
We’re growing our school with fundraising: endowed chairs came along because people believe in what is happening at SoHE. Who brought Chuck Raison here? Mike and Mary Sue Shannon funded him 100%. Who brought Larissa Duncan? Extension and the Elizabeth Holloway Schar endowed chair. And so many others—because donors believe in our ideas and what we do.
Q: How do you come up with these ideas and visions for the school?
SS: Although I work in academia, I have always taken an entrepreneurial approach. This may stem from coming to America on my own at age 25. But it’s also something I’ve learned to do over time. I always want to be proactive, not reactive.
An entrepreneurial spirit is something I demonstrate at SoHE, with faculty and staff as well as undergrads and grad students. I encourage our teams to think in a visionary, entrepreneurial way. As a result, they are not afraid of new ideas or pushing to the next level. They are excited to collaborate on new challenges others might see as intimidating. I think that’s one of my biggest contributions to SoHE. Everyone at our school continually seeks out new ideas all the time.