News from University of California, Irvine

New education dean seeks to serve all stakeholders

Effective leaders look at the big picture. School of Education Dean Frances Contreras’ big picture features a really large table in the center, sizable enough to seat everyone she wants to invite to it.

“My overall vision is to support faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors, teachers and other community members – essentially all of our stakeholders – to realize our shared aspirations for the school,” says Contreras, who began her tenure Jan. 1 as the third dean of UCI’s 10-year-old School of Education.

Her goal is to work alongside these key stakeholders in establishing a strong foundation for the school over the next 10 years, which she envisions as a decade “of excellence, innovation and work that inspires each and every one of us to impact schools and communities while also shaping critical conversations.”

A Norwalk native and the first in her family to have attended college, Contreras aims to cultivate graduate and undergraduate programs that serve students at multiple levels and points in their academic trajectories.

“I want the School of Education to be the go-to school that identifies emerging fields, emerging subfields and emerging needs within the broader education landscape,” she says.

To that end, Contreras encourages all School of Education stakeholders to share their voice and vision.

“I want our partners to dream alongside me so that we can create a school that’s unparalleled in its research productivity, partnerships, impact and ability to serve multiple communities in a way that validates their lived experiences, contributions, cultures and knowledge,” she says.

This last point gets at what led Contreras to becoming the first Chicana/Latina dean to head a school of education in the 10-campus UC system. She arrived at UCI from UC San Diego, where she served as an associate professor of education studies and associate vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion. Her research on public education policy as well as equity and access for underrepresented students has been published in national education journals, and she plans to continue this work at UCI.

Contreras was a co-principal investigator on three advancing-faculty-diversity grants funded by the UC Office of the President. She is currently co-chair of the UC Chicano/Latino Advisory Council and a member of the UC Hispanic-Serving Institutions Initiative advisory board. UCI being an early HSI and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institution is part of what attracted her to the university and school.

“UCI has been a leader in this space, not only in the system but among research-intensive institutions in the nation,” Contreras says. “For me to join a campus committed to serving students, whether through HSI or AANAPISI status, aligns with my own personal values to develop a school that serves all of its stakeholders.”

Another important draw for her was the School of Education having “a strong record of research.” The school’s faculty are currently principal investigators on more than $120 million in active research grants, and the work benefits the community and actively engages students, not only on campus but long after graduation.

“The School of Education is a model for all postsecondary institutions on how to support students thoughtfully, critically and throughout the duration of their career,” Contreras says. “This is something the faculty have held as a priority and have enacted for a while now.”

She arrives at a tenuous time for the teaching profession, which has always been challenged to do more with meager resources but now must do so during a global pandemic that has made instructors and their well-being political footballs.

“We expect our schools to make up for what is happening in society, and we expect our teachers and schools to solve the gross inequities that exist in our communities,” Contreras says. “It’s a tremendous task that teachers have to address the whole student and their needs. So when I think about how we can support teachers, we take the same approach that they take with their students, which is a holistic approach to supporting them.”The School of Education should be their safe space.

“I want the School of Education to be seen as a place of shared learning and collaboration – a place where knowledge is not only created but informs practice,” Contreras says. “In my view, that’s what it means to be a true partner in the educational landscape of Orange County and California. And by doing so, we’ll not only serve teachers, but we’ll serve all students and educators across all sectors.”

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