Thought Leader Of The Week: Linda Essig

lighting designer and thought leader Linda Essig
(J. Emilio Flores)

As dean of the College of Arts and Letters at California State University, Los Angeles, Linda Essig has parlayed her past experience into a new academic environment, where she started her tenure on July 1, 2018. Here, the name of the game is thinking, so not only is she a thought leader but also an influencer in getting students to think. Live Design chats with Essig about her career, her current position, and her goals for her scholastic realm, to be achieved through scholarship, creativity, and building bridges between communities and cultures.

Live Design: What—in a nutshell—was your career path to the deanship?

Linda Essig: My path is a bit of a zigzag. Readers of Live Design may know me as a lighting designer and lighting design educator, but I fell in love with academic administration when I assumed a leadership position at UW-Madison. Looking for the opportunity to have a positive impact on a larger and more diverse program, I moved to Arizona State University to found and lead its School of Theatre and Film, which evolved from what had been its Department of Theatre. I became involved in the university-wide “Entrepreneur at ASU” initiative, which led me to shift my creative and research focus from lighting design to how to support artists through entrepreneurial thinking and doing.

In 2008, I had the good fortune to attend Harvard’s Management and Leadership in Education (MLE) summer program where I got a taste for the formal study of organizational behavior and leadership. It also reminded me how much I love being a student. So, I returned thinking I would take some classes (while still serving as Director of the School of Theatre and Film). This led me to pursue a PhD in Public Administration and Public Policy, which I completed in 2015.

Along the way, I looked at my kids who were in middle school and made the difficult choice to step off the “administrative ladder” to stay in Phoenix while they completed high school. Many parents are faced with this choice, and I’m really glad I made the choice I did for my family and me. During those years, I was able to concentrate more fully on the arts entrepreneurship programs I was building at ASU while finishing that PhD and driving my kids around to various activities. The timing worked well, because my youngest was graduating from high school just as the dean position at Cal State LA opened up and I was contacted by their search consultant.

LD: What is the main focus of the College of Arts and Letters?

LE: I spent the first six months of my first year here working with diverse constituent groups (students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members, and others) to develop a new mission, vision, and strategic priorities for the College:

The mission of the College of Arts & Letters is to transform lives and sustain thriving communities and cultures. We develop and amplify our students’ unique talents, diverse life experiences, and intellects through the study and practice of the Arts and Humanities so that they can tell meaningful stories, forge their professional pathways, and inspire their communities.

Our priority areas are: Pathways to Student Success (including academic success but also professional success), Community Cultural Connections, and Voices for Social Justice. When I met last year with the college community, this focus on social justice seemed always at the forefront. That may be because we serve a diverse population with many students who are first generation, people of color, from lower socio-economic status, or some combination of those. Cal State LA has been more successful than any other university in the country in helping our alumni move from the lowest economic quintile to the highest.

We have nine departments: Art, Communication Studies, English, Modern Languages and Literatures (Chinese, French, Korean, Japanese, Spanish), Music, Philosophy, Television Film and Media Studies, and Theatre and Dance. There are also several research centers housed in the college. Importantly, there is a terrific group of department chairs working with me to build bridges across the departments and mitigate the negative effects of disciplinary silos.

We focus a lot on student success. This year, an underlying theme of that work is making careers visible that arts and humanities majors may not have otherwise considered. For example, a communications major could be a good fit in the marketing department of a professional theatre or a philosophy major might make a great grant writer.

LD: How does technology play a role in education in the 21st century?

LE: Technology is a tool. We both use technology and teach students to use technology. In order to prepare students to be successful and productive after graduation, we need to expose students to the technology they will encounter in professional settings. Unfortunately, in some areas (including theatre), economic and structural conditions have us a few years behind in that regard. We’re slowly working to build up our physical stock of technologically current equipment. We have had the good fortune to hire new faculty across the college who are engaged with the most cutting-edge technologies in their field, from communications to music to film. And, we will hire twelve more new faculty this year. Ultimately, if I have to choose between funding equipment or people, I will always choose people.

LD: What are the most important things a university should impart to its students?

LE: The clichéd, but absolutely true phrase is that a university should “teach people how to think.” Nationally, only about half of people end up working in the field in which they majored in college. It is less important to impart specific technical knowledge than it is ways of thinking and knowing. Technology will continue to change and develop rapidly; universities need to teach their students to be adaptable to changes in technology, economics, social, and even political systems; to think critically and question; to be responsible for themselves and others (including their community and their environment). Layered on top of all that is the specific technical knowledge that might help a student get that first job, but it’s a first job only; all the other stuff is what will help them get their fourth or tenth job.

LD: What are your five-year goals for the programs at the school?

LE: We have established the core priorities of the college, and I am working with the department chairs now to determine specific actions to meet those priorities. Some of our goals include increasing graduation rates in all programs; updating technological resources; funding and making available student professional development opportunities such as paid internships and travel to professional meetings; creating bridges from the neighborhoods we serve to the study of the arts and humanities; and making the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA the creative and cultural heart of the campus and the surrounding community.

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