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Kendall College

Cultural competency, critical thought, cognitive flexibility (and more)

On February 1, Karen Petersen rolled up her sleeves and began the next stage of her career by becoming the dean of The University of Tulsa’s Kendall College of Arts and Sciences. In this Q&A, she shares her motivation for moving to Oklahoma, insights on the role of the liberal arts at TU and in society, and what she is looking forward to accomplishing as part of our university community.

You have spent most of your academic career as a student and a professor in Tennessee. Why did the position of dean of the Kendall College of Arts and Sciences and the move to Oklahoma appeal to you?

woman in a blue dress standing in front of green shrubbery
Dean Karen Petersen

The move to TU appealed to me because it allows me to broaden my experience and work with excellent faculty and students. I believe strongly that the future of our society depends upon our commitment to quality education as exemplified by the liberal arts. My team and I revitalized the liberal arts at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). I was able to leave knowing that we made a strong case for the strengthening and preservation of the liberal arts. As such, I was ready to move on.

Tulsa appealed to me because it reminds me of Nashville before the explosive growth of the past decade. I am a native of Northwest Arkansas, so this move puts me much closer to my family as well.

You served as co-principal investigator on a National Science Foundation ADVANCE Catalyst grant to improve the recruitment and retention of female faculty in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines at MTSU. Given that March is Women’s History Month, would you share your thoughts on this topic? In your new role as dean of arts and sciences at TU, do you envision focusing attention on women students and faculty?

Recruiting and retaining female faculty requires us to understand the “leaky pipeline” problem, which, although often the focus in STEM recruiting, affects women in all fields. In essence, the barriers women face result from traditional gender discrimination and the additional pressures related to caregiving. The pandemic has revealed the scope of the latter issue across the entire workforce.

Like all institutions, TU has a lot of work to do in equity and diversity. The prominent placement of this priority in the strategic plan gives me hope that we will make meaningful progress.

You have remarked that a strong liberal arts education is the best investment for individual students and for our society.” Would you expand on that observation? How can your role as dean help to support that kind of education for TU students, both in your college and beyond?

woman and two men standing while wearing COVID-19 face masks
Petersen and her husband with their son receiving the National Football Foundation Scholar Athlete award

The future of our society and its economy depends upon an educated population capable of critical thought and clear communication with cultural competency, strong ethical grounding and cognitive flexibility. In other words, we must have a population that can respond to a rapidly changing and diversifying economy without tremendous reinvestment and training every time there is an economic disruption.

We need people who know how to learn and who want to do so. We need a population capable of carrying out the significant responsibilities associated with self-governance. Liberal arts graduates are capable of learning new technical skills. Most of those with only technical skills will become the displaced workers of tomorrow (see discussions of robot-proof jobs).

How do you see the arts and social sciences fitting into TU’s new strategic plan?

Disciplines in Kendall College are the foundation of the new strategic plan by definition. Every student will have a grounding in the arts and sciences through the core curriculum and will be encouraged to add disciplinary depth in the liberal arts, either as a primary area of study or secondary to training in a more technical discipline. Furthermore, a robust cyber or energy program will include the critical contributions arts and sciences disciplines bring to our understanding of these issues through history, philosophy, public policy and more.

What innovations are you looking forward to spearheading?

As the executive sponsor of the Cyber Security pillar in the strategic plan, I am excited to help bring all of TU’s great work in this area to the next level. My expertise is in international security, so I am naturally drawn to this new frontier in diplomacy and conflict. TU has a significant advantage in that we are already well entrenched in the cyber community and located in a city that has declared this a priority for economic development.

Looking ahead five years, what do you hope you will have been able to accomplish at Kendall College and TU generally?

Five years from now, I hope to see my colleagues in arts and sciences fully immersed in teaching and research/creative activity because they know that TU values what they do in the classroom and beyond. I want to be able to walk the hallways and hear students and faculty discussing the latest research and debating what it means to live a good life.

I look forward to visiting the art studios and Lorton Hall just to soak up the creative energy in those spaces. I want our alumni and community supporters to be fully engaged in the life of the Kendall College with complete confidence that their investment in us will pay dividends for generations. Finally, I would like to see a complex network of interdisciplinary work tying all of TU’s colleges together in pursuit of excellence.

Outside of your role as a professor and university administrator, what else would you like people to know about you?

close-up selfie photo of man, woman and a young man
Family selfie with downtown Nashville in the background

My ideal day is one spent in the Ozark mountains hiking with my family, playing at the lake or just enjoying the outdoors. My husband and I have two children, two grandchildren and two spoiled dogs. We will soon be empty nesters and will focus our time and energy on preparing our property in Arkansas so that we can build our retirement home there. After years of traveling the world, which I still love to do, I look forward to growing a garden and raising bees.

From anthropology to political science, English to psychology, art to women’s and gender studies – and so much more – Kendall College of Arts and Sciences offers academic programming that’s in tune with today and tomorrow. Learn more.