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A decade of leadership: The Dean's admirers look back

Editor’s Note: Some attendees at this year’s annual Service Recognition Awards lunch at Annenberg may have been surprised to learn that Michael X. Delli Carpini, Ph.D., Professor of Communication and Walter H. Annenberg Dean, marked 10 years of service as Dean.
But the surprise should not have been there. Dean Delli Carpini has, as was noted during the lunch, led quietly from the sidelines as significant changes took place at the school founded by Ambassador Annenberg over 50 years ago.
What follows are two perspectives on Dean Delli Carpini’s time at the helm of the school. One by Barbie Zelizer, Ph.D., the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication (who gladly stepped in during the Service Recognition lunch to sing the Dean’s praises), and Eran N. Ben-Porath, Ph.D. (Gr ’08), currently Vice President of Public Opinion Research at Social Science Research Solutions and, coincidentally, the dean’s very first advisee.

Imagining Annenberg in the future

By: Barbie Zelizer, Ph.D.

Barbie Zelizer, Ph.D
Time is always relative, making ten years feel like a short or long period depending on one’s vantage point. There are no doubt moments in a deanship where one wonders whether it’s been worth it, but for this member of the Annenberg faculty, Michael Delli Carpini’s tenure as dean has gone by all too quickly, producing memorable and longstanding changes in the school.
Leadership involves excellence, and Michael’s helmsmanship has altered Annenberg in three main ways. First, he has enhanced and extended our strong intellectual reputation, bringing to the school’s forefront his prior experiences at The Pew Charitable Trusts and Barnard College, his detailed knowledge of political communication, NGOS and their relevance in the academic environment, and his stature within the field of political science. Admirably, he has not missed an intellectual beat during his time as dean, publishing three new books and over 20 articles and book chapters, receiving multiple research, teaching and career achievement awards, securing funding for grants from national and international funding agencies and lecturing around the world. An active leader in the Penn community, Philadelphia and the field of communication, he regularly teaches on the graduate and undergraduate level and boasts a large number of graduate student advisees, who have themselves gone on to win acclaim. One might say that a dean of the Annenberg School should offer no less. But it becomes all the more exemplary when addressing what else he has accomplished.
Prof. Zelizer congratulating the Dean at the Service Recognition Awards Lunch
Leadership requires vision, and Michael has widely and proactively revamped the school as it contemplates its future. In ten years he established and supported four major initiatives at the school – the Center for Excellence in Cancer Communication Research, the Center for Global Communication Studies, the Scholars Program in Culture and Communication and the Social Action Lab – each of which reflects Annenberg’s evolving sources of expertise. Anticipating the school’s changing technology needs, he oversaw the restructuring of the IT department, establishing a Systems and Infrastructure Service team and a formalized Help Desk/Support team. And he has been instrumental in further internationalizing the graduate student body, underwriting conferences and travel abroad.
Most importantly, good leadership rests on patience, and Michael no doubt required healthy doses of it as he thoughtfully helped to grow Annenberg’s faculty in constitution and culture. Under his tenure the faculty increased in size from a 16-person faculty in 2003 to 25 people ten years later. The addition of new faculty members -- in research areas related to institutions, globalization, health and the digital environment – has been instrumental in keeping the school oriented toward the evolving horizons of the field’s knowledge base.
Related and no less central has been Michael’s effect on the culture of the Annenberg faculty. We are a challenging faculty to run – intense, passionate, and opinionated. Externally, we remain as we always have been, giving testament to the school’s reputation for excellence. But internally things have shifted. Michael has unobtrusively altered how we see each other, deliberate with each other and navigate our different and often competitive visions for the school. That means he has respected our opinions while nudging us in certain directions, heard us out while getting us to listen more actively to each other and helped us recognize a wider range of default circumstances than those with which we started. He has given the deanship a needed degree of accessibility and informality, by which students and faculty can engage him in energized unscheduled conversation around the school. Many of them, myself included, see him not only as a dean and colleague but as a friend.
Albert Einstein once said that most meaningful and lasting change starts first in the imagination and then works its way out. Michael’s ten years as dean have followed Einstein’s vision to a tee, and the Annenberg School is a better place for it.

A kinship rooted in intellectual pursuits

By: Eran N. Ben-Porath

Eran N. Ben-Porath, Ph.D
A nasty habit it was. But there we were, in the fall of 2003, banished to the outsides of the School, feeding our nicotine cravings. Two fish out of water: an elderly grad student (in this mid-30s no less) from a faraway land, and a newly-minted dean, rejoining the ranks of academe after years in the real world, new to the job and new to the School. Though there were some differences in rank, I felt instantly comfortable sharing with Michael my previous experiences as a journalist, and my current ones as an incoming student, and then my nascent thoughts as a future dissertator, while Michael, puffing along, would seem genuinely interested.
Remarkably, this dynamic continued as our conversations moved into his office, when he was officially my advisor, and I officially his inaugural Annenberg advisee. It was never about him. There was no school of thought into which I had to shoehorn my research. Rather, he practiced what he preached: open-mindedness, multiple-approaches, and dialog. My questions were always interesting to him – though maybe I could focus them better; my theory was solid – though why not look at these other five or ten strands of research; my research-methods were sound – though how about mixing some other methodologies in there; and my writing was fine – other than the 27 red markings on each of pages 1 to 25.
What’s more, this advising process left the confines of office hours. Once I suggested adding focus groups to my experimental studies, Michael’s interest in my work turned up one notch further, where he took up the job of focus-group moderator. So we hit the road, the dean and I, schlepping to venues such as Harleysville, PA and chatting it up with America about cable news on my behalf.
Dean Delli Carpini congratulates Eran Ben-Porath during the 2008 commencement
And when the deed was done, all capped and gowned, the Dean noted in his public comments that throughout all our exchanges I had always exuded a sense that I was a peer, a fellow-scholar, not merely an advisee. But of course this speaks more to his take on advising than to anything particular to me. We could sit there in his office (or in his car) exchanging thoughts and quips about the news, about the media, and about research as equals, because that is how he set these conversations to be.
For anyone who read Michael’s writings over the years or heard him speak, this should come as little surprise. The notion of discursiveness as the way in which communication comes to light and thoughts formed is central to his outlook. But this is not merely an intellectual outlook. The advising process, that led me smoothly through the dissertation gauntlet, was never top-down, nor about filling in a blank known to him but not to his student. It was more a series of open-ended questions whose answers led to further questions and from there on to a course of action. It made me a specialist in my little plot of communication scholarship by leading me through multiple paths and arming me with a diverse set of tools for further pursuits.
A decade since our first meetings outside his office window Michael’s way still factors in this particular student’s life. As one whose biography saw move from academic scholarship to the world of non-profit think-tanks, and then to the daunting life of administration, he never gave us the sense that one pursuit is superior to the other. And indeed, when I found myself tempted to leave academe for private industry he supported the move wholeheartedly. He then invited me last year back to Annenberg to teach research methods.
As I reflect on Michael’s decade as dean through my narrow personal experience, I see the longstanding traditions of the Annenberg School and his predecessors in action: A coming together of multiple approaches to communication research, cross-pollination between academic research and the practices of communication, genuine faculty-student collaboration, and dialog as the basis for teaching and learning.

Below is a slideshow of the Dean.

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