On April Fool’s Day 16 years ago, Debra Carpenter was told she’d be the new dean of Webster University’s School of Communications. She didn’t believe it.
“Is this a joke, or do I have this job?”
She took the position as dean of SOC in 1996, and in less than two decades, she changed the face of the school. Her list of accomplishments is extensive, whether she was sponsoring and funding nearly every media conference for students, doubling the amount of staff within her school or taking the school of communications, in its infancy, to be the thriving, second largest school Webster has today.
Sixteen years later, she has made the decision to step down to return to her true passion — teaching. Carpenter will officially leave the dean position after graduation next May. Provost Julian Schuster said a search committee to find the SOC’s new dean will begin in September. He expects Webster’s search for an academic dean, the first in more than a decade, to be national, if not international.
“It’s an opportunity to do something refreshing,” Carpenter said. “I looked at a lot of our accomplishments and major projects (within SOC), and I had a sense of completion.”
She will take her first sabbatical in fall 2012 and will return to the classroom in January 2013. Carpenter will teach PR courses, as she worked for 10 years as a professional public relations manager and has taught PR classes in the past.
After 16 years in an administrative position, she’ll return as full-time faculty to “make magic happen in the classroom,” she said.
“There’s just something about teaching,” Carpenter said. “You come back from teaching a class and can be so excited that you couldn’t have anticipated it. It’s like every day is different. On that day, in that classroom, something happens.”
Before assuming her role as dean, Carpenter taught for five years in the School of Communications. The SOC had only existed for a year when former Dean John Neal left the position and a national search committee was created to fill the role.
Peter Sargent, dean of the College of Fine Arts, was on the search committee. It wasn’t a tough decision.
“She was already a part of faculty, and she moved into the position,” Sargent said. “She has proven to be an amazing leader. She’s been a great facilitator and a great advocate for students.”
Perhaps a reflection of Carpenter’s passion and skill as dean, nearly every staff member who worked in SOC when she took the position has stayed under her leadership. Furthermore, the staff has more than doubled in her 16-year tenure. Carpenter considers her staff a team, and nothing that has been accomplished over the years could’ve been done without her staff, she said.
“The thing I appreciate most is the sense of teamwork with all the faculty and staff over the last 16 years,” she said, holding back tears. “They deserve all the credit. One thing we’ve always had in common, though — students are the focus.”
Focusing on students is one aspect of Carpenter’s career that she has always stressed and strived for, and others can attest to this. Susan Napoleon, administrative coordinator, has worked closely with Carpenter every day for the last five years.
“It sounds so cliché, but we are student-oriented, entirely,” Napoleon said. “But it’s because we are relationship people. In this field, we have the opportunity to create a relationship with someone, and Debra does that.”
Napoleon said whoever takes Carpenter’s position will have big shoes to fill. Schuster is confident Webster will find someone who possesses the skill level and knowledge to perform as dean, but finding someone equal to Carpenter will be difficult.
“Her accomplishments as dean are unparalleled,” he said. “She epitomizes what makes a good dean.”
Though Carpenter said she is content with what her school has accomplished under her leadership, she will take on one more project in her last year as dean — leading the remodeling of the Sverdrup building. Planning is in its early stages, but Carpenter knows exactly what she’d like to see happen. By the time she steps down and assumes a role as professor, she hopes her visions for a cutting-edge building to match her school’s programs will become a reality.
Though she is stepping down from one position, she’ll be revisiting another, and most importantly, sticking around the university for awhile, which is what her colleagues seem most happy about.
“Don’t focus on what we’re going to miss,” Schuster said. “Plan to continue to celebrate with her in a new role. If this is best for her, this is what we’ll do.”
Napoleon said it’s impossible to ignore Carpenter’s accomplishments.
“Debra’s been the clay modeler, you know? You simply can’t negate her contributions.”