Quarterdeck Volume 6, Number 1, May 1998
Dave Brooks: No more pigeons
The former department head discusses student-faculty relations and his plans as associate dean of the College of Geosciences
When I first came to the oceanography department at Texas A&M University, I had no idea who the department head was. Dave Brooks would tell you he would not want that to happen. There was an interim head when I arrived, but Brooks is the only department head I ever truly knew.
Former and current Oceanography Graduate Council presidents JoAnn Lysne and Eli Williams had contact with Brooks regarding student issues. They noted the best facet of his tenure as department head was his open-door policy. Brooks was always willing to listen and pay attention to the student's concerns despite possibly not understanding them.
"Dr. Brooks is [one] person who consistently stands up for the students," said Williams. He added that Brooks is fair, up front, and always able to provide an explanation for his decisions without losing sight of the importance of the concern or issue. Through strong communication he brought more of the students' concerns to light. Williams said the college is gaining a valuable asset as Brooks partners with Dean David Prior.
Williams and Lysne added that as department head Brooks helped increase morale among students when enrollment was declining and funds were limited. He helped establish better communication between students and their faculty advisors.
Brooks' efforts as head can be seen in some of the initiatives started during his tenure: core-course reform, expansion of the undergraduate course, Oceanography (OCNG 251 and 252), creation of the Academic Advisory Council, increased emphasis on coastal oceanography, the foundation of Quarterdeck, and continuing progress in our connections with Galveston.
In light of Brooks' recent decision to change positions from oceanography department head to Executive Associate Dean and Associate Dean for Research for the College of Geosciences, I decided to explore his reasons for the move. I wanted to understand who Dave Brooks is and what he accomplished as department head.
Situated in an office 10 stories down from the previous one and with a picturesque view of the parking lot (but no pigeons roosting on the window sills), Brooks appears quietly confident, but there exists uncertainty and apprehension in his voice that may stem from the pressures of the new position.
Matt Colmer (MC): What did you hope to achieve once you became department head?
David Brooks (DB): We had a number of big issues facing the department then. We still have them. One of the big issues was the recent merger with Galveston.* That was pretty much on everyone's mind-"How would all of this work out?" There was a lot of controversy and it was a contentious matter; it still is to some degree. I had been involved in a lot of the committees leading up to that merger. I felt like I could make some contributions trying to make that a positive thing for the department.
I had some ideas about the coastal and shelf oceanography center in the department. I also thought there were some administrative refinements that needed to be made that came along with the new electronic communication methods that had just become available. I have also had a strong attachment to the sea-going part of the department.
MC: What do you think was the most important thing to achieve as head?
DB: Probably the most important and difficult thing is to inspire people to work together as a team; getting faculty and students to feel like colleagues. The difficulty of that, I underestimated.
The faculty need to focus on treating the students as junior colleagues. And the students need to realize the faculty are there to help them learn and to lead them into the world, so to speak. A typical scenario starts out as a formal relationship in which the student feels typically very junior to the faculty member and maybe somewhat in awe or even fear. Initially, the faculty member tends to view the student as untested, untried, but a promising young person who deserves to be encouraged. Then as the relationship evolves the student hopefully develops self-confidence, ability, and direction, and focuses on the project under the tutelage and guidance of the faculty member. As that goes along the faculty member realizes these properties are developing in the student and transfers more and more authority, respect, judgment, and trust. In the end you wind up as colleagues and, hopefully, as friends. That's kind of the ideal, the utopian way that you'd like it to work. It doesn't always turn out like that. What we should do is let everyone know how we like it to turn out. Then at least you have a model to go by.
As a graduate student, I never got a rule book that said "How To Be a Faculty Member." My impression of the relationship between a student and faculty member was based upon my own experience. Fortunately, that experience was a good one, although at the time I wasn't so sure. I know that there are some cases when [graduate school] hasn't been a good experience for people and that's the only example to go by.
Later on when you become a faculty member or researcher and you have a student of your own, you may wind up not having the full range of knowledge about how to develop that relationship. Sometimes it doesn't work out right. It also works the other way around. Students have to understand that they come to a graduate school to work. It's hard work, it's frustrating and it's maddening at times, it requires persistence, and it isn't for everyone.
MC: In terms of the student opinion [about your performance] in the first year or so, it wasn't as favorable as it is now. That may be because of the changing of the students-who they are, their ideas, what is important to them. Maybe the science field or society's needs are changing and the ideas and people reflect that. You filled the shoes and adapted or modified your approach as to what a department is supposed to be.
DB: I'm sure there is a lot of truth in that statement. You do learn in your job. You learn how to deal with people, how to get things accomplished that people want done. I'm sure that I have a lot more to learn in that regard. I do think I got better as time went on. One of the issues in that regard [is that] communication is the key to a lot of these matters. Many times there have been, and there still occur, misunderstandings because I have not done a good enough job explaining something to somebody else or I haven't listened carefully enough to someone else's opinion. I am very much aware of that. That's one of the key things you have to learn to be a decent administrator-to learn how to listen.
MC: Is there anything left undone from your tenure as department head?
DB: Oh yeah, there are many, many things undone. I'll give one example. The faculty from Galveston and also College Station got together to talk about the future of oceanography both here and at the coast, and ways to make this collegial development lead to exciting new science built around Galveston Bay and other bays and estuaries and the shelf waters of Texas. I didn't get to push that as far as I'd like to. In my present job I can surely continue to advance that.
That's just one of many things that didn't get finished. But you never finish. It's the journey that matters most, not the destination. I don't think you ever get to the point as a department head or any other stage of your life when you say: "Okay, I've done everything I need to do." It just doesn't work like that.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the question, "Where could I best serve?" Was it best for me to stay on as department head and finish up some things that obviously needed further work, or is it more important for me and other people to be a candidate for the associate dean's job? That was a difficult debate in my mind for a long time. I really think the job I did has been interesting and exciting.
MC: Why leave now?
DB: The short answer to that is you don't control your own destiny. Doors open and doors close at times you can't predict or expect, and that certainly was the case with the present job. Realistically, four or five years is as long as you should have a department head in office anyway.
MC: Can the new head carry on your "legacy," if that is what you strove to achieve?
DB: Everybody is different and everyone has different objectives and ways of achieving them. I hope some of the things we started will continue. I feel that we've made some improvement with relations between students and faculty. We've tried to be a little more clear about what the guidelines and policies are so that students and faculty alike know what to expect of one another. I'd like to see the new department head continue to include students on all of the important committees, for example. I have really benefited from the help from the OGC on a lot of the difficult decisions we have to face in the department. That's a very big leadership [quality] in the students.
MC: Have you enjoyed your tenure as department head? Has it been successful?
DB: The success part will have to be judged by others. As far as enjoying, I think there is a great deal of satisfaction in the job. You might not believe that when you hear me say that. If you watch me on a day-to-day basis you'll see a lot of the frustration, the rushing around, the paperwork hassles. There is a lot of satisfaction in the aggregate that comes out of the job. You get to work with people and you get to help people. You get to help people do the things that they want to do and they're good at.
MC: What do you think is your best asset?
DB: (After a long pause) I have a very broad interest in oceanography. My training is physical oceanography but I'm also interested in the poetry of the ocean. I'm interested in field work and modeling. I'd like to see the full spectrum of activities developed. I hope that we've managed to encourage students and faculty to think in a much broader way than just their own narrow discipline.
Somebody asked what it's like to be a professor. I think my answer to that is it's the next best thing to being a student. I like being around the university. I like the intellectual stimulation. I like having students around who ask tough questions. I like being able to help people to see things that they didn't see fully or understand or appreciate about the world.
The faculty member tends to view the student as untested ... but a promising young person who deserves to be encouraged.
Doors open and doors close at times you can't predict or expect, and that certainly was the case with the present job.
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Last updated May 1, 1998