Dean of UF's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to take new position


Published: Monday, January 6, 2014 at 9:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 6, 2014 at 9:50 p.m.

Less than three years after she became the first female dean of the University of Florida's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Teri Balser is stepping down to take a new role helping shape the undergraduate curriculum for the entire university.

“We are very appreciative of Teri's efforts as Dean and look forward to working with her in her future endeavors with the University,” Jack Payne, senior vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources at UF, said in a memo circulated Monday.

R. Elaine Turner, senior associate dean of the college, has been appointed interim dean, he said. Turner was hired as an assistant professor in 1996 and promoted to full professor in 2006.

Balser had been director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Institute for Biology Education for three years when Payne hired her away to run UF's ag program in July 2011. She replaced Mark Rieger, who had been interim dean since September of 2010.

When he hired her, Payne noted her dedication to teaching, her ability to take a fresh approach to higher education and ability to challenge the traditional models for teaching students.

“She is someone who has taken a fresh look at education,” he said at the time.

Balser said she came to re-imagine the agriculture program.

As dean, Balser oversaw all aspects of the college's undergraduate and graduate programs. UF/IFAS CALS has 5,000 students in agricultural, natural resources, family, youth, consumer and biological sciences.

But her focus of late has been in the classroom. She started a new class last fall called “Humanity's 2050 Challenge: Our Uncertain Future,” which looks at the world's pressing food needs over the next 35 years as the population grows to 9 billion.

The demand for the class was so high that Balser added an additional course this spring, and launched the next course in the Challenge series, “Tools for the Changing World.” Balser was excited to be getting students engaged in finding real solutions to problems related to food, environment, health, social and economic issues.

Her goal is to make the classroom more engaging for the students, eschewing grades. “Grades are the enemy,” Balser said.

Balser's passion for education has landed her some prestigious assignments.

In 2012 she was named to a panel of 40 scholars given the job of modernizing the way biology is taught. She was the only professor from UF named to the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education, a joint effort between the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Balser was selected from among 250 applicants to the task force. “I got involved because I wanted to change things,” she said at the time.

In November, Balser was elected to the board of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, which provides initiatives in science education, science policy and communication.

Without the day-to-day administrative duties required of deans, Balser said she will focus purely on classroom education, empowering teachers to be more innovative in the classroom and finding ways to get more out of students.

“There were those who felt my talents would be better spent on education,” Balser said Monday afternoon. “I will have an opportunity to do good work for the campus.”

Balser said she will spend the next few months developing ideas and proposals on how to best support the teaching effort and improve the student experience.

“Creating a climate where teachers feel empowered to do their best work is my biggest goal, my truest passion,” she said.

Balser pointed to a program she began last spring, a teaching fellowship that gave faculty opportunities to try something new in the classroom and monitor the results. One professor's project got a 40 percent increase in learning gains from his students.

“Take that and apply it to the whole campus, and you have a great potential for learning gains,” she said.

The new role for Balser has no title or position, but it will be a campuswide post, she said. The role she has in mind doesn't exist in name or title, although other campuses have similar posts like associate or vice provost for teaching and learning.

“I would be proposing some position that would best support learning on campus,” Balser said.

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