Stephanie Rowley wearing a red top sits at a round table writing in a notebook

New Dean: School of Education Expertise Is 'Unmatched Elsewhere'

Mike Mather

Stephanie Rowley and her husband are settling into their new home in Charlottesville from their previous address in New York.

But it’s Titus she’s worried about.

The new dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development has been taking long family walks around Grounds with Titus, a 45-pound rescue dog. In New York – where Rowley was the provost, vice president for academic affairs and dean at Teacher’s College at Columbia University – Titus had a vibrant social life. In Charlottesville, not yet.

“In New York, I met so many people, including students, faculty and staff at dog parks or walking around the campus,” said Rowley, who was last on Grounds in 1997 after earning her master’s degree and doctorate in developmental psychology. “There was a social network with dog owners and there were play groups. I’m looking forward to finding a new network, and some new friends for Titus, here in Charlottesville.”

The dog walks give Titus and Rowley a chance to explore the Grounds that Rowley left a quarter-century ago. She’s noticed, of course, that both the University and the city have grown considerably, but “the character feels the same. It’s all a little bigger and more spread out, but it all has the same feel.”

Her office in Bavaro Hall is still a work in progress, but on one of the display shelves is a Jefferson Cup that, admittedly, needs a little polish to knock off a couple decades of tarnish. The cup was presented to her for being an “Distinguished Teaching Fellow” in psychology years ago. In her New York office, it was tucked in a cabinet, but here she thought it needed a more prominent place.

Her goals as dean are similar: to give the education school an even more prominent place.

“I want to build on the visibility of the school,” she said, “and continue to elevate the school on the national stage. We have experts focusing on the whole developing human, expertise that is unmatched elsewhere.”

We sat down with Rowley to ask her a few questions.

Q. What made you want to return to UVA?

A. I cherished my time as a student at UVA. The University prepared me to be a leader in my field and the various communities that I am a part of. So the idea of returning to a place that had such an outsized impact on my career was incredibly appealing.

As a scholar, I have long been a fan of the School of Education and Human Development and especially the way that the school brings together experts in education, psychology and allied health fields.

I was also inspired by President Ryan’s 2030 plan. I appreciate how the plan celebrates and extends UVA’s amazing legacy and also acknowledges and seeks to redress where the University has fallen short. That the school has played a central role in the solutions that have been developed to address these issues, such as the Equity Center and the Grand Challenge Research Investments on democracy, was very exciting to me as a leader. 

Q. What are your top priorities for the School of Education and Human Development?

A. My first priority is to connect with the community and engage with our faculty, staff and students. I’m also excited to continue to build the school’s reputation through outstanding research administration. Given our broad expertise in education and human development, I believe that we are well-positioned to develop new, large, interdisciplinary projects that leverage all areas of the school, that will continue to elevate our position as a go-to resource on issues of human development, broadly speaking.

Another priority is working with faculty, staff and students on supporting a schoolwide plan for improving equity and inclusion. I believe that equitable practice develops out of strong, purposeful leadership. 

Q. How do you see the school’s role in the commonwealth and in the community? 

A. I think that the biggest role that the school plays is preparing outstanding professionals to serve the needs of children and families locally and throughout the commonwealth. There has been a lot of press about the shortage of teachers in U.S. classrooms, but less attention to shortages of speech pathologists, counselors, physical therapists and leaders. The School of Education and Human Development is positioned to address this dire circumstance across numerous fields. 

The school has also taken up some of the most vexing issues of our time. Our faculty have deep expertise in the physical, social and cognitive development of children with disabilities, and the impact of race, ethnicity and immigration on the experiences of children and families.

Given my background studying youth development, I am especially excited about the school’s unique expertise in youth empowerment with our youth and social innovation major and the Youth-Nex center. Through the research and training taking place in these programs, the school is supporting the development of youth who will be engaged in ways that transform the communities where they live. 

Q. There’s a popular social media question asking, “When did you have your first Black teacher?” Many people say it was high school or later, while others say never. The Pew Research Center reports that just one in 10 public school teachers are teachers of color. Why is that number so low, and what is being done about it?

A. I believe there are two prominent issues at play here. The first is in the initial recruitment of students of color to teacher education programs, which are seeing declining numbers of applications in general. Concerns about low pay and disrespect that affect all students’ willingness to go into teaching may affect students of color more than others. They are more likely to come from families with modest means, and they worry about facing discrimination in a workplace with relatively few folks who look like them. 

The second is the retention of teachers of color, who report experiencing considerable racial discrimination at work. Studies show that Black and brown teachers are less likely to be recommended for leadership positions. They are hit with the “invisible tax” of expecting they will support students of color, troubled students and poorly performing students. And they are often treated disrespectfully by parents. Thus, teachers of color are disproportionately leaving the teaching profession. 

Clearly, these are complex and deep-seated issues that don’t have a quick fix. I’m grateful to be at a place like UVA where we are actively collaborating with many others in the education space to address this and other pressing issues in education and human development.

Q. When UVA graduates from your school land their first jobs, what are the biggest challenges they will face, and how should they handle them?

A. The world of work is changing rapidly. Particularly, the new innovations around hybrid and remote work. These environments can sometimes challenge recent graduates who are looking to make social connections or to receive the kinds of mentoring needed to be successful. At the same time, the flexibility that hybrid work provides may outweigh the costs. I encourage graduates to voice the need for mentoring and community at outset of a job and to be bold in seeking meaningful connections in the workplace. 

Q. Who was the best teacher you had and why?

A. Shirley Wormsley, my third-grade teacher. While many educators have had an impact on my personal and professional growth, Mrs. Wormsley stands out. I remember Mrs. Wormsley setting very high standards for all the children in her class. She made a big deal of telling us that though we felt challenged at the time, we would thank her later when we recognized the outstanding foundation that she had provided us with. She was right! Mrs. Wormsley was the best kind of teacher for me – warm and loving, but firm.

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