Francisco brings passion, vision to Arts and Sciences

Joseph Francisco, the new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UNL, has big plans to raise the college's profile within the university community as well as on the national and international scene.
Joseph Francisco, the new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UNL, has big plans to raise the college's profile within the university community as well as on the national and international scene.

Joseph Francisco, the new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UNL, has big plans to raise the college's profile within the university community as well as on the national and international scene.

Francisco, 59, took the reins as dean of UNL's largest college on July 1. He steers an organization comprised of 515 faculty and 303 staff spread among 62 departments, centers, programs and institutes. With 4,664 undergraduate students and 1,055 graduate students, the college represents 23 percent of UNL enrollment.

Francisco is a potential game-changer for the college, said physicist Aaron Dominguez, who holds a half-time appointment as Arts and Sciences Associate Dean for Research. Dominguez met Francisco while he served on the search committee for the new dean. He said he sought the associate dean’s position because he was eager to work with Francisco.

"He's a different level of player here," Dominguez said. "The guy's a ball of fire. We're still in the early days, but he's getting people to buy in. People are excited."

Francisco said his plans for the college will go into full swing in 2015. As might be expected for an executive who must balance the interests and needs of historians, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, computer scientists, chemists and physicists, his strategic plan is not so much a vector as it is a carefully balanced pyramid of interlocking objectives.

"I need to set the vision for this college and have all the entities work together to prepare students for the future and provide the opportunities for faculty to create new knowledge," he said. "Of course there are managerial aspects that go along with this. But you've got to know where you're starting from and where you want to end up."

At the apex of his strategic plan is an emphasis on partnerships — between disciplines; between the university, industry and alumni; as well as between institutions. Faculty research, student education and global engagement are at the plan's foundation. Linking those goals is an emphasis on diversity — of thought, as well as socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds -- and more emphasis on alumni relations and fundraising.

"My obligation is to the whole community. It's not an either-or," Francisco said.

Francisco pointed to recent international travels of Anthony Starace, George Holmes University Professor of Physics, as the kind of activity he wants to support and encourage.

Starace, who is on a faculty development leave, led a nine-week program on intense laser physics this summer and fall at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Over the next several weeks, he is to appear in Zhangjiajie, China, as an invited speaker at a workshop on atomic physics in strong laser fields and related ultrafast phenomena; in Beijing, for a seminar talk at Peking University’s Physics department; in Germany, to speak at the Technical University of Munich, consult with researchers at the nearby Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics, and deliver an invited talk at an atomic physics conference at the Max Planck Institute on the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden.

Francisco said he wants to help Arts and Sciences faculty get the national and international recognition they deserve.

"I expect to see more of our people gaining places in the national academies," he added. "I'm surprised that some of them are not. They should be."

Francisco said UNL's strong track record in establishing partnerships and interdisciplinary collaboration attracted him to Lincoln.

"Nebraska has already set the national stage for collaboration across disciplinary silos," he said. "The digital humanities program is an example, the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior is an example and the Nebraska Center for Virology is an example. They're working at the cutting edge and the intersection of new knowledge.

"A lot of universities are trying to go in that direction. That’s what they would like to do," he said. "But I see real deliverables here. It shows the real versatility of the faculty. You've got the depth of thinking within their field, but you've got the broadness of thinking across fields, which I thought was really very, very exciting."

Francisco has credentials to make it happen. He is a highly regarded atmospheric chemist who held an endowed chair at Purdue University before he was hired by UNL. He spends each Friday in the laboratory, continuing research in his own cross-disciplinary field.

He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, former president of the American Chemical Society and former president of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. President Obama appointed him to serve on the President's Committee on the National Medal of Science from 2010 to 2012.

In late October, he traveled to Berlin, where he serves on an international advisory board for Germany's Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which fosters collaboration among scientists around the world.

Yet Francisco comes from a humble background, having been reared in Beaumont, Texas, by grandparents who left elementary school to go to work on sugar cane and cotton plantations. Those roots, along with his experience as the father of three daughters ages 14 to 21, makes him particularly empathetic to the anxieties and aspirations of young people as they head off to college.

"The sociologists call it a moment of disequilibirium. It's a big teachable moment," he said. "If we want to really prepare these kids for their role in society, that freshman experience is so critical to setting the foundation."

Francisco's first exposure to chemistry came when he noticed spills from tanker cars as he walked along the railroad tracks near his home. His curiosity took him to the library to learn more about those substances.

He met a key mentor purely by chance, when he paused to give Richard Price, the first African-American mathematics professor at Lamar University, directions when he passed through Francisco's neighborhood.

The two formed a lifelong relationship, contributing to an academic career that took Francisco to the University of Texas, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge University and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech.

"I just happened to come out of the door when he was looking at a map," Francisco said. "I often wonder what if I had stopped at the refrigerator and he had walked on? Where would I be? No, I couldn't have done it on my own."

Francisco wears his beloved Boston Red Sox cap around campus most days. Last week, he traded mock jabs with a Power Ranger-costumed student in a Halloween greetings video posted on the college's website.

Cody Brown, a freshman from Elmwood, recalled when he met the dean this semester. He visited Oldfather Hall to see if he could be admitted to an upper-level German class, but the person he needed to see was out.

As he was departing, a man in the elevator started to make small talk with him.

"I had no idea who he was," Brown recalled. "He had the Boston cap on and the suit. We were walking in the same direction, so we talked some more."

Brown wasn't even an Arts and Sciences student. He declared a food science major in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. Before their conversation ended, Brown had confided to Francisco that he delayed entering college to spend a year as an exchange student in Germany — and Francisco had persuaded Brown to add a second major in German.

"We started speaking a little German," said Francisco, who has bicycled through Germany. "It was really kind of fun. I never told him he was speaking to the dean, because it never came up in the conversation."

Francisco told the young man that global employers desire college graduates with the ability to speak a foreign language, along with research experience and science, technology, engineering or math skills.

"He really affected how I saw things," Brown said.

— Leslie Reed, University Communications