Your Gifts at Work

Archive for the ‘Joelle Carson’ Category

A Commitment to Lifelong Learning: Dean Dana and Dr. Charles “Mickey” Rooks

Posted on: May 12th, 2016

Dean Dana and Dr. Charles "Mickey" Rooks

By Joelle Carson

Dean Dana and Dr. Charles “Mickey” Rooks have proven, both through their gifts and as faculty, that dedicated individuals can truly change a University’s course. As Dean of Libraries, Dana created a development ecosystem that facilitated the library and Honors renovation. Mickey brought his industry experience into the classroom as a chemical engineering professor, and was a vital part of the new research taking place on campus.

It’s hard to believe that they only planned to stay in Houston for three years, and harder to believe that they almost didn’t get married.

“I was very career-oriented before you were supposed to be,” Dana says, noting the cultural climate of women in the workplace in the 1960’s. While they were working at the University of Oklahoma, she as a librarian and he as a Ph.D. student, Dana told Mickey her goal was to be the dean of a library that was a member of the elite Association of Research Libraries (ARL), warning him that there had only been two women ARL deans in the country previously. “I think the reason I decided to marry him is because he looked at me, and very sincerely said: that is so great, you can be number three!”

The Rooks’ moved to Houston in 1979 for Mickey’s career in research and development at Monsanto on the condition that they would only stay for three years. But, all that changed after Dana started working in the University of Houston libraries. “I just fell in love with this place,” she says. “This University is so unique in so many ways. And for all of its excellence, it hasn’t even begun to make a dent in its potential.”

A Culture of Philanthropy

When she became Dean of Libraries, Dana had a clear vision for how to reach that potential. “My first act as dean was to hire a development director and start fundraising,” she recalls. “I recognized that the library was never going to be excellent if we had to totally rely on state funding. That margin that moves you from adequate to excellent is external funding.”

Having graduated from land-grant universities, both Dana and Mickey were accustomed to a solid fundraising system within an institution. “They’d had a hundred years to figure out that system,” she points out. “We were learning how to do things, which is part of what made it so exciting. It was very entrepreneurial.” For Dana, this included spearheading a telefund campaign, a first for the library. With the support of the other deans and colleges, the libraries achieved the highest telefund results of that year.

The library renovation fund was also the impetus for UH’s very first faculty-staff campaign, although gift designation was not limited to the libraries. The high participation rate, from deans to staff to regents, was a new and highly effective way to see the fruits of the University’s efforts. “During that campaign, I received an envelope with two one-dollar bills in it, and it was from a custodian,” Dana recalls. “The note said, ‘I think the library is so important.’ They’d used it to help their kids with their homework, or something like that.”

One aspect of Houston that has evolved since the Rooks’ settled here is the city’s recognition of UH’s importance, and they name President Renu Khator as a major instrument of that change. “This is a major city. It deserves a top-quality Tier One research university,” Dana says, “and she is helping everyone realize that a strong UH makes the economy strong; the new knowledge, technologies and disciplines create new jobs and provide invaluable services, from social services to policy reform to countless other educational programming.”

And, she reiterates, philanthropy is key to that evolution. “In Houston especially, individuals, businesses and foundations give for the same reason; they do want that margin of excellence, and they see that philanthropy is how we’re going to achieve it.”

Student and Faculty Success

Sometimes it only takes one person to change someone’s path for the better. “One person from my little hometown was a chemical engineer. He worked for the CIA,” Mickey explains. After talking to him about his profession during a visit, Mickey’s career path was clear. After a long career in research and development at Monsanto — during which he won their international company-wide achievement award three times — he joined UH’s chemical engineering faculty in 2001, and began making that same difference in the lives of his students — not just through teaching, but with monetary gifts as well. “By giving, we want to help young people be successful,” he says. “Their success was really my goal in teaching.”

His career in research brought valuable experience into the classroom, and led to him co-founding the Diesel Center (now Texas Center for Clean Emissions, Engines & Fuels) and bringing the undergraduate laboratory up to speed. “I thoroughly, totally and completely enjoyed teaching,” he says, “22-year-olds keep you on your toes! We have an incredibly diverse student body, and a lot of first-generation college students. I’m so proud of them all.”

Some first-generation students often never considered graduate school, “even with a 4.0 GPA,” he says. He actively encouraged them to apply, sometimes enlisting Dana to mentor them as well so they could realize all their opportunities — particularly the young women in his classes, a number which increased by “500 percent” during his time at UH. In that same vein, Dana saw the need for a support system among women deans and faculty, which led to women deans (or “WDs”) lunches every month. That spawned an annual newly hired women tenure-track faculty luncheon, a highly popular event whose guest list always includes President Renu Khator and Provost Paula Short.

While the research that takes place at UH libraries is integral to student and faculty success, the Rooks’ giving has gone beyond that mark — and that support plays a strategic role in supporting and recruiting top faculty. “Funding is needed to get the top faculty here, whether through endowed chairs or startup funds to colleges that need resources,” Dana explains. The Rooks’ Early-Career Librarian Fellowship, for example, attracts innovative younger librarians who may not be eligible for endowed chairs. “Bright, dynamic, innovative young librarians who started their careers here are now taking leadership roles all over the country,” Dana reports, mentioning that the recently named Dean of Libraries, Ann Thornton, at Columbia University NY started her career at UH. “I want those top leaders saying they got their start at UH, and that we did a lot to support our future leaders. They will tell people — they do, all the time — that they got such a great start here. That adds to our recruiting efforts, and the University’s reputation.”

Another important piece of UH’s growing reputation is our capacity for research, another of Dana’s priorities as dean. “People have long been predicting the demise of libraries, but it’s just the opposite,” she explains. “A University education gives you foundational knowledge, no matter your discipline — but all disciplines are changing so fast, and the knowledge is evolving and developing ten times faster than when I went to school.” One evolution of the library during Dana’s time as dean is the Learning Commons, a vast area with computers with access to myriad specialized software and databases, with classes and librarians on hand to provide invaluable instruction. “Supporting the library is such a major part of students’ education not only while they’re here, but for life-long learning.” Throughout their careers, the Rooks’ haven’t just witnessed this in students and faculty; they’ve lived it themselves.

Looking to the Future

Now that they’re retired as Dean and Professor — although Dana continues to work at UH as Assistant Provost for Strategic Initiatives — the Rooks have had a moment to reflect upon the changes at the University, and what will happen next. “I think the University is headed in the right direction,” Mickey says. He adds that an increase in research funds will lead to more Ph.D. students, and create more of a pull toward campus. “That’s where the future lies. The more that people are aware of UH, the more philanthropy can do — because they can see that it makes a difference.”

Dana continues to encourage donors to gift flexible gifts. “I was in libraries for over 40 years, and I had no way of knowing the kind of things we’re doing now,” she says. “Two years from now, we’re probably going to be checking out holograms.” That’s not an exaggeration — she’s referring to 3-D holographic models that are becoming more prevalent in health care research, architecture, and other tactile fields.

The Rooks have created more than one endowment for UH over the years, which will continue to fuel innovation at the University for years to come. “That’s the importance of an endowment; it’s still there 40 years later. And who knows what will be happening 40 years from now, using my own career line as a basis,” Dana says. “We both believe that you have to give back. You have to make society better. To achieve excellence, you need to be a part of the process to make excellence a continuing endeavor for future generations.”

“A Stepping Out Into the World”: Author Wendy Paris on Writing, Relationships and her UH Experience

Posted on: April 8th, 2016


By Joelle Carson

There was a strong sense of UH pride when Wendy Paris (’89) visited the University of Houston Honors College to discuss her new book, “Splitopia,” last month. As Dr. Chris Brunt (‘06) introduced her to the group of students gathered to hear about her new book and creative life, he recalled how he signed up, almost arbitrarily, to receive a mentor when he was an incoming freshman at the Honors College. Paris, who was living in New York at the time, was his assigned mentor. The mentorship grew into a friendship, which strengthened through “epic” email exchanges, and blossomed over the years. It’s amazing to realize that it started via one chance UH sign-up sheet.

Paris included a piece of her more recent correspondence with Brunt within the book, which she read aloud. “Over the years, we wrote our way through some crises,” Brunt explained to the audience. Those “crises” include Paris’ divorce from her husband, with whom she has one son: the subtitle of “Splitopia” is “Dispatches from today’s good divorce, and how to part well.” She describes the non-fiction book as one-third memoir, one-third journalism, and one-third research. In addition to her extensive journalism experience — her work has been published the New York Times, Psychology Today and the Guardian, among many others — Paris also brings her own personal experience as a child to the process; in addition to her own divorce, she recalls her parents’ divorce when she was five years old.

But, as she explains in the book through her “Seven Principles of Parting,” divorce does not have to be a wholly destructive experience for families. “I realized that I didn’t have the same negative view of divorce as my friends and so many others did,” she said, explaining her inspiration for the book. “I realized that it has been a huge part of my life and personal history.” She notes that while there are books about the legal side of divorce and the psychological side of divorce, hers is currently the only one that covers both angles, in addition to her own personal experience and interviews with 200 people in positive, post-marriage relationships. Though the book is well-researched, her background as a personal essayist drives the tone and approach of it. “I wanted to give a voice to the feelings that readers may be embarrassed or feel too vulnerable to talk about themselves,” she said.

While earning her M.F.A. in non-fiction creative writing at Columbia University in New York, Paris honed her skills in not only deciding what to include in her writing, but also what to leave out. “Writing non-fiction is about finding patterns, meaning and metaphor,” she said. “You have to decide, what does the personal say about the universal?” The question of what to include and leave out from her personal experience was a central challenge to writing “Splitopia.” One student asked if the writing about her divorce was therapeutic for Paris. She replied that it intensified the experience, for good and bad. Writing it in the moment allowed her to capture the intense emotions about divorce; if someone asked her to write the book now, she wouldn’t be able to.

Attending UH and the Honors College gave her a firm foundation in inquisitive thinking. After touring UH as a high school student with her father, she moved across the country from Michigan to enroll, motivated by a sense of adventure and intellectual curiosity — not to mention warmer weather. After graduation, her first job was as an arts reporter at KUHF-FM, and her knowledge was immediately put into play. “I felt, in a way, as if I’d majored in Cocktail Party Conversation,” she said. “This was not explicitly a work skill, but it let me feel comfortable in very erudite or sophisticated settings. As a journalist, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with highly accomplished people in all sorts of fields. The education I got in the Honors College really carried me through, and shaped my view of the world and our place in it more broadly.”

Paris also received a full academic scholarship from the Honors College, which cemented her desire to attend. “The scholarship also made me feel like the Honors College had faith in me,” she said. “They extended themselves to me — their trust in me as a student and thinker — and that fact made me want to work harder and prove them right.” Recognizing how it benefited her, she has become a donor herself. “I don’t want students to have the weight of debt over them,” she said. “I am very aware of the money I got from the school, and how valuable the education was. Graduating without student debt made me incredibly grateful.”

Since finishing “Splitopia,” Paris is helping couples in another way: through divorce coaching, “which is a form of life coaching,” she explained. “Coaching can help people connect with and remember their personal strengths during a tough transition, and really be the best, most compassionate version of themselves.” More books may be in her future as well: “I think it would be great to write a book about co-parenting, and how to have a fabulous second marriage!” While she explores the changing American family, she continues to support her UH family. She recalled how she felt as a new UH student: “I had the idea that college should be a stepping out into the world.” Now, like Brunt, she continues to hold the door open for the next generation of Honors students.