by Kym Byrnes, photography by Nikola Tzenov
In 2003, Julia Jasken joined the McDaniel College community as an English professor. For the past eight years, she has taken on increasing responsibility in administrative positions leading up to her most recent position as executive vice president and provost, overseeing the newly integrated academic and student life divisions. She has had a hand in academic and campus life restructuring, student success initiatives, contract negotiations and building a culture of safety compliance. This year Dr. Jasken will become the 10th president of the school, and the second woman president in the college’s 153-year history. She takes the reins at a precarious time, on the heels of a global pandemic but also following two years of record class sizes. She has her sights set on overcoming the challenges ahead and said she most looks forward to continuing to build partnerships with students, staff, alumni and the community.
McDaniel has seen its largest classes in the last 2 years. What does that mean for the college?
This is really an exciting time at McDaniel, and I think there are a few ways we have set ourselves apart and shown that we are an excellent independent college of choice for students here in Maryland.
As a smaller institution, our educational delivery model allows us to offer a more personalized experience that has really resonated with students and families, particularly during Covid. Families have appreciated our transparency and planning in terms of sending their students back to campus during the pandemic.
From a more long-range perspective, we recently engaged in an almost year-long program evaluation process, which included the development of 10 new majors to meet the professional needs and interests of our students. These majors are largely in career-focused fields that have helped to attract new kinds of students to the institution, but have still enabled our liberal arts core, which we believe is so important to a high-quality education in the 21st century.
We also launched our McDaniel Commitment, which guarantees that every student, guided by a team of mentors, can completely tailor and personalize their own path. Having students understand that we have professors, campus life professionals, and others who are dedicated to both their personal and professional development has really resonated with students.
Last year every educational institution struggled to maneuver through a global pandemic. What were your biggest concerns during that time, and how do you think the school fared in working through it? What do you expect the fall semester of 2021 to look like?
The primary focus of our initial Covid response was crisis-level planning to ensure the safety of our students and employees. The Carroll County Health Department, under the leadership of an alumnus, Ed Singer, has been such a great partner for us as we continue to ensure we are meeting all federal, state and local safety protocols.
We also spent a lot of time thinking through creative ways to maintain the kind of close-knit community for which McDaniel is known within the parameters of what was possible. Our Campus Life staff has done a great job planning things like virtual trivia nights and socially distanced outdoor events for our on-campus residential students. Our professors spent their summer reimagining their classes to ensure that students were still able to receive the benefits of in-person, small-class instruction, even if they were attending virtually. All of this proactive work from the McDaniel staff and faculty really led to our successful Fall 2020 semester.
We hope to be back to near-normal operations in the fall and we are planning for nearly all of our classes to be offered in person.
You’ve been at McDaniel for 17 years. What are some ways in which you’ve evolved during that time?
I’ve learned so much during my time at McDaniel. Probably one of the most important things is the value of being open to change and seizing opportunities when they present themselves, which is really at the heart of the liberal arts experience. When I started at McDaniel as an English professor, I did not expect to move into administration. But it was through my experience with the benefits of community-based learning that I became an advocate for experiential learning more broadly, which led to the opportunity to establish the Center for Experience and Opportunity at McDaniel and becoming its founding director. I’ve also learned the value of collaboration and the extent to which it can almost always turn the seeds of good ideas into something really great.
What are a couple top priorities you have when you take the reins on June 1?
This summer, I am looking forward to meeting with members of the Westminster community to discuss how we can both strengthen existing partnerships and grow new ones. On campus, we will be welcoming three new members to the senior leadership team and laying the groundwork for the college’s strategic planning process that will officially launch in the fall. I will also be continuing to work with our Diversity Equity and Inclusion Administrative team on moving forward the institution’s focus on anti-racism. We have made steady progress over the last several months, but there is always more work to be done to ensure McDaniel College is the most welcoming, equitable and inclusive community possible.
How important is the relationship between McDaniel and the surrounding community – the Westminster community as well as the broader Carroll County community?
Through the establishment of the McDaniel Commitment over the past four years, I have seen our partnerships with the city and county continue to grow. I am excited to be able to further develop and cultivate these partnerships. Carroll County is such a special place. My husband and I have lived in Westminster for 17 years and have chosen to raise our family here. Both of my sons attend Carroll County Public Schools, and I’ve especially appreciated the partnership between the public schools and McDaniel’s elementary and secondary education programs. It’s been a joy to hear my sons share what they are learning from McDaniel students who are teaching them through their practicum and student teaching experiences.
What does it mean to you that the college has a woman president? How does it feel to be the second woman president of the school?
The College’s eighth president and first female president, Joan Coley, was in office when I began my career as a faculty member at McDaniel. She paved the way for many of us in senior-level administrative positions, having also served as the College’s first female provost. Joan has been a great inspiration to me, and I am honored to follow in her footsteps. It is important for women to continue to see that they belong in leadership roles, both in education as well as in all other industries. I also take seriously the responsibility of mentoring other leaders on their professional journeys. I know how impactful that guidance can be and have felt appreciative of the valuable advice that I have received from mentors over the years such as McDaniel’s ninth president, Roger Casey.
What known challenges are ahead for you in this position?
Although many signs indicate the United States is moving in the right direction with controlling COVID-19, ensuring the physical safety of students and employees is only the first step. Most immediately, we will need to be prepared to holistically support our current students as they return to full in-person instruction in the fall. Incoming students, many of whom have spent the last year and a half only learning virtually in their high schools, will likely face an additional set of academic challenges.
Efforts will also need to be made to restore the sense of community experienced in our workplaces prior to the pandemic. Although some McDaniel employees have continued to work physically on campus, many others have been working remotely for well over a year. I look forward to working with the senior leadership team to provide opportunities for all members of the McDaniel community to re-engage and connect with one another in person.
You have been in administration for the past eight years. Do you miss the classroom?
Although my first love will always be the classroom, I have also enjoyed experiencing the college from different vantage points. As president, I look forward to having a more active everyday role in working with students, as well as our alumni.
What are you most looking forward to in your new role?
There is so much to look forward to in this new role. In addition to what I’ve already shared, I’m especially excited for the opportunity to spend time with McDaniel’s wonderfully engaged alumni living in cities and towns across the United States and abroad. I’m also looking forward to leading the fundraising efforts needed to support new program development and the institution’s commitment to access and affordability for students.