Jefferson Award honors Lisa Tedesco, graduate school dean, for visionary leadership

By Stacey Jones | Emory Report | May 5, 2020

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Lisa Tedesco’s courageous leadership of Laney Graduate School has resulted in an extraordinary set of structural changes, innovative new programs and educational infrastructure, and crucial enhancements for graduate student education, support and professionalization.

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When Lisa Tedesco was considering the job as dean of Emory’s graduate school, she turned to a former Emory president for inspiration. Although James T. Laney hadn’t been Emory’s president for nearly 20 years at that point, “I read as many speeches of Dr. Laney’s as I could find to see what his vision and his path was to creating the research university Emory had become, so I could begin to understand what the steps were to enlivening the graduate school, and to these many years later sustaining and advancing that vision and that mission,” she explains.

Now, 14 years after she took the job at the graduate school, named for Laney in 2009, Tedesco has received the Thomas Jefferson Award, which honors Emory faculty and staff for significant service and leadership to the university.

“It is now difficult to remember what the graduate school was like before Dr. Tedesco arrived to lead it in 2006,” her nominators wrote. “Her vision and courageous leadership have resulted in an extraordinary set of structural changes, innovative new programs and educational infrastructure, and crucial enhancements for graduate student education, support and professionalization.”

Tedesco says she is humbled by the honor, and grateful and appreciative for the recognition. However, she is quick to give credit to all who helped Laney Graduate School become the highly regarded institution it is today.

“First, let me say that I didn’t do any of this,” she says. “We built teams and we got faculty and staff who wanted to contribute and participate. Not an inch of progress would have been made without the great support of faculty and staff colleagues.”

Building a reputation among prospective students and peers

Still, it was Tedesco who led the call for benchmarking and best practices, so that Emory’s graduate school could stand proudly among its vaunted peers in the Association of American Universities (AAU), which the university was elected to in 1995.

“When I think about service, I think of it in terms of capacity building and how we engage with the idea of making our institutions places where people can do their very best work,” she says. “And it was just a joy to be able to come to Emory and to help Emory figure out its next decade in graduate education.”

Emory sought a higher profile in graduate education, not merely for its own sake but in order to attract stellar students. “To get visible, you had to make some commitment to best practices for doctoral education and master's education. You had to make the best commitments to funding and other resources and the programmatic activities that serve graduate students,” Tedesco says. “It wasn't just a transactional space, not just about degree granting and filing of papers and filing of dissertations. It was about setting commitments to best practices and to how programs could work together to make a greater footprint for the intellectual and research space.”

Michelle Lampl, director of the Center for the Study of Human Health and Charles Howard Candler Professor of Anthropology, describes Tesdesco as “a cornerstone in the rise of Emory as a global scholarly destination.” 

“The best students are drawn to the universities with international eminence in faculty and forward-thinking academic pursuits, but these students only choose to study at those institutions clearly committed to the training and nurturing of the next generation,” Lampl says. “Lisa’s experience, rigorous mind and prodigious leadership skills, combined with her passion for excellence, have transformed graduate training from an educational program to a core intellectual resource for Emory’s research eminence.”

Among the many changes instituted under Tedesco’s leadership were fully funding five-year student stipends across the graduate school and providing health insurance for students; expanding opportunities for grant writing and public scholarship for students in the humanities and social sciences; creating a totally redesigned system for professional development funding for research, conference attendance, skills and languages training; and undertaking a recent redesign of the graduate school’s Teaching Assistant Training and Teaching Opportunity teaching program. As Laney concluded the celebration of its centennial year, these and other changes herald a bright future for graduate education at Emory.

Increasing diversity and inclusion

As dean, Tedesco also made a commitment to supporting and increasing diversity and inclusion within the graduate school, creating the Centennial Scholars Fellowship program, which recruits and supports the successful matriculation of scholars from historically underrepresented groups. 

“She has worked tirelessly to expand the applicant pools for all programs in Laney Graduate School, creating a professorial pipeline for underrepresented groups of students, and enhancing the academic culture and the everyday lived experience of all graduate students,” says Carla Freeman, Goodrich C. White Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Additionally, Tedesco facilitated the development of the Women in Natural Science Fellowship for women in certain STEM disciplines at Emory and also established and expanded Emory’s partnership with historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. Under her guidance, the graduate school has deliberately developed systematic plans and structures for the recruitment, retention and the successful matriculation of a diverse student body, with an array of programs and personnel that support these efforts. 

In the face of a changing academic job market for PhDs, Tedesco helped launch a full slate of professional development programs to help students envision other avenues for their professional careers.

“Many of these professional development programs have become models for other universities, and numerous students have reported that these opportunities at Emory are envied by their peers elsewhere,” Tedesco’s nomination letter states.

Focusing on service and scholarship

Tedesco’s own career provided something of a blueprint for the idea of expanding one’s job horizons. The academic job market contracted just as she was obtaining her PhD in behavioral sciences and education at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. So, she took a research position across campus in dental medicine.

Eventually, she became a renowned expert in the field of dental education and oral health, applying her expertise in psychology and education and using social cognitive theory and other methods to promote oral health and disease prevention. Because of this expertise, her academic home at Emory is in Rollins School of Public Health.

Tedesco has also raised Emory’s national profile in graduate education through her own service. She has served as a member and leader in various roles for the Council of Graduate Schools, the AAU’s Association of Graduate Schools and the Graduate Record Examination  board of directors.

“Lisa Tedesco is known nationally as a leader on the issues affecting graduate education — and she’s also known for her mentorship of others throughout higher education,” says Emory College Dean Michael Elliott. “I first started working with Dean Tedesco when I was serving as director of graduate studies in English, and our conversations changed how I thought about the work of administration and academic leadership.” 

Tedesco has all the qualities of a great leader, says Giacomo Negro, professor of organization and management at Goizueta Business School and incoming University Senate president, “in the sense that she shows the rare ability to guide people with different perspectives to work collectively for the good of the organization. Her approach is always collaborative and respectful, a model of personal and professional integrity. She is also a remarkably clear thinker and has great energy and enthusiasm. Like the more effective leaders, she is a patient listener.”

As she prepares to preside over a very different Commencement celebration, held online, for the last graduating class of Laney Graduate School’s first century, Tedesco is operating in the new normal of a pandemic world. Still, she remains passionate about graduate education and steadfast in her hopes for both the students who enroll in the graduate school and those now departing it.

“I appreciate that our incoming students had options and that they chose us. We are here to support them and provide what they need to do their best work,” she says. “When they leave, I hope that they leave with the spirit of Emory — with the breadth of mind and the depth of the heart that is Emory, with confidence in their skills and with a commitment to pursuing knowledge that will shape our future by addressing the most difficult and important problems of the day.”

Tedesco’s emphasis on using her own heart and mind in carrying out her work has transformed the James T. Laney School of Graduate Studies into the vision and promise that its namesake sought for graduate education at Emory over four decades ago. As her nominators noted, “Lisa Tedesco’s record over the last 14 years exemplifies the depth and breadth of accomplishment, impact and devoted service that the Thomas Jefferson Award is intended to recognize.”