The People’s Dean
Over more than three decades of academic leadership, outgoing Dean Dan Solomon has built an environment that welcomes everyone.
Dan Solomon has these little ways of thanking people.
Take this one: A couple hundred people packed a country club ballroom in November for the College’s annual Donor Recognition Dinner. A scholarship student addressing the audience mentioned that the Women in Science and Engineering program helped shape her academic career.
Looking on was Dr. Jo-Ann Cohen, the College’s associate dean for academic affairs who helped launch that program a decade ago. Solomon, seated nearby, smiled at Cohen and gave her a nod. It was a quick gesture, but it had meaning.
That’s your thing, he seemed to be saying. Great job with that.
“He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known in my life,” Cohen said later. “When you work for him, he has these incredibly knowing and sweet ways of saying, ‘I’m proud that you did this.’ That’s one of the many things I’m going to miss.”
Solomon will step down this summer after serving 15 years as an NC State dean, first in the former College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences (PAMS) and then, for the last two years, as the inaugural dean of the College of Sciences. (A national search for the next Sciences dean is under way.)
His career at NC State has spanned 34 years; he came to the university in 1981 as head of the Department of Statistics.
Solomon will be remembered for transforming NC State’s sciences research and education initiatives. He expanded graduate programs. He made undergraduate offerings much more selective. He championed convergence science. And he was one of the staunchest advocates for diversity that anyone at NC State had ever seen.
But Solomon has been more than a forward-thinking administrator. He is a trusted friend, a mentor, a thoughtful decision-maker, a wry wit, and a friendly chameleon who puts all types of people at ease. People who know him speak of his way of treating everyone, no matter their role at the university, with the same twinkle-eyed brand of kindness and respect.
Solomon, whose impending departure was announced on September 30, is being treated to many months’ worth of commemorations. He is a bit embarrassed by the attention.
“When you have a job like this, it’s very much not about you. It’s about the success of the enterprise,” he said. “When something great happens in the organization, deep down you know that you had something to do with it. But maybe nobody else does. So you have to be able to take satisfaction from the organization doing well.”
The Young Scientist
Solomon grew up in the Bronx, the only child of working-class parents. The family moved to Florida when he was nine.
His father bought a local appliance business. And his mother, who did various administrative jobs, laid down a clear life plan for her son.
He was going to medical school. And he was going to be a doctor.
“That’s what kids of my background did, particularly boys,” Solomon said. “I don’t think I questioned that until it was about time to go.”
His career path entrenched at a young age, Solomon threw himself into future-doctor activities: science projects, science fairs, lab work, hospital work. As a high school student, he conducted research on rheumatic fever at the Miami Heart Institute. Another project involved injecting tranquilized rats with radioactive iodine to see how the tranquilizers affected the rats’ resting metabolisms, an unthinkably dangerous experiment by today’s standards.
“I’m surprised I’m still alive,” he said.
During his first semester at Florida State University, he was leaving a math class when a professor stopped him at the door.
“Have you ever considered being a math major?” the professor asked.
Solomon hadn’t. It was only years later that he realized the professor was telling him, “You’re pretty good at that.” It was a lesson in the power of a faculty member to affect the lives of students.
As the new math major navigated his undergraduate career, he realized that he was a scientist, not a practicing physician. So despite being accepted into the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York, he turned it down, instead choosing to attend graduate school in mathematics at Florida State.
It was there that he was turned on to math’s relationship with human health, winning a National Institutes of Health traineeship in biometry, in which researchers use statistics to analyze biological data. He shifted over to mathematical statistics and earned his Ph.D. in that field.
His first faculty job was in the Biometrics Unit at Cornell University. He was working in quantitative ecology, developing mathematical models to learn more about how the diversity of ecological communities affects their stability.
It was there that Solomon’s leadership and compromise abilities became apparent. He was named head of the six-person group even though he was its youngest member mostly because, he recalled, “I was the only one on speaking terms with the other five.”
This taste of leadership led him to the opportunity that changed his life. It was 1981, and NC State was looking for a new head for its large and prominent Department of Statistics. Solomon knew about Gertrude Cox, the legendary statistician who founded the department in 1941, and after a trip to Raleigh he came away impressed with the school’s commitment to applied statistics that aimed to solve real-world problems.
He took the job, presiding over a large budget, dozens of faculty and staff and a diverse set of research and education programs. But department heads’ responsibilities go beyond academic leadership. They’re tasked with confronting everything from poor job performance to interpersonal and behavioral matters.
Earning a Ph.D. doesn’t help you handle those kinds of problems, he noted.
“The only things I take home at night are the people things,” he said. “Most of the budget things can keep until morning, but the relationships between people are the things that really get at you, and you can’t get rid of them.”
In 1993, Solomon moved over to the PAMS central administration, serving as associate dean for academic affairs for seven years. He’d long since been bitten by the excitement of administrative work, so when Dean Jerry Whitten announced he was leaving the position in 1999, Solomon applied for the College’s top job. After a national search, he got it.
Among his first priorities was bringing in more private money. Years of cuts were nicking away at the College’s budget, putting it at a competitive disadvantage for top students and faculty. At the time, there were two jobs in in the College’s Advancement office. He’s since grown that office to eight positions focused on fundraising, alumni relations and communications, and has made working with alumni among his highest priorities.
“He’s a wonderful communicator, but he’s so much more than that because he understands the importance of listening,” said Anita Stallings, the College’s associate dean for advancement. “He appreciates the ideas that come out of a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and experiences.”
Another task was making the sciences more selective for undergraduates, a role befitting the flagship science institution in the state system. The most recent freshman class shows the effects of these efforts: The class had an average weighted high-school GPA of 4.52, and 60 percent were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes.
Solomon also grew the College’s research infrastructure, investing in the next generation of facilities and research centers in interdisciplinary areas such as bioinformatics. He worked with SAS, the software analytics company that spun out of NC State in the 1970s, to build the new SAS Hall, which opened in 2009 and houses the departments of Mathematics and Statistics. And he accelerated the investment in faculty who worked at the interfaces with the biosciences, areas of research where the opportunities for funding and potential societal benefits are enormous.
Then there was his work to diversify the College. He integrated diversity into his decision-making not just because it was the right thing to do, but because input from many different types of people helps the organization. The number of tenured and tenure-track women on the PAMS faculty nearly doubled during his deanship of that college.
Students from all backgrounds love him. For almost a decade, he has moderated the Quiz Bowl run by NC State’s Society of Multicultural Scientists. And he’s a constant presence in the Office of Diversity and Student Services, which helps students from underrepresented groups succeed academically.
“Students who come to my office feel like they know him,” said Dr. Jamila Simpson, the College’s assistant dean for diversity and student services.
Cohen, the associate dean, remembers him looking at blueprints for SAS Hall and arguing for a designated lactation room for nursing mothers and gender-neutral restrooms to make transgender students and faculty feel more comfortable.
“Dan is a majority male pushing for these types of things, and that’s so important when you’re trying to build a more diverse and welcoming environment,” Cohen said. “He’s leaving this university a far better place than it was before.”
But Solomon wrestled with the giant time commitment that comes with being a dean. Besides running a complex organization with thousands of students, faculty and staff, deans have numerous after-hours commitments. There are football games, awards dinners, and alumni meetings to attend. It’s a seven-day-a-week job that often took him away from his wife, Carolyn, and his three children and four grandchildren.
After NC State
So when 2012 rolled around, Solomon was thinking about stepping down. At the same time, the university had been examining better ways to organize the science disciplines, eventually recommending the creation of a new college that would bring together NC State people and programs in the biological, mathematical and physical sciences.
Provost Warwick Arden asked Solomon to serve as the first dean of the resulting College of Sciences. The idea was to help the College through the transition before turning it over to a new leader.
“I had the sense that this would be a good way to go out,” Solomon said.
During his first year-and-a-half as Sciences dean, Solomon shaped a vision for the new college. It was based upon the twin pillars of convergence science and discovery science, seeking to solve great problems and find answers to the toughest questions. With help from other faculty and administrators, he compiled a three-year launch plan that emphasized leading-edge research, experiential learning and building science literacy, among other priorities.
In September, when Chancellor Randy Woodson announced at an NC State Board of Trustees meeting that Solomon was stepping down, a groan went up around the room. One person in the back gasped, “No!”
After the meeting, there were many congratulations and words of thanks. His collaborative brand of leadership, his friends and co-workers say, has made him easy to work with and a favorite around campus.
“It shouldn’t be described as a character strength,” Solomon said. “It’s just I don’t know about something as much as the colleague who holds that other position. That’s why I trust and depend on them.”
His name is permanently attached to the College’s signature scholarship program, the newly named Daniel L. Solomon Scholars. Each student in this cohort program receives a $5,000 annual scholarship plus funds that can be used for research experiences, leadership opportunities, and study abroad offerings — activities that will shape the well-rounded scientists of tomorrow.
Today, the College has 10 of these four-year scholarships. Its goal is to have 200 Solomon Scholars studying at NC State at any one time. That means 50 such scholarships would be available to first-year students, covering 10 percent of each incoming class.
“If you’re going to have a remembrance of some sort, associating it with the next generation of bright students is a good one,” Solomon said. “And if the financial support helps a student who would’ve otherwise been unable to succeed, that will be especially satisfying.”
Solomon is unsure of his next step. He’ll spend some time in his garden. He’ll cook more, maybe even take some cooking classes. He’ll do some writing. He wants to lend a hand to NC State’s efforts in public science, an area in which he sees great opportunities for scientists to affect the public good.
But most of what he wants is flexibility. He’s already turned down some opportunities because he doesn’t want to overcommit.
Because for the first time in decades, he won’t be running a big academic organization.
“I’m approaching this time in my life with a bit of uncertainty,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know how to do anything else!”