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What I’ve Learned: David Westfall, emeritus founding dean of the College of Science

David WestfallDuring my nearly 30 years at the University of Nevada, Reno, I held three jobs. I came to Nevada in 1982 to serve as the first permanent chair of the Department of Pharmacology in the School of Medicine, a position I held for 15 years. The School of Medicine was fairly young and had just graduated its first class of MDs in 1980. The opportunity allowed me to develop and direct the pharmacology program. My second job was as President Joe Crowley’s vice president of academic affairs, a post I held for five years. Following that I returned to pharmacology until President John Lilley decided to reorganize the College of Arts and Sciences. He asked me to take on my third job as the first dean of the College of Science, which also included the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering.

When I first came to Reno, I distinctly remember a meeting I attended with some neighbors. I had left a distinguished teaching career at West Virginia University, and some people asked me why I would come to Nevada. These people weren’t alumni, had never attended Nevada, and carried the attitude that it was a middling-level state university. I thought about that a lot over the years, and subsequently have never heard comments like that again. The local attitude has changed.

What I have learned at Nevada is that its major strength has always been its dedication to undergraduate education. The University has also needed to focus on developing scholarly research, which it has done, but it took many people to accomplish it. Nevada always had pockets of excellence, but it now has spread that excellence across campus. I believe the leadership of President Crowley and his administration played a key factor in this, especially in the careful hiring of first-rate scholars. I remember as a vice president and dean that we almost always attracted our first choice when conducting faculty searches. That requires teamwork.

Although I was not involved in forming the College of Science—this took place under President Lilley’s and Provost John Frederick’s leadership—I knew many players through my former role as vice president of academic affairs. President Lilley thought I could help with the structural changes. The science faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences wanted their own college and dean to help advance their mission. Administration did not want to add a new college, so it decided to combine the College of Science with the Mackay School, which was one of Nevada’s marquee programs and had very loyal alumni, but also suffered from low enrollment. There were natural synergies between faculties from both units. They could share labs and field work. However, concern arose from the Mackay School that they were being disenfranchised and so the issue became how we could put the two units together and survive. The Mackay alumni really came forward to make the joining of earth sciences and natural sciences work. They became very supportive of the College of Science. There was some uneasiness about the change, but the more we worked together, the more the fears were allayed. Today, the college and Mackay prosper.
What I learned as the College of Science’s first dean is that one must communicate a lot, and especially listen to faculty. We looked at several ideas, fielded the best, and kept working with people. We treated all suggestions with respect. I also learned that I needed good associates to assist me in administering the college.

The vision for what has now become the new Davidson Mathematics and Science Center started in the 1990s while I was vice president of academic affairs. We badly needed a new building since the last science building had been built in 1972. We needed help from the legislature to fund the building, which meant getting the regents and Chancellor Jim Rogers on board. President Lilley and John Frederick got people to accept the building concept. I became involved with the planning process. Eventually the state legislature was amenable and we worked with the Public Works Board to get money allocated. We also needed philanthropic support and the University of Nevada, Reno Foundation was highly involved. President Lilley should be credited because of his friendship and contacts with Bob and Jan Davidson. Ultimately, the Davidsons promised the largest gift in the University’s history which made the building a reality.

Other groups also came forward. We had support from the Mackay Advisory Board as they talked with their peers about the importance of the building. The Nell J. Redfield Foundation helped fund a large auditorium which was not part of the original plan. John Carothers, vice president of Development and Alumni Relations, and his office were integral in getting that funding. What I learned about this entire process is that it takes teamwork.

I was extremely pleased to have a voice, along with my associate dean (now current dean) Jeff Thompson, in the design of the building. Jeff and I worked with the architects to come up with a more interactive and flexible space featuring new classrooms, open teaching labs, and many areas for student interaction. It was a challenge because we had to fit the building into a small space. I think students will really enjoy the building. It will shift the center of gravity back to the south end of campus as almost all students will take classes at the Davidson Mathematics and Science Center.

Ultimately, what I’ve learned over the past 30 years is that Nevada has educated some amazing, talented people who have gone on to do great things. Nevada has maintained its focus on undergraduate education, but we have also become a powerful university in scholarly research. We are very competitive. We continue to attract students from northern Nevada and California, but we are also recruiting outstanding National Merit Scholars from across the country because of our competitive edge.

Many of the faculty employed here hardly ever leave because it is a great place to work and, despite problems from time to time, a nice place to build a career. Throughout my three decades at Nevada I continued to teach and run my lab so my feet were firmly grounded in faculty life. That helped when making administrative decisions involving faculty because I knew what they were experiencing. Sometimes I had to make painful decisions, but most times, I gained a better perspective.
Currently, we are suffering budget setbacks. People say the legislature does not support the University. For a number of bienniums in the 1990s and early 2000s, Nevada led the states in terms of percentage increases in higher education. For many years, the legislature was very supportive. People forget that. Now we’re in a budgetary recession and we have to cut, but we’ll overcome this.

I was born in West Virginia, but grew up in western Pennsylvania. In high school, I excelled in academics and was captain of the wrestling team. Another wrestler and I were heavily recruited to attend Brown University where I majored in biology. I received a fellowship to attend West Virginia University to enter the Ph.D program in pharmacology. I had a great faculty adviser and conducted a good research project that led to a two-year, post-doctorate fellowship at Oxford University. I then became a faculty member at West Virginia University and taught pharmacology for 12 years, while conducting research and becoming a full professor. Bob Daugherty was dean of the University of Nevada School of Medicine and he invited me to apply for the chair of the pharmacology department.

When I came to Nevada I received terrific support from President Crowley, Dick Davies (who was the vice president of academic affairs at that time) and Bob Daugherty. I was able to gradually build pharmacology into a strong department. By the time I became vice president of academic affairs, the entire pharmacology faculty was receiving extramural funding.
Other experiences I had included helping chair an accreditation sub-committee and writing one of the original strategic plans for the University.

I retired July 1, 2007, but I continue to write, review grants and consult on various issues. When I retired, Jeff Thompson named the dean’s award in the College of Science after me (Dean David P. Westfall Award for Academic Excellence). The award is given to the graduating senior from each College of Science department with the highest GPA. I love the concept of celebrating excellence and supporting good scholarship among our students.

From a conversation with Crystal Parrish, director of foundation operations. Dr. David Westfall, emeritus faculty, retired as the College of Science’s first dean in 2007. Throughout his career at Nevada, he has been recognized as a Foundation Professor, Outstanding Researcher and Distinguished Faculty. A student award for academic excellence is named in his honor and is awarded each year to graduating seniors with the highest GPA  from each COS department. Dr. Westfall received his undergraduate degree in biology from Brown University and his master’s and Ph.D in pharmacology from West Virginia University.

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