Good Chemistry

For Dr. DonnaJean Fredeen, who began as Rider’s new provost and vice president for Academic Affairs on August 1, a new role was the result of a perfect fit.
Friday, August 9, 2013

Coming of age in West Texas, Dr. DonnaJean Fredeen was naturally drawn to the sciences and knew that, like the Lone Star state itself, its many fields were vast and wide-ranging. Though she flirted with attending school for medical technology, it was chemistry that ultimately spoke most persuasively to Fredeen. In fact, it was something akin to a chemical reaction – a process leading to a transformation – that attracted Fredeen to her new role as the provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at Rider University.

“I knew this was the place I wanted to be when I saw all that was accomplished through the most recent Strategic Plan,” said Fredeen of the University’s ambitious, five-year, student-centered outline for renewal, adopted in 2005. “Many times, strategic plans are handed out and then put on a shelf, but what happened at Rider really says something about the leadership at the institution, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Fredeen comes to Rider after 26 years at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, a place she says allowed her to discover her own instinct for leadership. There, on a campus she likens to Rider’s in terms of its strong culture of service, she agreed some two decades ago to serve on the institution’s undergraduate curriculum committee. It was a role, Fredeen says, that ignited her interest in charting a university’s larger academic direction.

“It was really out of service, but I became much more interested,” she said of the “big-picture” progress of the institution. “I also turned away from bench-top chemistry (testing to determine the presence or absence of specified substances in given samples) and focused more on the education of chemistry.”

It wasn’t long before Fredeen was appointed chair of the Chemistry department, established an undergraduate curriculum forum and worked with a publisher to co-revise an inorganic chemistry textbook. Still, she remained unsure of her next step in higher education – a career she hadn’t originally sought to enter.

“I was 37, and I figured I’d gone as far as I could go,” Fredeen recalled. “So, I began to wonder, what’s next?”

Sadly, SCSU’s vice president for Academic Affairs died not long after, and the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences was tapped to fill the void. In turn, Fredeen was asked to become the school’s interim dean.

“What could I say?” she said her 1998 decision, recalling SCSU’s emphasis on service. “I said I’d try it out. But if you told me I’d be dean for 15 years, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

More than 20 years earlier, when she was still a student at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas – the setting of H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s acclaimed 1990 book Friday Night Lights – Fredeen worked with her father in his lab, focused primarily on blood chemistries. Though she had settled comfortably into his line of work, and was inclined to pursue it in college, Fredeen’s father encouraged her to consider chemistry, instead.

“It was on the eve of my interview at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, and we were sitting in the cafeteria there,” she recalled. “My initial response was, ‘But what does a chemist do besides teach? I don’t want to teach!’ ”

Fredeen can’t help but laugh now at her seeming certainty. “Truly famous last words!” she said with a laugh. But, she adds, her father did arrange for her to meet with chemists at the El Paso Products Company, which manufactured chemicals from natural gas derivatives, to explore career opportunities in the field.

“It was during that meeting that I also decided to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry,” Fredeen recalled. First, however, she needed to earn her bachelor’s degree, and she did, eschewing the program at UTMB to major in Chemistry at McMurry University in Abilene. After graduating in 1981, Fredeen worked for El Paso Products before completing her Ph.D. in Analytical/Inorganic Chemistry at Texas A&M University in 1986.

“Still, I had no goal of teaching,” she said, smiling when she considers the rest of her story. “I thought I’d like to work with an oil company.”

Youthful plans, however, are often drawn in the sand, and Fredeen found herself in New Haven in 1987, as an assistant professor of Chemistry at SCSU. She was promoted to associate professor in 1991, and achieved full-professor status in 1996, in the middle of a four-year stint as department chair.

During her quarter-century at SCSU, Fredeen’s own academic focus evolved alongside her career, and her current research interests include science education reform and leadership models in higher education, particularly those that address change leadership. Given the challenges higher education faces today, Fredeen strongly believes she has found the right opportunity to address these issues and more with support from her fellow administrators and faculty members.

Fredeen also realizes that Rider’s narrative is unique, and seeks to honor its heritage while helping to set a strong course for its future. She says the best universities – like the most accomplished scholars – are the ones able to adapt to changing times.

“I want to teach students to be able to teach themselves,” she said. “This is an ever-growing world, and many of the things they learn during their freshmen year are going to change by the time they are 70 years old. But by putting the focus on the ability of the student to learn, they keep that long after they graduate.”

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A native Texan, Dr. DonnaJean Fredeen once thought her training in chemistry would lead her to a career in the energy field.