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Kean University

Kean Q&A: College of Liberal Arts Welcomes Dean Jessica Thurlow, Ph.D.

Jessica Thurlow, new dean of CLA, stands in front of CAS

New Kean University Dean Jessica Thurlow, Ph.D., leads the College of Liberal Arts (CLA).

A student-centered academic leader, she arrived at Kean from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, where she was Interim Provost and Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs.

Thurlow “has a terrific track record in nurturing people and programs,” said Kean Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs David Birdsell, Ph.D. “An outstanding scholar in her own right, she has the experience and vision to bring CLA to new heights in the areas of research, teaching and public outreach.” 

Thurlow spoke to Kean News about her vision for CLA, her work in feminist and women’s history, and what she looks forward to on the East Coast.

1. What do you bring to Kean from your experience at Cornish College and elsewhere?

At both Cornish, a college for visual and performing arts with a liberal arts core, and my previous institution, Aurora University, I engaged in liberal arts and arts education advocacy, program development, and strategic planning and initiatives. Across the span of my career, I’ve focused on curriculum development, student success and program growth, working with colleagues across campus. I also oversaw an academic program and Academic Affairs Division restructure at Cornish, where we organized programs and introduced the faculty chair structure, to really empower our faculty. 

I lean into, and believe in, inclusive decision-making practices, collaboration and collegiality, listening and learning together to come up with data-driven, student-centered solutions.

2. Your academic career has taken you to places from Seattle to England. Had you been to New Jersey, or Kean, before interviewing? What do you like about Kean?

I did my master’s in English literature and my Master of Philosophy in history at the University of Sussex in the U.K. I also led undergraduate study abroad trips in Britain, Ireland and France. Altogether, I lived in London for about three years.

I have family on the East Coast, and worked in Manhattan in my 20s, but I had not been to Kean. I think what drew me originally to the position was Kean’s deep focus on access and affordability, making that a priority while also ensuring delivery of a transformative education that supports each student’s professional and life goals. 

And, the campus is beautiful! I love the greenery, all the nice places to sit, the artwork outdoors, the bridges and gardens.

3. What is your vision, and what are your goals as dean of CLA? 

It’s important to nurture and grow programs in the College, creating connections among Kean’s colleges and across campuses. As we think about revising curriculum, it’s important to do so responsibly, ensuring the curriculum is outcomes-based and connects students with employment pathways and real-world experiences.

We need to engage in a deep dive into disaggregated data as we think about how best to support students. Where are there equity gaps? Do we need more learning opportunities for faculty to support students? As we think about this transformative period, it’s important to support faculty in teaching, service and scholarship.

4. CLA includes programs from political science to the performing arts, at both graduate and undergraduate levels. What will you do first?

Kean has a very large number of new faculty – more new faculty on campus than longer-serving faculty. Mentoring and supporting our new faculty, integrating them into the community and supporting them is critical.  I will work hard to support all of the CLA faculty and advocate for them.

5. Your academic background is in both history and English. Please talk about some of your research. And, what are your goals for supporting research at CLA?

I did my bachelor’s degree in English and comparative literature at Occidental College, in Los Angeles, then my master’s in English literature and Master of Philosophy in history at the University of Sussex.

My work in and across my masters’ theses was interdisciplinary, focused on women’s history and literature. For example, I wrote a biography of Julia Varley, the first working class woman in Britain to head a trade union serving both men and women. She was an incredible role model, a suffragette and a writer. 

My doctoral work, at the University of Michigan, was on 20th Century feminism, specifically looking at the meaning of feminism in the 1940s to 1960s. That’s often seen as a low point in the feminist movement, between the Suffrage Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement; however, it’s an interesting moment, when you see different strands of feminism operating. 

At CLA, I plan to support new and continuing faculty in research and professional practice. My goals include nurturing student-faculty research; ensuring opportunities for them to present research to the community; and supporting initiatives like Research Days. It is important to support student researchers regardless of whether they’re continuing on to graduate school. Students become strong critical thinkers and problem solvers through research.

6.  Do you have any hobbies? What do you hope to do in New Jersey and on the East Coast? 

I love spending time with family and friends, along with cooking, walking, biking, swimming and reading. I have many favorite travel destinations, and I love road trips, exploring towns and cities and getting to know the region I live in. I’m learning a lot about Jersey, in terms of new places I haven’t been yet.