Q&A with new CCOM dean: Come talk to the “lost-looking, short, balding guy on campus”

Valenzano started at Butler on Jan. 9. Photo courtesy of butler.edu.


After a months-long search, Dr. Joseph M. Valenzano III started at Butler University on Jan. 9 as the new dean of the College of Communication. Brooke Barnett — provost and vice president of academic affairs — announced the hiring in a campus-wide email on Dec. 5, 2022

Prior to Valenzano’s hiring, Barnett herself held the role of dean of CCOM. After Barnett’s appointment as interim provost and vice president of academic affairs in the spring 2021 semester, Margaretha Geertsema-Sligh served as interim dean.

Valenzano obtained his bachelor’s degree from Providence College in psychology and political science. He then earned his master’s in communication from the University of Maine, then his Ph.D. in public communication from Georgia State University. He went on to work at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and later the University of Dayton as a professor and basic course director; he also held the role of department chair at the latter. His programs at both institutions were awarded Basic Program of Excellence by the National Communication Association, the only person to have done so at two different universities. 

In his new role at Butler, Valenzano wants to connect with students, faculty and alumni to discern how the college can best serve the CCOM community and ultimately help the college and its students succeed.

THE BUTLER COLLEGIAN: What drew you to Butler?

JOSEPH VALENZANO: That’s a great question — one I’ve had to answer numerous times. There’s a variety of things. Number one, I’ve been aware of Butler for years. Being at the University of Dayton, we competed [with] Butler for students; we were considered peers, so I’ve always been aware of things here. I was also keenly aware when they hired Dr. Barnett as dean a couple of years ago, and I remember seeing that play out. 

As I dug more into the university, one of the things that really struck me is the founding story, how it was founded by Ovid Butler and what the mission of the institution was. I’m a mission-driven person. Having been at the University of Dayton for 12 years, one of the things that I felt strongly about was their mission, and the mission here seems to be relatively similar — which is to provide increased access, high-quality private education to a lot of students regardless of background, and that’s a big deal to me. I think education is kind of the silver bullet for people. It allows them to really excel in their lives and achieve the goals that they set for themselves. So seeing that parallel made sense. 

The college structure [of CCOM] here was appealing because at [University of Dayton], we were a department, not a college. That was really appealing because you can do more at a college than you can in a department. 

Those are the high-level things that attracted me here. And the location is really attractive. My family, we like living in the Midwest, and so it being only two hours away from where we were also was an added bonus.

TBC: How did your experience at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and the University of Dayton prepare you for your role now?

JV: You don’t really think of it when you’re doing it as “preparing” — at least I don’t; I just do what’s in front of me. 

I think that I’ve been attracted to administrative work. Matter of fact, my entire career, I’ve been an administrator. I was hired, first job out of my Ph.D., to be a basic course director — which is the person who runs the introduction to communication class at universities that have it — at UNLV. That was my first job. While I was there, within two and a half years, I built out the first-year learning experience within our college. It was the first of its kind at that school, and I was really proud. I enjoyed doing that. Again, access, student success, [are] big kind of pillars of how I approach things.

I had the opportunity to go to [University of] Dayton to build and create a basic course from scratch, which I thought was cool. I mean, for people like me, it’s like Legos … That was really cool. 

Four years into the job, my [department’s] chair moved to the dean’s office, and I was the unanimous selection of the faculty to be the next chair, and so I decided, “Okay, I’ll do that.” And again, it’s kind of like a new batch of Legos. It’s like going from the build a box to the Star Wars Legos, that they just roll in with this giant, [and] they’re like, “Here you go. It’s more!” 

I thoroughly enjoyed being chair … By the time I left, of the 14 tenure track faculty on faculty, I hired 10 of them. Of the 15 lecturers, I hired 10 of them, and I hired two more people in the fall before I left. I got a chance to really rebuild and refashion the department in a way that was strategic and made sense, and I enjoyed that. 

We built [up] programs. Matter of fact, one we modeled somewhat after Butler, a certificate program in sports [communication]. We built a healthcare administration major with political science and health and sports science. [I] just got to be creative in the role of chair, focused on things like enrollment and advancement and building programs, and those seem to be kind of the three big buckets here. So [my role as dean is] kind of what I’ve been doing but on a different level. And I’m excited about that different level.

TBC: Speaking of growth, what exciting aspects of CCOM are you excited to grow?

JV: Oh my gosh, we have a tremendous faculty, and we have tremendous programs here, tremendous facilities. I am really excited about shouting from the mountaintop about the things going on here. There’s so much to brag about here. And one of the things that’s both attractive and one of the things I’m going to probably push is that it’s a humble group, right? We don’t necessarily go out and talk about how good we are and what we’re doing, but that’s going to be my job, right? Like, I gotta go out and talk about the great things folks are doing, from faculty and students. I’m excited to do that; there’s lots of stories to tell. 

There’s some tremendous history here, especially in producing broadcast talent, on-air talent. There’s ton of alumni who were actually on television, there [are] tremendous facilities here that we can capitalize on, opportunity to create graduate programming that connects to what the undergrads are here for so that they can further their education, be better prepared when they leave. These are the things that really excite me. 

I said this in my interview, [and] I firmly believe it: there’s no reason why CCOM cannot be a premier, private college of communication, not just in Indiana, but in the country. So I’m kind of bullish on our prospects.

TBC: On the other hand, what are the key issues that you aim to address?

JV: That’s a great question. I don’t know what I don’t know, right? I’m not coming in necessarily with a specific plan. I know where we want to get to, and that’s that premier level. 

Right now, I need to get to know the faculty and the students, and so I intend to as best as I’m able to meet with all the faculty this semester, one on one and in their departments, meet with student groups, meet with student leaders, meet with reporters and just try to get to know the campus, the college better so that I know what those issues are. 

I don’t know what [the issues] are coming in. I don’t want to sit here and say that … I fully grasp the college; I still need to do a ton of learning. And that’s one of the great things about being in higher ed — you get to learn every day. So I get to learn everything about us, and that’s exciting to me.

TBC: How can students connect with you?

JV: My door, if I’m here, is open. [Students] can come in and see me. I will be wandering the halls, often looking lost … There’ll be some structured events. I know there’s a recent history of ”donuts with the dean” and “pop-in” kind of events with popcorn. We’re going to continue to do stuff like that, but, you know, don’t be afraid to come to the office. It’s not a scary place — we have brownies — and don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to me. I’m pretty affable. I want to get to know students. Honestly, they’re why I’m in this business. I love being around. I get to wake up every morning and go to college. 

One of the reasons that that’s cool is because they’re students, and so I want to be approachable. I am [approachable] — at least I think I am. I want to be there for them. I want them to feel like they can come in and see me when I’m here. So if my door’s open, they’re more than welcome to come in, and if it’s not, they can make an appointment, leave a note, happy to get back to them. They can email me. I’m pretty good at getting back on email. Those are some real easy ways. 

But honestly, if they see the lost-looking, short, balding guy on campus, ask me where I need to go. That’s another way to connect with me; I’m gonna be lost for a while. At least I know where the bathroom is. 

But I mean, I’ll be around. I love going to the basketball games. I think that that’s a really cool part of the culture here … Really, I’m kind of an open book. I’m their dean, so I’m here for them, and so they need to feel like they can come in, too, and I’ll probably weirdly pop in and look through a door at a class; I do stuff like that all the time. I like to be goofy. 

The other thing I would point out, too — so I know Giving Day is in February, and so I want to give an open invitation to students on Giving Day. There’s going to be a challenge. It’s called “pie the new guy.” Students can show up, and if they do a small token kind of donation, they get to throw pie in my face. I’m going to be really broadcasting that over the next five or six weeks. I want them to feel comfortable coming and doing that because frankly, I think it’s fun. 

TBC: What are your strengths as a leader?

JV: Oh, geez, you got to ask other people that. I don’t keep a personal inventory like that. To me, it’s kind of weird when you want, “Well, my strength is that I do that.” 

I mean, I’m approachable. I’m friendly. I’m creative. I’m collaborative. And I believe wholeheartedly in the power of community. So my strengths are grounded in the strengths of the people around us. I live off of that. Those are the things that I value. I value creativity. I value working hard, dedication, those sorts of things, but also, honestly, I like to have fun. Like I said before, we go to college every day. That should be fun. So, I try to make the environment around me enjoyable and fun to be there. People should want to be around. 

Those are kind of my, I guess, the calling cards? I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re my strengths because I don’t think like that. But I think people would tell you that I’m organized, I’m thoughtful, I’m energetic and probably a little goofy. Those are the things I think people would probably tell you.

TBC: [In what aspects] do you hope to grow as a leader? 

JV: There’s stuff I’ve had a chance to do a little bit of and that I want to do more of, and I want to learn. 

I want to grow in terms of my ability to continue to connect with alumni. I want to find out not just what I value about being at Butler, but what do people value about being at Butler? And I want to be able to connect in that way; I want to learn.

In the things that I mentioned before, I want to continue to expand: my ability to connect with folks who are here, who’ve graduated from here, my ability to create programming that’s of interest and of value to students. Those are kind of the things that I really want to grow in. 

I don’t think we’re ever a finished product … There’s a [communication] theory [called the Johari window]. Kind of four boxes: there’s what you know and what other people know about you. Then there’s what you know about you that other people don’t know about you. Then there’s what you don’t know, but other people know. And then there’s what neither side knows. And so that box, it’s like, I don’t know, but I’m open … Constructive criticism is the way we grow, and so if I’m not doing something, I want people to be able to tell me like, “Hey, you should probably think about this,” or, “This is something you should improve on.” 

We’re not a finished product. I’m not a finished product. And I’m open to knowing what areas I need to grow.

TBC: How will diversity, equity and inclusion play into your role as dean?

JV: It’s critical. It’s going to be in every aspect of what we do. First of all, it’s core to who we are. That founding story that attracts me here, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. [It] is the idea that Ovid Butler created this place for African Americans [and] for women when they really didn’t have places to go for education. To me, that’s important. I really value increased access to what we have to offer because it changes lives. 

Whether it’s people of different socioeconomic status, different race, different ethnicity, different religion, what have you, frankly, we’re better when we have a mix. We’re better when everybody feels welcome at the table, and everybody’s perspective is shared because the more perspectives, and the more different perspectives you get — different experiences, different lived experiences — the more on target what you’re going to do is going to be. 

I think that DEI will play a huge role in terms of the programming we offer, in terms of the way in which we try to recruit students to Butler, in terms of the faculty hiring that we do, the courses that we offer, hopefully the scholarships we develop. I really believe that it needs to be the backbone of what we do, who we are and where we go from here.

TBC: Not sure if you’ll have answers to these yet, but the big thing that’s been sort of the talk of higher education recently is that the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has found that across the board, universities in the U.S. have seen smaller and smaller enrollment numbers. How will CCOM withstand this? 

JV: You’re talking about the enrollment cliff? I think that higher ed faces headwinds. I mean, there’s no doubt about it. I think the answer to it is being creative but also listening. I think that we need to listen to … what different populations of students [want] because someone coming here who’s [a] traditional student — 18 to 22 [years old] — wants one particular thing, but [a nontraditional student already in] the workforce needs another thing, and we need to be able to supply both. I think we need to pay attention to those kinds of audiences and what their needs are so that we can supply them; that’s our goal. We perform a public service, but to do that, you have to listen to where the public’s heads are. And I think if we’re creative in that space, I think that’s important. 

Now, if you want to talk statistics, comm-based jobs are expected, even in that kind of environment, they’re expected to grow. There’s a couple of areas where they’re not; there’s some significant headwinds in, say, journalism, right? But there’s also some significant interest in places like video production, and media content creation, strategic PR. Like those areas, there’s a ton of growth in, and so, I think it’s a matter of making sure that we have appealing programs in areas that might be harder to get students, that we are distinctive … but also that we really shore up our strengths, and the areas where we know there’re students, I want to make sure that we are the number one destination for those students. 

So it’s going to be a creative, collaborative effort, but it involves listening.

TBC: The world of esports is a big place, and it’s becoming more and more of an attractive field for donors, at Butler especially, and CCOM just had the first graduate [in 2022 who graduated with] the esports minor. But then on the other hand, you have some students who say that those resources are better allocated elsewhere. How will you reconcile all those different stakeholders and their different perspectives?

JV: Often, people perceive things as a zero-sum game, where if you’re doing X, then you’re not doing Y. I want to help position CCOM to be in a place where we’re doing X, and we’re doing Y.

In order to start certain things, some programs, they take investment, and so you have to invest in them upfront, but once they get going, they don’t need as much investment. Others need to freshen up and be creative; you need to invest in that type of effort. 

I think esports stuff is exciting — I think it is. I don’t think it’s esports at the expense of other parts of CCOM or other parts of the university. I think it’s esports “and,” and we need to be in a position where we see it that way. And as dean, I need to pay attention to those variety of areas so that they’re all getting the attention we need, or at least as many of them are getting the attention we need as we can manage.

TBC: And speaking of accessibility in a way, some students have concerns that a lot of CCOM classes only have one class section, so it can be hard to schedule classes. How will that be addressed?

JV: I haven’t been involved in the schedule here yet, so it’s not something I can really point to, but I do need to pay attention to where students see those pinch points and try to get creative with chairs within CCOM in ways that we can alleviate those stresses.

TBC: Is there a plan for faculty hiring at this point?

JV: It’s day two [laugh]. Honestly, I still need to get a read on where these pinch points and these stress points are and then do my best to advocate on behalf of CCOM and students to get us the resources we need. That’s ultimately my job. As far as plans, I don’t mean to be flip and funny, but it is day two, so it’s kind of hard to say that I’ve got a firm plan because I still need to listen and hear what people tell me are the issues. 

TBC: There has been talk of removing the foreign language requirement for CCOM majors. Do you know anything with that yet?

JV: It’s funny; when I interviewed, I had an interview panel with students, and one of the students but she gave, from my mind, the most clear, succinct and impressive answer to [counter] an argument for eliminating the foreign language requirement. 

Now, I say all this to say I don’t have a position on it yet. I need to hear what the faculty have to say and what students have to say, so I can’t say that something’s going to happen or it’s not going to happen. I don’t know. 

But I do know that on this particular topic, when I interviewed, I was so impressed with a student who articulated that the foreign language requirement isn’t necessarily about learning a language specifically; it’s about problem-solving … 

So I think there are some students who see value in it. Clearly, from the panel of students that I had in the room, there [are] differences of opinion on that. It’s important to hear out everybody’s thought process on it. I think that there are good cases on both sides, and I just need to get more engaged in hearing about what those issues are, but ultimately, the faculty get to really have a strong hand in this, and I need to listen to what they have to say as well. 

Again, don’t know what’s going to happen with it, don’t know if anything is going to change or it’s not. And I don’t want to make any promises. I can only say that on that particular topic, I was so impressed with the student discussion and thought process behind the requirement. It actually is one of the reasons I was even more excited to come here, was how impressive the students were at talking about it.

TBC: And what do you want students to know about you?

JV: That I want to know them, that I want to be here for them. That’s one thing. Two is that my level of excitement to be here is super high. 

It’s funny; we did a game at our [CCOM] Christmas party … It was tell us two things about you people don’t know, so I’ll give you what I submitted because I think it speaks to the personal. I own about 2000 comic books, and I also have a Big East championship ring. If people want the stories behind those, they can come and see me. 

I have my family; I have an eight year old who loves basketball, loves coming to college campuses, so he’ll be around. I’m invested in Butler from the start, and I’m excited to be here. 

TBC: And anything else you’d like to say? 

JV: Go Dawgs.


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