Chancellor goes to the head of the class — to teach, not just oversee

Posted October 16, 2017

If you have two identical steel buckets that you cannot open but you know one is full of pure water and one is full of pure neutrons, how do you know which bucket has which inside?

This is the critical thinking question Chancellor Dean Van Galen posed to the 20 students in his honors seminar course on Oct. 9.

A group of four freshman girls in the front of the class made the chancellor laugh when they suggested, “Just close the garage door and wait for your wife to handle it.”

Others suggested putting the buckets in the freezer to see if the water would expand.

“Think about an atom and how it’s organized,” Van Galen said, asking the class to step back to consider the question after discussing the answers they came up within their groups.

In the end, group three had the correct answer. They knew that the bucket of neutrons would be extremely heavy.

A former chemistry professor at Truman State University, the chancellor began teaching one section of the Honors Program last fall semester and is doing the same this fall.

“I think it’s important in my role as chancellor to stay connected to students and to stay connected to the teaching and learning process,” Van Galen said.

When the Honors Program was reorganized four years ago, the chancellor mentioned something to Kathleen Hunzer, director of the program, about how the honors seminar sounded interesting to him. She asked if he wanted to teach it, and he said he would think about it. She said she kept asking him until eventually last fall he agreed and taught his first section.

“It’s a different perspective,” Hunzer said. “Everybody thinks of a university chancellor as just going out and shaking hands. I don’t know what people think a chancellor does, but our chancellor is very engaged in students. It gives him that opportunity to connect with them, but it gives them an opportunity to connect with him.”

Out of 600 honors students, only about 20 students have the opportunity to learn from the chancellor in the fall semester. One of them is freshman Melissa Melchar.

“I think it’s beneficial,” she said. “It creates a personal relationship.”

Melchar sat in the front of the class with three other freshmen, Sarah Sweeney, Grace Heimdahl and Madeline Kohn. All four said they felt lucky to have the chance to take the course with Van Galen.

“I don’t know anyone else who has an opportunity to have the chancellor as a teacher,” Sweeney said.

“It’s helpful being freshmen having someone that knows so much,” Heimdahl said.

The students aren’t the only ones who feel fortunate.

“I always have enjoyed teaching,”  Van Galen said. “It’s a passion and love of mine so I really enjoy the opportunity to do some teaching.”

But he doesn’t want his title to distract from the coursework.

“I probably am able to bring in some other perspectives in my other role as chancellor, but I really want them to see me as their professor first and not the chancellor when we’re in this room,” he said.

The role of chancellor is tasking in itself. Van Galen is a busy man, but he still makes time to spend two to three hours of his week preparing for the class, which is an introduction to the Honors Program.

Honors 190 focuses on the five pillars of the Honors Program: global engagement and awareness; rhetorical and communication skills; community engagement; sustainability; and undergraduate research, scholarly and creative activity (URSCA).

“The course itself is structured to engage students in those different types of thinking and introduce them to opportunities at River Falls,” Van Galen said.

The Honors Program is designed to allow for each professor to develop his or her course to match their teaching style, as long as all of the pillars are covered.

Van Galen emphasizes collaborative learning and requires his students to attend the Study Abroad Fair and the URSCA gala during the semester.

Honors teachers get a small stipend for teaching the course but Van Galen has chosen not to get paid to spend the extra time teaching this course. His reward is more than monetary.

“I’ve known some other university presidents that do occasionally do some teaching,” he said. “I think for many leaders it’s a very enjoyable part of the job and many presidents and chancellors come from an academic background so it’s very energizing to be back in the classroom.”