Mary Kalantzis: A leader through service

by the College of Education at Illinois   /   Oct 07, 2016

Mary Kalantzis

The journey of Mary Kalantzis thus far has been an unlikely one. The duck-chasing little girl who was born in a subsistence village in Greece has twice been an immigrant—first with her parents to Australia, where she grew up and became the first person in her family to obtain a college education, and then to the U.S.

During her career, Kalantzis has become a highly cited and well-respected scholar and has assumed numerous leadership positions in education, both in Australia and more recently as one of the longest-serving deans of the College of Education at Illinois. She returned to her faculty position this August after 10 years of leading the College.

Drawn to Illinois

Becoming dean of the College of Education was a role Kalantzis never expected or sought, but Illinois pursued her. She had an international reputation in new literacy studies, focusing on multimodality and diversity in contemporary communications. Reflecting on her first encounter with a headhunter for Illinois, Kalantzis said: “I was happy as a dean and professor in Australia. So I declined.”

But the university kept pursuing her. Kalantzis in turn asked to interview a range of campus leaders to find out whom she would be working and collaborating with. Alignment of vision and purpose mattered to her beyond any career considerations.

After a visit to Urbana-Champaign with her husband, Professor Bill Cope, Kalantzis wondered how anyone could walk away from a job offer from the College of Education at Illinois, which has been a major influence worldwide.  

“My thinking was that if we want to make a positive difference, build on what we had achieved in Australia, this College in this University was the place to be. You do not leave your country and family easily—it has to matter beyond yourself.” 

Motivated to work with others

Kalantzis’s style as a leader has never been to go it alone and direct from “on high.” She sees and values the strengths in others and focuses her vision based on how those assets can meet the needs and mission of the College.

“What has always motivated me has been working with others to create the ideas, the tools, and the conditions that could deliver on the promise of education for all, across the lifespan and irrespective of background,” she said.

Kalantzis has led two inclusive, faculty-driven planning exercises: a strategic plan in 2006 and a scenario-planning exercise in 2014. These processes helped form initiatives aimed at improving STEM education, advocacy surrounding the future of public education, and the exploration of ubiquitous learning.

Along the way, three departments came together to form the intellectual powerhouse now known as the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership. Additionally, shared services were introduced under Kalantzis’s tenure to streamline administration. Eighteen stellar new faculty members were recruited, adding new kinds of expertise and supplementing others across all academic units, resulting in the doubling of research outputs.

Thanks to the efforts of Kalantzis, the College has invested in cutting-edge new classrooms that are the envy of campus. Meanwhile, ties with alumni have grown stronger. In addition, the former dean has championed and facilitated the Illinois Learning Science Design Initiative, which has broke ground with one of the New Strategic Investment Initiatives outlined in the 2013 Visioning Future Excellence at Illinois Outcomes Report.

“We want to invent and test new tools rather than getting them from Apple or Pearson and massaging them for our purposes,” Kalantzis said. “This university can invent those tools, and finally our College is in that partnership.”

Kalantzis also brought to the forefront the value that the College must judge itself in part by the positive impact it has on local schools and within the community. In that spirit, the Center for Education in Small Urban Communities has served nearly 15,000 students since its inception, fostering partnerships with local schools to enhance the performance of learners.

In 2008, Kalantzis founded the biennial Youth Literature Festival, which brings award-winning authors to area schools in a three-day event that culminates with a celebration featuring author panels, activities for kids, and performances. “We work with all schools and libraries within a 70-mile radius, reaching 60,000 kids,” Kalantzis said.

A fruitful 10 years

Kalantzis’s 10 years as dean are a long time in a field where change has proven to be the norm and transitions are swift.

“In my 10 years, I’ve had 10 regimes in the form of different combinations of presidents, chancellors, and provosts,” she said.

Her tenure as dean, by comparison, was long and productive.

“To parachute in an outsider to lead a College is a risk for both sides,” Kalantzis said. “But the University wanted an outsider, someone who was going to take this iconic College and make it relevant for the future. That was the task.”

Such ambitious goals came with specific challenges, one of them being financial. Kalantzis said she and her colleagues have achieved extraordinary gains within a very difficult financial context. Nonetheless, new metrics and financial frameworks for accountability have forced the College to absorb significant serial cuts during the last decade.

“The College of Education is unique at Illinois because its graduate and undergraduate populations are roughly the same size. This, of course, has enabled it to have some of the highest-ranking programs in the University. We graduate more students of diverse backgrounds than any of our peer colleges. I worked on a number of fronts within the system, establishing the value of the College anew with each new leader, expanding collaborations across campus and attracting alternative revenues through new program offerings.”

Leading a collaborative effort, remaining focused on the mission

The changes that Kalantzis strived for when she became dean have come about through a persistent, Collegewide effort. Some of her proudest achievements have revolved around helping establish a wider collaboration beyond the College and expanding meaningful interdisciplinary research.

“We have successfully collaborated with campus because we can’t solve the problems of education on our own,” she said.

Kalantzis’s role may have changed, but her energy and enthusiasm for learning, teaching, and leadership have not. This fall she is teaching an online master’s course and taking American history classes taught by Jim Anderson and Chris Span.

“I was trained as a historian,” she said. “I want to see how great American teachers teach in this domain so I can join them.”

Collaborating with on-campus teams, Kalantzis and Cope will continue working on the challenges that traditional assessment presents for curriculum and learner pathways. They have raised more than $7 million in research and development grants from the Institute of Educational Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and the Gates Foundation to create and test new digital spaces that enable “assess-as-you-go” solutions. This has morphed into the Scholar platform that now has nearly 150,000 users worldwide, from grade four to higher education.

In addition to numerous scholarly articles, Kalantzis and Cope have published two books since coming to Illinois: New Learning (Cambridge University Press, 2008/2012) and Literacies (Cambridge University Press, 2012/2016).

Kalantzis believes that land-grant universities are jewels in the U.S., engines of prosperity, engines of inclusive sociality, and engines of innovation. The missions of such institutions of higher education are unique, and she believes scholars must not lose sight of them.

It is this mission, in part, that drew Kalantzis to Illinois—and it continues to motivate her.


Read "A Celebration of 10 Years of Leadership and Collaboration 2006-2016," the final blog post from Mary Kalantzis during her tenure as dean.