Nancy Busch was a 22-year-old instructor at a Canadian university when she got the first intimation of the role she would one day play in higher education. A mentor told her she was going to end up as a dean.
That was before she had received her doctorate, before she built a body of scholarship, before she became a full professor, before she really knew what a dean did. Her reaction at the time was “no way.”
Today, however, she embraces the role of dean, calling it “one of the greatest positions in a university”—a leadership role that, in some ways, mirrors the joys and satisfactions of being a full-time scholar.
For nine years she has been dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) at Fordham University in the Bronx, a role that entails constant learning about all academic fields. This duty is amplified by other, additional roles she has taken on in recent years. As chief research officer at Fordham and associate vice president for academic affairs, she advances research throughout the university while learning about finance, branding, leadership and other business skills.
Busch and other deans are playing leadership roles in promoting Excelsior | Ever Upward | The Campaign for Fordham, and she’s enjoying the challenge of explaining various research endeavors in layman’s terms.
Today, she has a new perspective on being a dean.
“To a certain extent, you continue to be a student forever,” Busch said. “You’re interviewing faculty members and learning about their cutting-edge research as you interview them. You’re talking with students and finding out about what’s going on with their classes, with their research. It’s like somebody designed this program of lifelong learning for you, and it’s your job.”
Still, Busch understands the ambivalence felt by faculty members who are asked to step beyond the classroom to serve as administrators. She felt it herself. Her academic interests first took root in her high school years, in Denver, when she joined the federal Head Start program in its first summer as a volunteer in a preschool classroom.
Busch saw how children’s lives could be improved by intervening in their earliest years. She became captivated by new research in child development and developmental psychology that showed the possibilities for improving the lives of low-income children.
She went on to earn two degrees in four years—a bachelor’s degree from Scripps College and a master’s in human development from a program jointly run by Wayne State University and the Merrill Palmer Institute. She had written an undergraduate thesis, but insisted on writing one for her master’s as well, saying, “I wanted to learn how to do it better.” After teaching for three years in Ontario at the University of Guelph, Busch went on to start her doctorate at age 25.
Today, her leadership style is informed by this same scholarly verve.
“A relentless advocate for faculty, unfailingly collegial, and uncompromising in her intellectual standards, Dean Busch leads by being the kind of scholar others seek to emulate,” said Fr. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham. “Both in her role as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and as Fordham’s chief research officer, Nancy Busch has done a masterful job of promoting rigorous scholarship informed with Jesuit principles.”
She conveys an openness to learning about all academic disciplines and a concern for the big picture, said one of Busch’s fellow deans.
“In meetings, she’s always the one to say, ‘Let’s think about the broader perspective,’” said Donna Rapaccioli, dean of the Fordham University College of Business Administration. “She thinks about the totality of the decision, and not just the micro aspects.”
Busch’s academic field, human development, lends itself to cross-disciplinary thinking. It is a broad field, centered in psychology but touching on sociology, biology, nutrition and other areas of knowledge. She came to Fordham in 1983 as a lecturer in the Graduate School of Education and a research associate at the university’s Hispanic Resource Center. She became psychology department chair in 1991 and was named associate dean of GSAS in 1996 before becoming dean in 2000.
Busch’s current efforts include generating more research funding and opportunities for younger faculty, as well as bringing more recognition to research at Fordham and its student-centered approach.
While universities are sometimes categorized as teaching-focused or research-focused, Fordham integrates the two by pursuing research in ways that best develop the abilities of students, she said.
She drew a comparison to the view in developmental psychology that what is good for the child is good for the family, and vice versa. What’s good for students and faculty is also good for the university as a whole, according to Busch.
She misses human development research, but has found other satisfactions, mainly, empowering faculty by helping them secure research funding or build academic programs.
“She is gracious in promoting faculty accomplishments and tough minded in following the data wherever they lead, whether in her own research, or in administering the university’s robust research program,” Fr. McShane said. “Her concern for others, and her openness to self examination, make her a leader in the best Jesuit tradition.”