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Laney Graduate School dean to step down at close of academic year

Under Dean Lisa Tedesco’s leadership, Laney Graduate School undertook structural changes informed by best practices and a focus on institutionalizing metrics for program evaluation and accountability, developed innovative programs and educational infrastructure, promoted faculty governance and highlighted the importance of graduate student mentoring.

In her 15th year of leadership at Emory, Lisa A. Tedesco, dean of the Laney Graduate School and vice provost for academic affairs — graduate studies, has announced that she will step down at the end of the 2020–2021 academic year.

At Commencement this year, as an indication of the Emory community’s gratitude for her service, Tedesco received the Thomas Jefferson Award, which honors faculty and staff who have significantly enriched the intellectual and civic life of the university through personal activities, influence and leadership, usually over the course of many years.

Arriving at Emory in 2006 and also accepting an appointment as professor in what is now the Department of Behavioral, Social and Health Education Sciences in Rollins School of Public Health, Tedesco found a graduate school very different from the one she will be leaving.

In recognizing  her accomplishments, Jan Love, interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, notes, “Dean Tedesco has led the Laney Graduate School during an extraordinary period of institutional stabilization, initiation of best practices, and growth and development of student-centered programming.”

During Tedesco’s tenure, Love adds, “Laney Graduate School has pursued its core mission, training intellectual leaders across a broad range of fields, with vigor and attention to principles and programs that have made Emory a recognized leader in graduate education. I know that the Emory community, especially our graduate students present and past — all of us beneficiaries of her vision — join me in thanking her for her manifold contributions.” 

In addition to her service as dean, in spring of this year Tedesco became a key contributing member of Emory’s Academic Continuity Group, which coordinated university response to COVID-19. More recently, Tedesco has played a significant role in helping the university community safely return to campus during the pandemic. Says Love, “Dean Tedesco leads the onboarding committee’s work, which enables members of our community — students, faculty, staff and researchers — to continue to fulfill Emory’s academic mission. We are grateful for the enormous contributions she has made to helping maintain the health and safety of our community in mitigating the impact of COVID-19.” 

The arc of a memorable career

With Tedesco at the helm, Laney Graduate School undertook structural changes informed by best practices and a focus on institutionalizing metrics for program evaluation and accountability, developed innovative programs and educational infrastructure, promoted faculty governance and highlighted the importance of graduate student mentoring.

Tedesco defines the strategy that guided her, saying, “To get visible, we had to institute best practices for doctoral and master’s education. We had to make the best commitments to funding and other resources and the programmatic activities that serve graduate students. It was about how programs could work together to make a greater footprint for the intellectual and research space.”

Recognizing the need for competitive financial support in order to recruit the best students, Tedesco fully funded competitive five-year stipends for doctoral students; established full health coverage for them; expanded opportunities for grant writing and public scholarship for students in the humanities and social sciences; created a revamped system for professional development funding for research, conference attendance, skills and languages training; and redesigned the school’s Teaching Assistant Training and Teaching Opportunity teaching program.

One of Tedesco’s chief goals has been to increase transparency in student academic requirements and to ensure fair and uniform application of standards and policies governing student progress while accounting for variable levels of students’ support needs. In that quest, she has directed efforts to increase funding for student affairs and international student support, career planning, as well as other student-facing services that promote broad student success.

A strong proponent of diversity and inclusion, Tedesco insists that in order to achieve excellence, graduate schools need to recruit students whose different and creative pathways will enrich the scholarly enterprise and allow researchers to apply contemporary methods to the most pressing intellectual problems of the day. In 2017, Laney Graduate School created the Centennial Scholars Program to recruit excellent students from underrepresented backgrounds. The following year, the school recruited its inaugural class of Women in Natural Sciences (WINS) scholars. Both Centennial and WINS scholars have access to cohort-building programs intended to build community and promote student success.

Penelope Howards, associate professor of epidemiology at Rollins School of Public Health and immediate past chair of the Laney Graduate School Executive Council, first worked with Tedesco when she was director of graduate studies for the Epidemiology Program. “The dean has continuously evaluated ways to increase the diversity and inclusiveness of graduate education, to expand opportunities to prepare graduates for varied and evolving careers beyond academia, to encourage cross-disciplinary collaborations, to enhance mentorship of current students, and to strengthen the reputation of our graduate programs,” Howards says. “Her leadership style has enthusiastically celebrated the successes of current students, faculty and alumni while simultaneously building a strong foundation that anticipates future needs in graduate education.”

Change over time

In 2019, Laney Graduate School launched a yearlong series of lectures to celebrate its centennial. In 1919, the first year of graduate education at Emory, 36 master’s students were enrolled in the school. Today, the graduate school has a population of close to 2,000 students pursuing doctoral and master’s degrees in more than 40 program areas across the humanities, social sciences, biomedical and natural sciences, public health, sciences, nursing and business. Three new master’s programs and three new doctoral programs were developed during Tedesco’s tenure.

The flowering of graduate education at Emory is part of the extraordinary story of the contribution of leading universities to the national and global research agendas. Graduate education at Emory, as at our peers, fuels economic development, medical advances, scientific discoveries, cultural understandings and social transformations. 

In 2009, the Board of Trustees marked the centrality of graduate education in Emory’s rise as a leading research university by naming the graduate school in honor of President James T. Laney, the university’s 17th president, who guided Emory through a seminal period of growth between 1977 and 1993. Naming the school for Laney was enormously meaningful to Tedesco, who continues to be inspired by his example and his belief that it was through faculty excellence and a commitment to graduate education that schools such as Emory would become top-tier research universities. 

Laney notes, “Dean Lisa Tedesco leaves a remarkable legacy of accomplishment as she retires from her 15 years as head of the graduate school. She has led with a compelling vision and determination that Emory should be acknowledged nationally for its graduate programs. That she achieved that enviable goal is attested by the recognition she has personally received from other graduate deans across the country these past several years and the respect she is accorded at home. Emory can justly be proud and grateful for all she has done for the university during her exceptional tenure as dean.”

Scholar and higher education leader

Tedesco came to Emory from the University of Michigan, where she served in leadership positions, including vice president and secretary of the university, interim provost and professor in the School of Dentistry.

Highly visible in national leadership, Tedesco has held leadership positions in three major national organizations in graduate education, including serving on the board of the Council of Graduate Schools (2009–2013) and as chair (2011–2012); as a member of the Association of Graduate Schools/AAU Executive Committee (2010–2015) and as president (2013–2014); and as a member of the GRE board (2009–2014) and as chair (2012–2013).

In September 2021, Tedesco will turn her attention to a well-earned sabbatical and a number of special projects. As she transitions from the deanship, she reflects, “It has been a great privilege to work with the faculty, staff and students of Laney Graduate School as well as university leadership, alumni and friends in the final years of graduate education’s first century at Emory. I have every confidence that the next century will bring even greater recognition of Emory’s eminence and acknowledgment of Laney Graduate School’s role in achieving the university’s ambitions.”


The search process for the next dean of the graduate school is under way and will be managed by Heidrick & Struggles. Mary Anne Bobinski, dean of the School of Law, will chair the Search Advisory Committee. More details will be forthcoming.

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