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Meet Carol Padden, Dean of Social Sciences

Carol Padden

Photo by Erik Jepsen, UC San Diego Publications

Carol Padden, Dean of Social Sciences, Sanford I. Berman Chair in Language and Human Communication

A longtime member of the UC San Diego community – first as a graduate student, then as a faculty member and, most recently, as an administrator too – Carol Padden is a MacArthur “Genius” Award-winning scholar of sign languages. She was named the division’s fourth dean in June 2014, after an extensive national search. Her appointment began Oct. 1.

Among the first cohort to be hired into UC San Diego’s department of communication, Padden has been on the faculty since 1983, when she earned her Ph.D. from the university’s department of linguistics. Padden, who holds the Sanford I. Berman Chair in Language and Human Communication, is an affiliate member of the Center for Research in Language, the Human Development Program and the department of education studies. She served as associate dean and faculty equity advisor in the Division of Social Sciences from 2008 to 2013. In early 2014, she was tapped to be the university’s interim vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion.

Padden’s main areas of research are language emergence, sign language structure, and cultural life in deaf communities. She plays a central role in promoting research on sign languages around the world and in shaping policy and practices that promote the full participation of deaf people in society.

As dean, Padden leads a dynamic and highly ranked academic division spanning 10 academic departments and 16 interdisciplinary programs and research centers that focus on some of the most pressing and important social issues of our time.

Closed captioning is available for this video.

Q & A

You’ve been part of the UC San Diego community for 36 years. How has the university changed in that time – or has it?

A lot of the qualities of the university seem the same as when I came here and now. The quality, the recognition, the type of faculty we have here feel very much the same. We’re recruiting a lot of the same type of faculty as we did earlier. We look for faculty that like the interdisciplinary nature of the campus, that like working with and partnering with faculty in very different departments. There’s a lot of intellectual ambition on campus – and that part has not changed. Of course the physical campus has grown. It looks different, but in terms of the mission, the ambition, the goals of the university – they still feel the same. The university feels still just as ambitious now as when I came.

Nearly 50 percent of UC San Diego undergrads earn a degree in social sciences. What do you think draws students to these majors?

I think the students that major in social sciences, they’re interested in problems of society, problems of how to get people working together for a common goal. I think for students that might major in physics or biology or engineering but take minors or another major in the social sciences, I think they want a rich view of the world, because the division is dedicated to doing the science of society. We care about the history. We care about ideas, how people think about problems, how people work toward a solution.

What do you consider most distinctive about this university’s Division of Social Sciences?

What I think is most distinctive are the partnerships that our faculty have all over campus. When I first came here, I got my Ph.D. in linguistics and I moved to the communication department. While I was in communication, I continued to work with people in psychology, in cognitive science. I was working with faculty within the division. But now I’m working with faculty outside the division and that’s become quite common. We have permeability across divisions that’s not found in a lot of other places. And that’s unique about the division, as well as the campus.

When students seek you out for advice – graduate and undergraduate – what do you tell them?

I try to get them to talk about what they love, what they care about the most. Sometimes, if you’re just coming out of high school, you’re not sure what you personally care about. You might know what your family or your friends care about. So your time here at UCSD is to discover that about yourself: What is the thing that will become your life’s mission. I always try to get at: What kinds of questions do you keep coming back to? What kind of skills would you like to have? I think it’s okay for people not to be completely articulate about what they want. That’s what an education provides – it gives you direction, tools, a sense of purpose. You’re spending time with people in a way that you may never do again. You want to take that opportunity and give yourself the space and the time to figure out what’s going to drive you as you move on.

The undergraduate years are a period of discovery. As a graduate student, you’ve gone through that. I like to tell graduate students: you know, coming to graduate school is expensive – financially and emotionally. You better be sure you love what you’re doing because it will get you through the frustrations. What will guide you through a graduate program is that focus on the thing that you care about the most.

You’re a renowned scholar. When people introduce you, “MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award winner” is now almost always attached to your name. And you love teaching as much as research. So why go into administration?

Right – you would think I would take the award and, you know, ride off in the sunset. But I think they don’t give the prize to people who will do that. They give the prize to people, I like to think, because they’re constantly looking for new challenges, a kind of new way of thinking about this purpose that I talked about.

My whole life has been about problem solving. When I started graduate school, in 1978, people had a lot of misconceptions about language, not just sign language but about what it means to have language. I became used to explaining things to people, arguing for things, persuading people to do things. So I put that into teaching. And I’ve had a long, very satisfying – and it continues to be – research career. I think somewhere along the line I felt like: Okay, I know how to run a meeting. I know how to manage a group of people. I know how to reach a goal – for a grant or to write a paper. It seemed like administration would be a useful place to put all of these skills to use. This opportunity came along... And for the first month I thought, “Oh God, what have I done?” But it’s feeling good – it’s feeling right.

What is one thing most people don’t know about you?

Well, I think people have figured this out, but: When I started in the field, there weren’t very many people doing work on sign language linguistics. Now, there’s many more. And there was a small group of deaf people like myself working in this field. So I’ve always felt like I’m one of a very small number. So you have a sense of observing the world. I’m a very keen observer – of social practices, of people who are successful communicators, very good at presenting their research and able to talk about a difficult topic in a clear, accessible way. So often when I’m in a meeting, I’m listening but I’m also observing.

What experiences would you say inform you most as a leader?

I think, from the time I was very young, I’ve often been the only one doing what I’m doing. I tend to be drawn to issues of access, issues of participation, inclusion, all of that. I think inclusion doesn’t mean just participation. A lot of people think it means that: It means being there. And I think of inclusion as both being there and also having a voice, having something to say about how things are done and why. People often need encouragement, a sense that a place is welcoming. If you do that for people for whom access is difficult, you open up possibilities of creativity, innovation. I think it helps to regulate the communicative environment, to keep it open, to keep it relevant and to keep it contemporary.

What is your greatest hope for the future of this division? And the university?

We have some new initiatives that we’re developing. And I’d like to really push them up to the next level. We have groups of people working in the area of design, in social mobility, in global health. And all of these things, they represent ways of thinking about what’s socially important about our world – whether we’re trying to create things that will change how people interact with one another, or we’re trying to take something that seems specific to health and medicine and let people see how it’s cultural and social. Fundamentally, the problems of medicine are also social issues: How do people get medicine? How to make it affordable? How can you assure health across your population? These are all social questions. They have very deep cultural implications. And I’d like to move these initiatives to the next level. We also have a lot of new, important, exciting smaller initiatives that are emerging. I’d like to give opportunity for them also.

I think the division needs to be doing several things at the same time: It needs to be pushing its best ideas forward while also providing opportunity, incubating the next generation of ideas. And then we do partnerships with other divisions. That’s part of the way business is done here on campus. Faculty are already doing that. What I do is I try to stay alongside or behind the faculty. I don’t want to be in front, because they always know where to go. So I’m looking for these new opportunities. It’s my job here to create space for them.