Generous, Compassionate, Forward-Thinking, Skilled: Colleagues Pay Tribute to Thomas C. DeFranco

DeFranco 1

After five years as dean of the Neag School of Education, Thomas C. DeFranco, Ph.D., has returned to life as a full-time mathematics professor in both the Neag School and the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

Known for what Institute for Teaching & Learning (ITL) Assistant Professor in Residence Amit Savkar calls the “three Cs”—a commitment to education, compassion towards faculty and concern for students—DeFranco has been recognized numerous times since his arrival at UConn in 1991. Among other awards, in 2001 he was named a University Teaching Fellow, one of UConn’s highest honors, and in 2008 he received a Teaching Innovation Award from the American Association of University Professors’ Connecticut chapter. His vision and creativity also played key roles in the Neag School being chosen as a Teachers for a New Era site and receiving a major grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Last year, the care and detail he put into recruiting and hiring 17 new faculty members—all of them proven or emerging leaders in their areas of expertise—also received recognition, as did the charge he gave them and the Neag School’s already exemplary, existing faculty members: to work together “to refocus and re-envision not just how we want to move forward as a school, but how we want to impact educational practices and policies overall. The scholars we now have in place have the potential to make a huge difference in improving the way students learn and, perhaps even more importantly, the way they live,” DeFranco said.

Many colleagues and friends say DeFranco’s dedication to closing the achievement gap and affecting meaningful, nationwide education reform will become part of his legacy and earn him praise for years to come. However, equally significant are the lives he’s touched.

Thomas DeFranco provides guidance to his former student and protege, Amit Savkar.
Thomas DeFranco provides guidance to his former student and protege, Amit Savkar.

“Tom is the reason I have chosen to be in education,” added Savkar, ITL’s assistant director of faculty development. The two met when Savkar was a graduate student enrolled in a pedagogy class DeFranco was teaching. “He is my guru. I am now pursuing a second Ph.D. in education as a result of his inspiration. I would consider it a success if I can be 1/100th of the teacher Tom is today.”

From Thomas DeFranco, in sharing his thoughts to the faculty and staff. “As I transition back to the faculty I wanted to let you know how fortunate I have been to work along side all of you and serve as dean of the Neag School. Your warm wishes and notes over the past few months not only touched me but also served as a reminder as to why we do our jobs. I am very proud of what we all have accomplished over the past few years and the best is yet to come. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for all that you have done to make this a great school and great place to work.”

Here are just a few of the others who have been impacted by DeFranco’s expertise, drive and caring:

Former UConn President Philip Austin: Tom’s overall leadership and coordination of the project that led to the Neag School being designated one of 11 “Teachers for a New Era” institution allowed me to observe his substantial intellectual and program development talents. I learned to respect him greatly, as well as saw why he is widely known and respected across campus. I have enjoyed working with Tom over the years and thank him for his contributions to the Neag School and the university overall.

Emanuel Makiaris, UConn graduate and creator of the Neag School’s Irene and Emanuel Makiaris Scholarship: When Irene and I first met Tom to discuss establishing a scholarship for the benefit of deserving Neag School of Education students, we were immediately impressed with how easily we were able to relate to, and be comfortable with, Tom. He has always been personable, engaging, approachable, unpretentious—truly a what-you-see-is-what-you-get person. One of Tom’s most endearing characteristics is the pride he takes in Neag students. If you have some time on your hands, ask him to talk about the young people under his tutelage. He will be glad to tell you! One of our greatest pleasures has been meeting the scholarship recipients and their families. Their unbelievable enthusiasm and appreciation for their Neag experience are enduring testaments to Tom.

UConn School of Pharmacy Dean Emeritus and Professor of Pharmacy Practice Robert McCarthy: Whenever I talk to somebody in the U.S. about teacher preparation programs, they know about the Neag School and the exceptional leadership Tom has provided. He is a down-to-earth person who has accomplished so much. Dedication to purpose has been a hallmark of his career. He also embodies the caring we would want in all higher education leaders. I think he will be remembered by his students as their “best” and “favorite” teacher. I can think of no better legacy.

Provost Emeritus Peter Nicholls: I spent a lot of time with Tom in the early part of 2007, when a group of us went to Dubai and spent several days working with Dubai Education Council members on the possibility of establishing a UConn branch in the United Arab Emirates. They were very interested in possible education coursework and certificates we might be able to offer, and Tom’s expertise was invaluable as we worked up proposals. Ultimately, our plans for a Dubai campus did not materialize. But the visit was a success, and Tom’s contributions were crucial to that. He is also incredibly committed to students. Many administrators who teach take on small-enrollment graduate courses, or a class for select undergraduates in the honors program. Not Tom. Even while serving as dean, he regularly taught a monster section of Calculus involving hundreds of undergraduates and the coordination of many graduate teaching assistants. He also found time to express a great deal of concern for the individual students in his class. One of Tom’s students told me he was the best and most caring math instructor she had ever encountered.

Associate Professor of Mathematics Megan Staples: One of my first memories of Tom was probably the second time I met him, at a Psychology of Mathematics Education-North American Chapter conference. I was not yet working at UConn. I don’t think I had even applied yet. My dad had died about a month before, and Tom had somehow learned this. I remember being quite touched as he went out of his way to offer me condolences in a very sincere, heartfelt way. I did not know Tom well at that point, and our relationship did not require any interaction around my father’s death. I was both impressed and touched, as I’ve been many times since then. Tom is such a strong member of the Neag family because he has played so many different roles and knows the school up and down, in and out. He has a passion for students and student learning. He is excited to hear about student successes. He quietly roots for them. And he wants students to enjoy, have a good experience and to find power and excitement in ideas. His teaching speaks to this. Even in large lecture halls, he finds ways to engage students.

Associate Professor of Mathematics Mary Truxaw: I met Tom when I was a teacher at Mansfield Middle School and was aspiring to return to graduate school. His encouragement to pursue my Ph.D. shifted my life and my career—and taking classes with him was great. My all-time favorite class was his graduate-level problem solving class. At the time, I was still a full-time teacher and taking classes at night. I would come to class tired, but always left feeling energized. The problems were always challenging, but the class felt like play.  Tom’s enthusiasm for mathematics was and is contagious, perhaps because he believes in what he does and follows up on his beliefs. Tom listens to others and lets them know that he values their ideas. He is remarkably generous with his time. I’m so proud to know him.

Mathematics Professor Emeritus Charles Vinsonhaler: Tom’s accomplishments in teaching, research and service have left an indelible mark of quality on UConn. I met him over 20 years ago, when he began building bridges between the Department of Mathematics and the math education faculty in the Neag School. Working with Tom was like a deep breath of fresh air. He was passionate about student learning—as opposed to a tradition of concern about faculty teaching—and it is not an exaggeration to say that Tom played a major role in changing the culture of the Department of Mathematics with regard to learning and instruction. With me, he coauthored a problem solving textbook for a math course that is running today, 15 years later. Tom was also a partner in developing a pedagogy course for new TAs in the math department and later volunteered to teach large lecture sections of Calculus each semester—a practice he has continued. To say his instruction is well received is a huge understatement. His student evaluations are among the very highest in the Math Department, as well as in the Neag School. Tom has also demonstrated an amazing ability to maintain a high-quality research program in the midst of all his other activities. All this sits atop his massive duties as Dean of the Neag School, the pinnacle of a long string of administrative appointments.

Associate Dean Marijke Kehrhahn: Before I came to UConn I had served in leadership positions in both the public and the non-profit sectors, and so I was excited to accept leadership roles in the Neag School, first as Director of Teacher Education and then as Associate Dean. Little did I know that Tom DeFranco, with whom I have worked side-by-side for the last ten years, would be one of my best mentors in developing my leadership style. Tom is one of the few people I know who truly leads from the heart. Strongly-principled and compassionate, he carefully considers decisions and is most concerned about how decisions will impact people. In many situations where a different leader might have simply made a decision and moved on, Tom met with the individuals who would be affected, considered their views, and developed solutions that balanced the best interests of the Neag School with the human factors. As dean, Tom was also a great example of the popular “management by walking around” approach. He came in early, stayed late, and spent a lot of time roaming the school and talking with faculty, staff, and students. Through these activities he developed a reputation as a caring, dependable, and dedicated leader, well-loved and well-respected. His many accomplishments as dean show that, even in this day of technology, velocity, and complexity, one does not need to sacrifice kindness, empathy, and thoughtfulness to achieve great things.