Recently a friend and I had a conversation on the messaging service WhatsApp about mobile phone charging cables:


I’ll have to visit There’s Research on That! to see if my hunch is correct about mobile phone charging cables causing problems in folks’ ability to fully use their phones and stay connected with friends and family…

The spring of 2000 was the second semester of my first year as a new assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s General College. At the end of that semester one of my students — Andy “A-Ron” Winger — asked me to check out his rap music album, which I very much enjoyed. Over the years I’ve listened to all of his albums, solo as well as with others (including one made with a student from one of my classes in my very first semester in the fall of 1999!). A-Ron has recently released his latest album, Covered in Dust. It contains many social justice themes that are very relevant in a week that saw massive calls for police reform. Check it out!

Today is July 1, 2016, and it marks the start of my fourth year as a dean. In a few days (July 6) I’ll be entering my second year as the Dean of the SJSU College of Social Sciences. So since I’m not really a new dean anymore I’ll have to change the title of this blog! In the meantime, I found one unpublished post from last July, just after I started at SJSU. It’s about mistakes new deans make; I’ll paste that into this post. Thanks to everyone who helped me avoid these problems!

Inside Higher Education recently published an essay on the “5 Mistakes of Rookie Deans.” Although focusing on the experiences of business school deans, Dean Eli Jones’ advice is widely applicable. He notes that the following mistakes land deans in hot water:

  • Underestimating the knowledge, skills, and abilities it takes to do the job well.
  • Overestimating the power and influence one has in the role.
  • Lacking sufficient knowledge about managing oneself.
  • Lacking sufficient knowledge of how to generate and allocate resources across the enterprise.
  • Underappreciating the art and science of relationship building.

A comment from “stinkcat” adds two more mistakes: “Before you make significant decisions take time to understand the culture of the place. Also, in the minds of faculty you work for them, they don’t work for you. Forget that at your peril.” I would add one more that’s informed by my social science background: do not forget the importance of social structure in enabling success. If one wants to build a truly collaborative environment, for example, s/he needs to create mechanisms that bring folks together and make sure that action items get accomplished. For example, here at the SJSU College of Social Sciences the department chairs will have two regularly scheduled collective meetings per month, one with the dean group [dean, associate dean, “decanal fellow” (last year’s interim dean who is assisting me with the transition), and the college’s budget manager] where we address issues that are usually externally imposed, and one without the dean group present where the chairs can share best practices and also generate new ideas without worrying about the initial reaction of the dean before polishing them to take to the next chairs/dean group meeting.

Dean Jones notes that deans are asked to “chart a course for our organizations in the midst of continuous change, to train and motivate our employees, and to develop innovative solutions for a constantly evolving marketplace.” Mistakes are bound to happen, but we deans can minimize them by keeping the above guidelines in mind.

The Atlantic has posted an interesting story about What3Words, a British startup firm that has divided the earth into 57,000,000,000,000 [57 trillion] three by three meter squares, and assigned a three-word name to each square in order to map physical locations. One of the squares that identifies my office, for instance, is galaxy.mental.yarn. Mongolia is the first country that has signed up to use the scheme as its official postal system. It will be interesting to see if other countries follow suit.

In February 2016 I posted a note about a forthcoming website called “Blackasotan,” which highlights stories about the intersection of race and place. Blackasotan was launched today (June 15, 2016)!  The inaugural edition includes my submission, 30 Years a Minnesotan. As with many publications, some edits were made for the piece to conform to their standards. Below is my original submission, in case anyone wants to compare the two versions.

30 Years a Minnesotan

“There are White kids working at McDonalds!” That was my initial race-tinged observation during my first trip to Minnesota, in the summer of 1986 between graduation from high school in Atlanta, GA, and the start of college, also in Atlanta. I lived in St. Paul that summer while working as an engineering intern at 3M in Maplewood. Well, I didn’t really do much “engineering” work since I had not yet taken any engineering classes, but that’s a story for another day…

After growing up in all-Black neighborhoods in the South, spending three months in mostly White surroundings for the first time as an 18-year old was quite the adjustment. In addition to marveling at White workers serving me at fast food restaurants, I was shocked to see White and Asian American folks in public housing complexes, and was stunned when my count of Cadillacs seen around the Twin Cities did not reach double digits. Of course, this was probably due more to rear-wheel drive Cadillacs of the 1980s not being practical choices for Minnesota winters, but they were everywhere back home on the Black side of town.

The first summer in Minnesota also featured the third time I was called nigger to my face. The first two times were at Boy Scout camps (!); the third time was while sitting in a car at a stoplight on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. I was the passenger with the window down, and an elderly woman started screaming it at me. She also gave me the finger…and might have mooned me too. I’m fuzzy on whether or not the mooning happened as an exclamation to her tantrum, but the verbal taunting and finger pointing were traumatizing enough. The White driver (an intern from California) might have been even more shocked, though, as he went out of his way to do nice things for me over the next few weeks.

Aside from that Snelling Avenue encounter my racialized experiences in Minnesota have been mostly positive. For instance, I had my first significant discussions about race with White folks that summer. In high school there were 1600 students, and all but four were Black. Of the four, three were White boys, and the fourth was a recent Vietnamese immigrant, Tuan Le [I wonder what ever happened to him?]. One of the White guys was in my clique of five, but we never overtly discussed race. While working at 3M and living in a residence hall in Hamline University I made friends with more than one White person for the first time, and began to explore questions that eventually led me to abandon engineering for a career as a sociology professor. One person from that initial summer has been a friend ever since, and several folks from my second year as an intern at 3M during the summer of 1987 are life-long comrades to this day.

I saw my Minnesota friends at least once a year between 1986 and 1998. In 1999 I moved to Minneapolis when I became a professor at the University of Minnesota. One of the difficulties many transplants report is adjusting to “Minnesota Nice,” how everyone is very polite on the surface, but it’s hard to break into friendship circles, and get folks to open up about deep topics. I loved Minnesota from the start since my experience was the opposite: I made lasting friendships seemingly immediately, and was able to quickly establish enough trust to talk about difficult topics, such as race. My new friends also helped me overcome my homophobia.

One would think that moving from an all-Black environment to a mostly-White one would be the opposite of my experience, in that conversations in the former would be much easier than those of the latter. That is indeed the case for many, but I have found that in Minnesota I was able to inhabit a more expansive place regarding racial identity. “Say what, professor?” Let me give you an example.

One summer in my second or third year at The U I was walking behind Appleby Hall on the East Bank when a car pulled over and the driver (a Black man) asked me for directions to Chicago Avenue. The passenger (a Black woman) started laughing when I prefaced my answer with “Let’s see.” “Did he just say ‘let’s see’?!” she chuckled as she winked at the driver. He nodded; he knew, and she knew, and I knew that her implication was “does this guy really know how to get to the section of Chicago Ave. where Black people live? He sounds like a White guy.” In the South my Blackness was questioned more times than I count, whereas this encounter is the only memory of overt identity boundary work in Minnesota I can recall.

Now I’m not saying that Minnesota exists in some sort of post-racial utopia where everyone gets along. On the contrary, there is way too much work ahead of us, as evidenced by recent reports about Black-White achievement gaps, and attacks on Black Lives Matter activists in North Minneapolis, for example. I am suggesting that there is a willingness by progressive Minnesotans to think about race in new ways, so the path forward is not as steep as in other places.

The author Touré begins the book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What it Means to be Black Now with an anecdote about an encounter with Black men in a diner. After learning that he was in town to do a story about skydiving, they tell him, “Brother, Black people don’t do that.” Touré notes that if he had listened to such internal community admonishment in the past he would have missed out on what he describes as a spiritual and life-changing experience. I very much appreciate Minnesota because in my experience there involved less policing of boundaries about what it means to be Black, from both Black and non-Black friends.

Later in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? Touré discusses how there are countless ways to be Black, and argues that we should celebrate them all. I think that I unofficially began to think of myself as a Minnesotan in the summer of 1986 after learning that the land of 10,000 lakes also helped me see that there were 10,000 ways to be Black there. I was officially a Minnesotan while I lived there from 1999 through 2013. It was then very easy to maintain an identity as a Minnesotan while living in Wisconsin for two years from 2013 to 2015. [Oh, there are so many ways!] In 2015 I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, but now in 2016 I have changed my Facebook hometown status form Atlanta to Minneapolis. In a way, then, June will mark the end of my 30th year as a Minnesotan. I might not ever reside in the state again, but I hope to call myself a Minnesotan for at least 30 more years…



Walt Jacobs is the Dean of the College of Social Sciences at San José State University. He physically resided in Minnesota for 14 years as a professor at the University of Minnesota from 1999-2013, but has loved it for 30 years, starting as a college student intern in the summer of 1986.




Facebook has recently been accused of censoring conservative political commentary in users’ newsfeeds. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting graphic that addresses a corollary issue: the newsfeeds of liberal and conservative usesrs are very different. Wow!

In the 2015-2016 academic year there were two new Department Chairs in my college. The Associate Dean and I had a group check in lunch with them back in January (along with a second-year Chair who also wanted to be included), and today we all had a second group lunch. We discussed both the pleasant surprises they experienced and the challenges they faced. Next year there will be four new Chairs, so we asked the group today about ideas for having monthly check ins. They came up with great suggestions. I look forward to using their ideas along with info from CCAS Seminars for Department Chairs [I was a Director last year]. Department Chairs are key players in the effective operation of colleges and universities, so providing them with tools and support to be successful is one of the highest priorities for Deans. Many thanks to all of the Department Chairs out there!

In previous entries I’ve posted commentaries on my last commencement ceremonies at the University of Minnesota, my first commencement ceremony at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and thoughts on apprehension about reading names at commencement ceremonies. Now here at SJSU I have a new experience: attending multiple departmental ceremonies! SJSU has one big official commencement in the football stadium on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, but many academic units have smaller, more intimate ceremonies. The first College of Social Sciences department ceremony was yesterday, when I gave brief opening remarks at an event for sociology graduates, and shook hands with a hundred or so students as they crossed the stage. It was an enjoyable experience, but I might have to investigate the possibility of wearing sneakers with my regalia if I’ll be standing for that long at other events…

A few days ago I had a conversation with a friend about why African Americans usually vote for Democratic candidates given that they initially heavily favored Republicans after gaining the right to vote. “The Al Smith Shift” popped into my mind. I remembered this from a freshman year lecture in one of my political sciences classes at Georgia Tech. That was in 1986-1987…almost 30 years ago (!). Anyway, the professor noted that Alfred Smith was the 1928 Democratic nominee for U.S. President. He lost the election, but some of his ideas were attractive to African American voters, so they cast a large number of votes for him. His policy proposals were later adopted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the New Deal, so African Americans continued to vote for Democrats. Well, at least I think that this is what the professor said. A Google search for “Al Smith Shift” or “Alfred Smith Shift” does not turn up any direct evidence to support my memory. The book Blacks in the New Deal: The Shift from an Electoral Tradition and Its Legacy appears in the list of general results, however, so I’ll have to check that out. If anyone has any information that can help me determine the veracity of my memory please share it!

UPDATE: Professor Garrick Percival writes, “Check out this link which offers some good insights: Assuming this is accurate, it seems like Smith’s record on racial issues was something of mixed bag. He made overtures toward black voters and spoke to issues of importance, but he was also really concerned about alienating the white Democratic vote in the south. It looks like he garnered some fairly impressive vote totals in southern majority-black counties but I suspect this doesn’t say a whole lot given the high levels of black disenfranchisement at the time. It doesn’t look like he did all that well among black voters in the northern urban cities.” Thank you, Dr. Percival!

The College of Social Sciences Dean’s Profile web page concludes with “[a] non-academic passion for Walt is science fiction movies and television. He has hosted informal discussions of The X‑Files, and is currently a fan of Orphan Black on BBC America.” Today in the conference room the “Dean Team” — me, the Associate Dean, the two previous Associate Deans, and the Academic Resources Manager — gathered in the conference room to watch Orphan Black‘s premiere episode, which introduces the show’s fascinating exploration of the ethical, technological, and social scientific implications of human cloning. After the inevitable streaming video glitches were fixed I was able to introduce three folks to a great show, and remind the fourth person about it (she has not seen anything since season 2; we are now in season 4). We could not have too much discussion afterwards, as it’s hard to avoid spoilers, so we’ll have to gather again after they finish binge-watching season 1!