Meet the Dean: John Pollard

The weather brought John Pollard to Tucson, but the University's culture and research opportunities have kept him here. In this Meet the Dean feature, learn about Pollard's vision for the W.A. Franke Honors College and his love for music and barbecue.

The weather brought John Pollard to Tucson, but the University's culture and research opportunities have kept him here. In this Meet the Dean feature, learn about Pollard's vision for the W.A. Franke Honors College and his love for music and barbecue.

John Pollard, dean of the W.A. Franke Honors College

John Pollard, dean of the W.A. Franke Honors College

John Pollard says he loves the Tucson weather for many reasons, including the ability to ride his mountain bike throughout the year.

John Pollard says he loves the Tucson weather for many reasons, including the ability to ride his mountain bike throughout the year.

Deans are not only campus leaders, but also experts in their fields. This occasional Lo Que Pasa series introduces deans across the University and provides insights into their motivations, challenges and reasons for choosing to work at the University of Arizona.

In this installment, meet John Pollard, who became permanent dean of the W.A. Franke Honors College in January after serving as interim dean since July 2022. Pollard lends his leadership to the active learning movement at the University and lends his musical talents to his band, Heavy Bag, in which he plays drums, guitar and more.

Name: John Pollard
College: W.A. Franke Honors College
Dean since: January 2024

Why did you choose the University of Arizona?

I am originally from Minnesota. When I was considering where to pursue my Ph.D., I remember looking at a pamphlet for the University of Arizona chemistry program. My adviser at the time said there was some great research being done here. When I visited Tucson – it was the weather. I was like, "That's a wrap. I'm coming here." So a lot of it was the weather, quite simply, but I also fell in love with the campus and the research opportunities were really compelling to me. So I packed up my 1976 Ford Econoline van that I owned at the time and drove it to Arizona.

What do you enjoy most about the job?

I've always been a very student-centered faculty member. Working with students inside and outside of the classroom has always been my passion. When I started interacting with honors students, the thing I was really compelled by is how engaged they are. I always wanted to have that with students.

Often honors colleges are seen as small liberal arts colleges within a large university. That's one way to think of it. But it's really more about an enhanced layer of experiential learning for students who have broad interests. I think it really spoke to my personal interest and intellectual curiosity. I wanted to evolve the honors college as a student support unit within the overall institution.

I really like being a part of recruiting scholars to the Franke Honors College. These are future leaders, change-makers, physicians, artists and more that will have such a huge impact on the world.

What exciting things are happening at the college that you want campus to know about?

We just launched a new dual degree program called the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation. It's a transdisciplinary dual degree program that focuses on complex problem-solving applied to real-world challenges. It's a collaboration with the University of Technology Sydney.

We've developed industry partnerships in the program. Companies, nonprofits and government agencies bring real problems to our classrooms, and students work on these challenges and try to provide new ways of thinking and solutions to them based on the complex problem-solving methodologies that they learn within the framework of the curriculum. It's already creating a buzz among students, and we're already seeing impact on recruiting. We think this is going to set the course for the future of the Franke Honors College.

We have our Black Excellence Scholars program, which has been very successful. We have our PATH mentoring program, which pairs first-year students with upper-division students. We have our very popular health and human values minor, which focuses on bringing together medicine and the social sciences. We have a new minor called future Earth resilience. We're building these transdisciplinary degree pathways, which I believe is the future of higher education.

What is your leadership philosophy?

The one thing that's really important is that all of our faculty and staff need to first agree on a "just cause." Why are we doing this? What is the thing that's greater than us that we serve? For us, it's to support and inspire the future change-makers that we have in the honors college.

I like to lead with empathy and active listening. When we have failures in the college, it's important that I take ownership of that. But it's also important to make sure we celebrate the successes of our staff and faculty. Creating a community of support here is crucial.

In general, every decision we make must go back to our just cause. My leadership is built on that framework.

What is something about you that most people don't know?

I've been a musician my whole life. I play bass, guitar, drums and keyboards. In college I played in our college's jazz ensemble; I've played in everything from punk to jazz to blues bands. I'm currently part of a two-piece band called Heavy Bag. It's very "soundtrack-y" kind of music. I was in a band called The Weapons of Mass Destruction, which was an instrumental punk band. I was in a band called Lila. I was in a band called Looseleaf with some outstanding musicians in town. It's a great creative outlet and hobby when I can find time.

I'm also an avid mountain biker. I love that you can ride year-round here. I love the desert and nothing brings me greater joy when I'm outside than riding my mountain bike.

We have one daughter who is a first-year student here, one daughter who will be a first-year student next year, and one son, who is 13 years old. A lot of my time, energy and passion is centered around my family.

You have been referred to as a barbecue enthusiast. Where are your favorite spots?

I'll give a shout-out to a couple of places here. One is Smokey Mo – it's fantastic. My wife and I just went to Bashful Bandit Barbecue, which just opened up, and I thought it was excellent. I love just about all food in Tucson. My wife and I love to try out restaurants and enjoy the culinary experiences you can have in Tucson.

What did you learn while teaching online during the pandemic that continues to inform your teaching today?

At the beginning of March 2020, I had never used Zoom. But within two weeks, I was thrown into the fire. That whole experience reinforced my beliefs that I had prior to the pandemic about learning. Learning is an engaged activity, regardless of the modality. Optimal learning occurs through providing active, engaged experiences. During the pandemic, what became challenging to me was, "How can I replicate collaborative work and active learning in an online environment?" It really tested me and made me value even more the time I spend with my students.

(Read about Pollard's experience with online teaching in this Lo Que Pasa story from April 2020.)

You were a leader in the push for collaborative learning spaces on campus. Why was this so important to you?

We know from cognitive science work that learning is an engaged activity. You learn by engaging in content. You can't learn simply by sitting and listening. Lectures have their place in opening ways of thinking and setting context for information, but ultimately learning is about engaging in the process. I wanted my classroom to be a full learning experience for my students.

I realized as I started doing this with my students is that the room you do this in really matters. A room built for lectures is not necessarily built for students to collaborate together. I went to leadership about 10 years ago to see if I could get a bit of space in the Student Union for a few weeks to run a pilot. I set up some round tables, screens and projectors and tried my active-learning approach in a different space. We liked what we saw and I began collaborating with the Office of the Provost and UITS on taking it to the next level.

Fast forward a decade, we have dozens and dozens of these rooms throughout campus. Tens of thousands of students have gone through them. They transform the student experience and faculty culture around learning. Now we think about this as we design new academic spaces. It's been transformative and has provided better learning opportunities for students.

What will be talking about if we have this conversation again in a year?

We're going to be talking about having hundreds of students engaged in the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation program, we're going to be talking about the amazing industry partners program and internships associated with that and the startup companies created by students. We're going to be talking about the community at the honors college, and how students feel a sense of belonging here. We're going to be talking about the Franke Honors College as one of the top honors destinations in the country.

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