Feb. 9, 2012Vol. 42, Issue 4

Associate Dean Retires

Every Action Matters

“I think being ignorant of things had real value,” she says. “I came from the English department to coordinate School of the Arts; I wasn’t an arts person. So when there was conflict between the various factions, having an ‘ignorant’ person in the room who had to be informed and educated was a way for points of view to be put on the table clearly. I didn’t come to the discussion with preconceived ideas of ‘this is right and that is wrong.’  I was able to look at ‘how can we all make this work?’ And that was really valuable.” 

Associate dean, Brooks Thorlaksson“I am not conflict averse,” Thorlaksson adds. “I like to embrace it, acknowledge it, and move beyond it. I believe we can solve problems.”

Thorlaksson approached problems by trying to see the big picture, working across disciplines, meeting people, and looking for connections. One program she worked with over several years was Writing Across the Disciplines, which began as a series of workshops for faculty who were having trouble with student writing. With colleagues from the English department—Vic Lams, Lois Bueler, and Elizabeth Renfro—this grew into a campuswide program that focused on writing and literacy issues in each discipline.

And when she heard that parents of HFA students were concerned about the post-graduation job market, Thorlaksson spent a year working with the Career Center to meet with numerous recruiters. She was eventually able to reassure parents and potential students that what the companies hiring CSU, Chico grads really wanted were “people who could speak well, think well, write well, organize things, and get along with people—and none of that was about a particular major. Many people said they were looking for the traditional liberal arts students, because they would come into the job so much more open to ideas and ready to experiment,” she says.

Thorlaksson, a former VISTA volunteer, began her more than 30-year career at CSU, Chico recruiting Peace Corps volunteers from the agriculture program. She went on to teach in the English department, coordinate the Professional Development Program, help create the Writing Across the Disciplines program, and run the Writing Center before becoming associate dean.

As associate dean, she was deeply involved with School of the Arts—music,  theatre, and art—and all the presenting programs. “In addition, I have had the great privilege of helping to build programs for students,” she says. These programs included a trip to Russia for student choral singers, the London Semester,  the Beijing semester, the HFA Symposium for students to showcase their creative work and research papers, and a yearly event honoring scholarship- and award-winning students.

“This job was never separate from my life,” Thorlaksson says. “I brought my kids to events. I dealt with ideas I cared about. I could integrate what I believed in with making a living.”

While Thorlaksson was passionate about the arts and problem-solving across disciplines, what mattered to her most was the students. “I’d like to leave a legacy of student-centered thinking: How do we help students learn more, learn better?” Part of this legacy is in the Brooks Thorlaksson Outstanding Student Award, a new endowment that will provide a prize each year to the outstanding student leader in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts. “I hope it inspires students to understand that every person makes a difference and every action matters—that’s what leadership is about. It’s the small bits that add up.”

In Thorlaksson’s case, those “small bits” added up to a long career at CSU, Chico, one that saw her through a number of budget crises—“this one seems like the worst,” she says—and three deans: Don Heinz, Sarah Blackstone, and Joel Zimbelman. Each one, she says, “had a sense of why the arts and humanities matter to the world. I was really fortunate to be able to work with them, because it means a lot to me that those things matter.”

“It will be interesting,” she says of life after retirement—without the excitement of her every-day, high-energy job. “But I won’t miss the arts. I will still come to events—I love the symphony, I love the plays that we do. But instead of organizing and instigating, I’ll be sitting in the audience, saying, ‘Hooray!’ ” 

—Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications