Dean Estella Atekwana
Dean Estella Atekwana. (Courtesy of University of Delaware)

UC Davis Appoints New Dean for Letters and Science

The University of California, Davis, today (June 29) named Estella Atekwana, a dean and geophysicist from University of Delaware, as new dean of the College of Letters and Science (L&S), the largest of UC Davis’ colleges and schools. She will officially become L&S dean on August 1.

“We are thrilled to have Dr. Atekwana assume this key university post,” said Mary Croughan, UC Davis provost and executive vice chancellor. “Her high scholarly distinction, administrative effectiveness, and commitment to diversity and inclusion will greatly benefit both L&S and the university.”

Atekwana has been at Delaware since 2017, as a faculty member in the Department of Earth Sciences and dean of the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment. Her accomplishments include building up the faculty ranks, implementing an early-career faculty development program, creating and funding a student success center and professional development program, establishing an eco-entrepreneurship program, launching a campuswide climate change initiative, and providing funding to support initiatives promoting inclusive excellence.

Ari Kelman, Chancellor’s Leadership Professor of History, has been serving as interim dean since March 2020. “Little did Ari know we would be in a pandemic for the majority of his time leading the college,” Croughan said. “He has done an extraordinary job under very challenging conditions, and we owe him enormous gratitude.” Kelman will step into a new role, faculty advisor to the chancellor and provost, once Atekwana becomes dean.

Education and Career

Atekwana earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology from Howard University (her B.S. was magna cum laude) and a Ph.D. in geophysics from Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada. She pioneered biogeophysics as a subdiscipline of geophysics at the interface of environmental microbiology, geochemistry, geomicrobiology and geophysics. She also investigates the formation of nascent continental rift basins.

She took her first faculty post in the Department of Geosciences at Western Michigan University, where she advanced to associate professor. From there she went to Missouri University of Science and Technology, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, and Oklahoma State University. In her 11 years at OSU, she held an endowed chair, was named a Regents Distinguished Professor and became head of the Boone Pickens School of Geology. She served in the latter role from 2013 to 2017, when she departed for Delaware.

Atekwana remains an adjunct faculty member at OSU and member of the governing board of Botswana International University of Science and Technology. She has a new collaborative NSF project in Uganda to study the Albertine rift, and has received approximately $11.7 million in research funding, primarily from the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and industry.

Professional Societies and Awards

Atekwana is a fellow of the Geological Society of America and a member of, and recipient of outstanding educator awards from, the Association of Women Geoscientists and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG). She is the 2021 Reginald Fessenden Award winner from SEG as well as the SEG 2020 Virtual Near Surface Global Lecturer. She also belongs to the American Geophysical Union, European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers, Geochemical Society and National Association of Black Geoscientists.

For her achievements, Oklahoma State recognized Atekwana with an Eminent Faculty award, Regents Distinguished Research Award, an endowed chair professorship (Sun Chair) and the International Education Faculty Excellence Award. The Missouri University of Science and Technology similarly honored her with its Faculty Excellence Award and Outstanding Academic Advisor Award.

Becoming L&S Dean Exciting, Inspiring, Humbling

“I have worked at excellent institutions and had many excellent colleagues,” remarked Atekwana. “But when I learned of the possibility of becoming dean of the College of Letters and Science at UC Davis, I knew immediately that’s where I wanted to be.”

She continued: “One thing that attracts me to L&S is the excitement of so much world-class teaching, research and public service activity in so many disciplines. L&S is more than a college. It’s a university and a world of creativity and teaching unto itself. It’s impossible for me not to be inspired to contribute to its growing success.”

At the same time, she deeply admires UC Davis’ guiding commitment to leveraging excellence in education, research and public service to benefit California, the nation and the world beyond.

As dean, Atekwana intends to begin by filling out her knowledge of UC Davis and L&S and getting to know many more of the College’s faculty, staff and students. She sees firsthand knowledge and regular interaction with the L&S community as essential to being a successful leader.

Even in her learning phase, she intends to move ahead on several specific priorities.

She will build on the existing strengths of the College, believing that these provide especially promising opportunities to make an impact. At the same time, she will support excellence in all of the College’s departments. She explained, “That’s an essential ingredient of a true intellectual community and a great university. Whether in the arts, the humanities, the social sciences or the mathematical and physical sciences, I plan to work side by side with faculty, staff, students and alumni.”

In addition, she intends to draw on her earlier work to advance the cause of diversity, equity and inclusion in all of the College’s programs, operations and activities. This goal is for her a matter of social justice and simple fairness, but also an effort she sees as necessary to advancing the College’s excellence and relevance in a diverse and increasingly globalized world.

Yet another priority is to make sure that all L&S students, faculty and staff have the resources and environment that they need to do their best work and thrive.

Atekwana put her new appointment in perspective: “The pandemic hindered the learning, teaching and research on campuses around the world, as well as our invaluable interactions with students and colleagues. I feel more than ready to join my new community at L&S to advance the College’s already considerable stature and impact. As I’ve said, I’m very excited to be the new dean. But I’m also humbled by the privilege and responsibility that come with this position.”

“Estella Atekwana is the right person to lead L&S at this critical moment,” said Provost Croughan. “I am so pleased that this visionary leader will be assuming the role of dean.”

Melissa Blouin, UC Davis News and Media Relations

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