FLORENCE — The fall semester is two weeks away for students at the University of North Alabama, and with the new semester will come a transition in leadership for the College of Arts and Sciences.
After 27 years in higher education and five years as dean, Carmen Burkhalter will retire from her position Aug. 15. Sara Lynn Baird will fill that role after a year as associate dean.
“I’m excited about the opportunity, but also, she’s kind of a hard act to follow,” Baird said with a laugh.
Burkhalter had several goals in mind when she came to UNA to further the overall mission of the College of Arts and Sciences and the university as a whole, including growing the number of majors, minors and programs available to students.
She said she also desired to establish relationships with those who could advise the college about job market trends and how the curricula should reflect those trends.
“We’ve been able to accomplish almost everything we set out (to accomplish) within that first six months,” Burkhalter said. “Quite frankly, the president and the provost have worked tirelessly, particularly with Project 208 down in Montgomery, to bring some of the other goals to fruition.”
Project 208 is an initiative to get the university’s state funding on par with its state peers, Baird said. She said the state funds are crucial to address issues with UNA’s facilities, among other things.
Since 2014, Burkhalter said the majors, minors and concentrations of College of Arts and Sciences have grown from about 42 to 60 under 19 departments.
Both Burkhalter and Baird said the flexibility of their roles and the openness of the upper administration have allowed them to build the curricula and implement new ideas.
“It has been so much fun from an administrative perspective because we have so much flexibility at this institution that you might not have at an institution that is so large that it takes a long time to get new and innovative curricula through the system,” Burkhalter explained. “We have been able to create some really interesting programs across campus.”
One of these was the School of the Arts, which celebrated its first year as an entity this summer. Burkhalter said Baird’s experience in music departments — most recently at Auburn University — made her instrumental in its launch.
“We believe it’s a real showcase opportunity for the university to make sure the creative spirit of the Shoals area is celebrated through our School of the Arts,” she added.
Burkhalter also described Baird as an “accreditation expert,” particularly in the arts. In addition to serving on the national accrediting body, Baird said she has built up experience as an evaluator for other programs across the country.
A 2016 visit to UNA’s campus as a consultant for the Music Department left a strong impression on Baird, leading her to pursue the associate dean position when it became available.
“I was tremendously impressed at that time with the quality of the faculty, the quality of the students, administrators, the transparency on campus and the openness and free discussion — everybody really wanted to know what you thought,” she recalled. “I was also impressed with the focus on the students themselves and the progress of every student. That is not the same as everywhere.”
At the same time, Burkhalter and Baird recognized the value a center for social inclusion would bring to all students on campus.
While the Mitchell-West Center will not operate under any particular college, they said the strong presence and variety of interests in the College of Arts and Sciences means faculty and students will likely play an active role.
Burkhalter said the center is just one component of the overall momentum on campus earning it widespread recognition.
“I think students will be able to feel that, and that will be really exciting for them,” she added. “I think it’s going to be a really fun time to be at UNA.”
Baird said she hopes to expand the number of experiential learning opportunities offered to students, including internships, study abroad programs and more.
Overall, however, she said she plans to maintain Burkhalter’s progress with the College of Arts and Sciences and initiatives like the College Advisory Council, which has been “critically important” through its efforts to engage alums and donors.
“She’s done such wonderful work here and really transformed not just the college, but the institution,” Baird said. “Of course, it’s taken the help of the upper administration, which have been extremely supportive, and I feel like I have that support. I’m very grateful for that and only hope that I can do as well as she’s done.”