To the committee seeking a dean to lead Michigan State University's College of Education, Donald E. Heller, a national expert on higher-education issues, looked like an exciting prospect. Mr. Heller wasn't so sure.
It took two calls from a headhunter and an hourlong pitch from a faculty member at Michigan State to convince him he was up to the job.
"Typically people who become deans of colleges have spent time either as a department head or as an assistant or associate dean, and I hadn't done either," he says.
But what he had done as a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University and as director of the university's Center for the Study of Higher Education impressed the search committee.
Mr. Heller, who teaches and conducts research on higher-education economics and public policy, has spent much of his time studying how government and institutional policies affect college access and choice for low-income and minority students.
For instance, he has examined how the shift, by many universities, toward more merit scholarships has hurt low-income students by siphoning off money that would otherwise go toward need-based aid. Merit scholarships, he found, were more likely to be awarded to wealthier students and students who would have gone to college anyway.
In addition to doing his research, Mr. Heller has consulted for universities in nearly a dozen states.
At Penn State, he has worked closely with university financial-aid and government-affairs offices to try to craft strategies to expand access to a university education. The search committee, he says, "felt that with the kinds of political and fiscal pressures universities are under, this kind of background would be helpful."
Michigan State's provost, Kim A. Wilcox, says that at a time when both the state and federal governments are stepping up their focus on higher-education financing, accessibility, and outcomes, "someone who understands education policy and the role of the university in helping to shape that policy is extremely attractive."
Mr. Heller's decade as an information-technology manager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also won him points with the search committee, which was looking for someone who understood the importance of technological changes for education, at the elementary, secondary, and college levels.
Mr. Heller, who has degrees from Harvard Graduate School of Education and Tufts University, took over the job as education dean at Michigan State on January 1, replacing Carole Ames, who stepped down in August, and Robert Floden, who has been filling in as interim dean.
His expertise in finding ways to make higher education affordable should be particularly welcome in Michigan, which has suffered from high unemployment rates largely due to the downturn in the auto industry.
Mr. Floden, who led the search committee that selected the Penn State scholar, says the panel was also impressed with the three principles Mr. Heller said guided his work—"respect, transparency, and fun."
In the realm of fun, Mr. Heller says, once a semester, he challenges graduate students to a night of bowling: "I donate money to a student association for every pin they drop."
Mr. Floden also says Mr. Heller's "big picture" view of higher education will help him work effectively with the university's other colleges.
"Someone who understands how higher education works can come into the dean's position with the ability to look across campus as well as within his own faculty," Mr. Floden says.
Those who have worked alongside Mr. Heller in prying open doors for disadvantaged youngsters applaud his selection as dean.
In one study that used 2006 federal data, he estimated that while 77 percent of white students graduated from high school in a timely manner, the rate drops to 58 percent for Hispanic students and 51 percent for black students.
"I appreciate his sensitivity to advancing the interests of first-generation, low-income students," says Arnold L. Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, a nonprofit group working to expand college options for low-income, first-generation, and disabled students.
"Too often those of us in academe stay in our ivory towers, but he's done a lot to provide insight into critical issues like merit-based scholarships" and how they can hurt low-income and minority students, he says. "He has one foot in the real world."