Gary Oehlert Reflects on a 39-Year Journey

Portrait of Gary Oehlert

Professor Gary Oehlert began his journey at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1984 as an assistant professor in the School of Statistics. From becoming Statistics’ director of graduate studies to the associate dean of CLA, Oehlert’s journey has been long, enlightening, challenging, rewarding, and above all, uniquely his own.

As Oehlert prepares for retirement at the end of spring semester 2023, he reflects on his time here, the experiences he’s come to cherish, and his plans for the future.

How He Became an Associate Dean  

Early in the 2000s, the dean of CLA cut whatever little finances the college allotted to the Statistical Consulting Center.

“I wrote a letter to him, telling him how he was so wrong to do that,” says Oehlert. “And then, bam, the next year, I got appointed to the College's budget advisory committee.”

This incident set his career on an administrative trajectory. He became director of graduate studies in the School of Statistics, a position he held for seven years. After being on the advisory committee for three years, Oehlert was appointed to a three-year term on the college’s promotion and tenure committee, which he chaired for two years. He was then asked to become the interim associate dean for faculty.

“I really didn't know what I was getting into. But I said yes anyway,” Oehlert reminisces with a laugh.

It was curiosity that led him down this path. “There were lots of things I didn't understand about the college and I kept asking questions to get to the bottom of things.”

Three Hats, One Job 

Oehlert’s job wasn’t a one-dimensional, stagnant role. After one year as the associate dean for faculty, he spent six years as associate dean for planning and then moved on to being the associate dean of undergraduate education for three years.

“All the three hats I wore as associate dean were very, very, very different,” Oehlert emphasizes.

Whereas the associate dean for faculty job was more human resources related, the associate dean for planning dealt with long-term projects, including two strategic plans for the college.

“On my first day in the office, my assistant comes up to me and says, ‘Sign this’. So I look at what I'm signing and I'm signing over $2 million,” says Oehlert. “I crossed my fingers and signed it. And you know, it was in fact the right thing to do.”

Some of the things Oehlert oversaw during this time were the remodeling of Folwell Hall and spaces in the Social Sciences Building, the revamping of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Program’s office and undergraduate advising spaces in Johnston and Keller Halls, and the setting up of new labs for anthropology on West Bank.

In his last role as associate dean for undergraduate studies, one of Oehlert’s tasks was to bring together two basic groups under this division: student services (dealing with advising, career services, etc.) and academic programs, scholarships, and other similar units.

The task was challenging simply because of the sheer scale and size of the undergraduate studies division.

“When I was both in faculty and in planning I had an assistant and once in a while there was a second person that worked with me part-time. However, in undergraduate education, I had eight or nine people that reported to me directly and hundreds of professional staff and student workers under that umbrella.”

Although this role was one of the more demanding ones, it was also the one Oehlert found to be the most rewarding.

The Return to the School of Statistics 

It isn’t always easy to recognize when to close a chapter and begin a new one.

Oehlert was someone who was indeed able to recognize this. He says he had a friend who told him the “3-10 rule of academic administration.”

He explains it like this: “It takes three years to learn your job. And after 10 years, you're part of the problem. And it had been 10 years for me.”

Coming back to the School of Statistics as a full-time faculty member after several years was undoubtedly not an easy transition. However, going back to the classroom to teach again was a definite perk.

Black & white photo of Gary Oehlert in the 90s
Photo of Gary Oehlert in the 1990s.

“The rewarding part of teaching is when you see the students get it. You sort of see the light go on in their eyes and it's like, ‘Okay, I've actually done something good today,’” says Oehlert.

During the almost four decades Oehlert has been at the University, one of the most significant changes he witnessed in the School of Statistics was the merging of its two departments.

Previously, there were two separate statistics departments—theoretical statistics in Minneapolis and applied statistics in St. Paul. This made interactions between faculty and students difficult. About two decades ago, however, the departments merged into one, bringing everyone together under one roof on the East Bank.

“It really brought about a change in the culture,” Oehlert comments. However, he notes that the culture of the School of Statistics took a hit during the pandemic.

“Pre-pandemic you’d see students and faculty bumping into each other in the halls. People were friendly and there was a lot of exchanging of ideas. It was very collegial and great,” comments Oehlert.

Although it may take some time for the culture of collaboration to return, Oehlert believes that things will get back to what it was and soon doors will be open and halls will be lively again.

Testified: Good-Natured, Supportive, and a Great Sense of Humor 

To all those who had the pleasure of working with Dr. Oehlert, the same adjectives come to mind when describing him: good-natured, supportive, collaborative, conscientious, and wise.

Ascan Koerner, who was Gary’s successor to the associate dean for undergraduate studies role, speaks highly of his work ethic. “I learned a lot from him—how to act with the staff and treat folks you work with. I also learned a lot from the way he supervised me. He was a good mentor.”

Oehlert is also known for his sense of humor. Koerner relays a funny anecdote where at a farewell party for one of CLA’s previous deans, “Gary basically gave a rendition of the song ‘Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend,’ but he replaced the words with ‘Dollars Are a Dean's Best Friend.’ He sang about two stanzas of the song in front of the retiring dean and the provost and we all had a good laugh.”

Birgit Grund, who has been Oehlert's colleague in the School of Statistics since 1991, uses Oehlert’s published textbook on experimental design in her class. “Gary made his textbook free for the students. And I mean, if you think of the price of textbooks, this is thousands and thousands of dollars saved by students over the years. It's a great benefit for our students and I think it’s very generous of him,” says Grund.

Not only does she praise him as a wonderful colleague, she also commends him for his contributions to the School of Statistics and his ability to make genuine connections with students.

“He used to organize these potlucks for the graduate students and faculty at his home. And I have fond memories of that, because it was such a nice, relaxed atmosphere,” says Grund. “This isn't something that the director of graduate studies usually does, but Gary really went out of his way to build community. His retirement will be a great loss to the department.”

Wrapping It All Up

For Oehlert, the happiest part of retiring will be never having to grade again.

He plans to spend his retirement days traveling, finishing up a laundry list of house projects, gardening, and doing some woodwork.

“Despite the cold, I’m glad I came to Minnesota. It’s a good place to be and it was a good place to raise our family. And I’m hoping it will be a good place to have a great retirement, too.”

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