By Kecia M. Thomas, Ph.D
In August 2020, I moved to Birmingham to start my journey as the new dean for the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences, the institution’s largest academic unit. Prior to that, my last visit to Birmingham was March 10, 2020. Needless to say, the world changed that week.
The transition to Birmingham and to UAB did not quite unfold as I had dreamed. Often the crises and disruptions seemed to be endless. There was and continues to be the pandemic, the national awakening that resulted after our witnessing of the murder of George Floyd, the increasing impacts of climate change on our day to day lives, the contentious political landscape, and then the assault on our nation’s capitol. Even with the availability of the much-anticipated vaccines, the initial disruptions for shot distribution and subsequent resistance to receiving vaccinations has now left our region ravaged by the Delta variant.
Despite these challenges (and maybe because of them), I have developed in some positive and needed ways. I am more reflective and deliberate in making sure I have what I need to be productive but also healthy mentally and physically. I have also learned to let go, especially of those dreams that do not reflect today’s Covid reality like weekends filled with frivolous escapades around town.
In their place, I have embraced a more urgent mission to communicate my sincere gratitude to our faculty and staff who consistently go above and beyond to educate our students while also keeping everyone safe. I am also accepting invitations to share my almost 30 years of expertise as an organizational diversity scholar with groups who sincerely desire to become better workplaces and community citizens.
As a newcomer to UAB, I work to always model inclusive leadership behaviors, and seek to create and support opportunities to make sure the College reflects our values of community engagement and outreach. It is critical that our students understand the rich and sometimes difficult history of their new home so that they can truly appreciate the value of their college experience to their community and our future. We also need the engagement and partnership of the community in making sure our students never see themselves as separate from the community but rather a part of the community.
Given the COVID-19 pandemic, coming to know UAB and Birmingham has frequently been from my desk. Although it was not the same as spending time together in-person, Zoom did provide me with a chance to start connecting with several of Birmingham’s community leaders. Throughout these sessions, I attempted to learn more about my new home, share a bit about myself, but also made sure to consistently highlight some of the impressive characteristics of the College.
The College is home to 19 departments that span the natural sciences, social and behavioral sciences, and the fine arts and humanities. Our students pursue a wide range of degrees, such as a BS in Computer Science, a Ph.D. in Medical Sociology, and a BFA in Musical Theatre. We also offer five multidisciplinary programs in partnership with the School of Medicine such as cancer biology and neuroscience.
We are fortunate to be able to host many events each year due to our size and disciplinary diversity. These events include music performances, lectures, writing workshops, theatre productions, forums, and art exhibits. As we continue to move forward, we recognize that virtual events remove many barriers to participation and enable us reach bigger audiences (in some cases, globally). We are excited at the prospect of expanding our reach — and, candidly, our first priority is to reach more people in our home city.
You can stay up-to-date on our events by visiting the UAB Campus Calendar (uab.edu/cas/home/about-us/events) and saving the events that interest you the most. For instance, in the coming weeks, our theatre students will perform Godspell, the Institute for Human Rights will facilitate several Social Justice Cafes, and the UAB Gospel Choir will perform a concert.
I want to invite you — Birmingham residents, families, business owners, and civic leaders — to participate in the events slated for this upcoming academic year. I encourage you to use these events as opportunities to learn, connect, and, in some cases, even laugh while interacting with our faculty, students, and staff. We are always interested in meeting prospective students of all ages. However, we also want all Birmingham residents to know that we are your neighbors and as a public institution, we seek to partner with you in ways that are intentional, respectful, and productive. We can work together to not simply get back to what was, but rather to move toward what can and should be — a diverse, inclusive, and thriving community whose growth and future is built upon economic and educational equity.
As I continue to learn about my new home, I will always commit to making sure that the College is a good neighbor. Our (virtual) doors are wide open, and, although we are still navigating this pandemic, I look forward to meeting you and deepening my connection with the Magic City.
Kecia M. Thomas, Ph.D., dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences.