Monday, June 14, 2021

Alaine Reschke-Hernández (19PhD-Music) showed up at Gilmore Hall – the home of the Graduate College – one afternoon to get a professional photo taken to use with her social media accounts. Displaying a smile and her customary outgoing personality, Reschke-Hernández had the biggest decision of her professional career weighing on her mind: should she accept her dream faculty job or a position close to her family.

Seeking advice, Reschke-Hernández turned to Graduate College Dean John Keller.

“He opened his door to me and was a nonjudgmental listener,” Reschke-Hernández says. “He provided a sounding board for me. It was so valuable to me that he just listened. He’s a really kind human being.”

Reschke-Hernández left his office with a clearer picture on what the right choice was for herself. She accepted a job at the University of Kentucky as an assistant professor in the School of Music, and she continues to thrive in this position.

Keller’s concern for graduate student welfare was one of his most laudable character traits during his remarkable 21-year career as Graduate College dean and associate provost for graduate and professional education. Keller stepped down May 14 and currently serves as interim president at the University of Iowa before assuming a role as special assistant to the provost.

“The honor and privilege of helping mentor and guide graduate and professional students onto their careers has been the most rewarding part of my career,” Keller says. “I keep in touch with a number of the students regularly. It’s so rewarding to see how they’ve advanced in their careers and personal lives."

Helping graduate students succeed

Keller enjoyed mentoring students as a professor of dental research and oral and maxillofacial surgery. However, when Keller joined the Graduate College as dean in 2002, the College had largely an administrative role on campus for students. With over 5,000 graduate and professional students, he noticed a gap in the relationship between Graduate College administration and the students.

Keller decided that the college had to become more involved in the work of the Graduate Student Senate (GSS). For starters, he had GSS leadership use Gilmore Hall as its home office, and their continued presence created a unique mentorship opportunity for Keller and his staff. Keller also met GSS leaders every month in his office to better understand their needs and see how the Graduate College could support them.

Alexandra Nica (13PhD-Economics) developed a special relationship with Dean Keller while she was a GSS representative.

Alexandra Nica pictured with Dean Keller at the Jakobsen Conference
Dean Keller with graduate students Alexandra Nica and Tim Paschkewitz.

“The Graduate College was almost like a home away from home,” says Nica, an associate professor of instruction of economics at the UI’s Tippie College of Business. “Dean Keller was both a father figure and friend at the same time. He made me feel valued and gave me a good purpose aside from being a graduate student trying to finish my dissertation. I learned a lot about leadership and professionalism from Dean Keller, and I will always be grateful to him for that.”

Kody Waldstein, a PhD student in immunology, believes graduate students can sometimes feel like a number or a statistic on a big university campus. Serving as GSS vice president and a member of the Graduate Council, Waldstein witnessed how Dean Keller was a proponent of student mental health as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Waldstein experienced Keller’s mentorship first-hand as chair of the Jakobsen Graduate Research Conference, hosted by GSS.

“We moved to a virtual conference in 2021, which was a major undertaking,” Waldstein says. “While it can be extremely stressful for a graduate student trying to understand the intricacies of how to pay for certain things with Graduate College money, he assured me to not worry about it. He told me, ‘We’re going to have everything taken care of for you. Just put on the best conference and provide value to the students.’ That made it so much easier for me.”

Keller consistently demonstrated his compassion and concern for the interests and needs of graduate students.

As the world shifted online due to COVID-19, the college noticed a disparity that exists for some of its students—a lack of access to the technology they needed to succeed. The goal of the grassroots campaign spearheaded by Keller was to ensure that underrepresented graduate students had the proper technological tools they needed to conduct research, complete coursework, pursue professional development opportunities, and help the university train its undergraduate population.

Toward that end, Keller created a fund to assist in purchasing laptops/internet plans; cell phones/data plans; and maneuverable workstations or other equipment for graduate students. The over $11,000 raised helped soften an unnecessary burden on students and allowed them to focus on their academic career.

Under Keller’s leadership, the Graduate College also participated in the pilot project undertaken by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), in collaboration with the JED Foundation, to ascertain information about graduate students’ mental health and wellness issues in higher education. These findings sparked a partnership with University Counseling Service and the hiring of two graduate assistants to help facilitate, promote, and improve mental health among graduate students.

A current member of the Graduate College External Relations Advisory Board perhaps summed up Keller’s passion for students best.

“From the book Good to Great, they identified the servant leader, the humble leader as the one who can transform an institution and carry its development over many years,” says Barb McFadden, retired executive director of the Big Ten Academic Alliance. “John has definitely been one of those people. He very often used his superpowers to do good.”

Shaping future graduate students

Dean Keller’s interest and commitment to supporting and promoting graduate and professional education has not just been directed and limited to graduate students.

Dean John Keller

Keller taught a first-year seminar entitled “Grad School: Is it for You?” from 2009-2016 with former Graduate College Associate Dean Dan Berkowitz.  This seminar helped freshmen make informed decisions about planning for their graduate education. The students were encouraged to choose coursework and activities that strengthened their graduate applications.

“The goal of our seminar perfectly matched the strategic goal of improving the likelihood of student success,” Keller says.

In addition, Keller was the presider of the Summer Undergraduate Research Conference, which is a professional development opportunity for summer students preparing for careers in research. One-third of the students are participants in the Graduate College's Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP) — an award-winning eight-week session designed to provide underrepresented undergraduate students with in-depth research experiences.

As dean, Keller has been a big supporter of SROP and its students, who came to the UI campus from all over the United States and Puerto Rico.

In the summer of 2008, the State of Iowa was experiencing a second devasting major flood, and Dean Keller had to make the difficult decision to terminate SROP midsession. The day of the student’s departure, he went to the students’ dormitory to say goodbye to all the summer scholars. One student was anxious about arranging and funding ground transportation at their final destination. Dean Keller reached into his pocket and handed a $100 bill directly to the astonished and suddenly relieved student.

“I feel like it was just one of many examples of John’s spirit of generosity,” says Graduate College Administrative Services Coordinator Paul Meintel, who learned of the gesture when following up with the student. “He’s a very caring person, he’s concerned about students’ welfare, and he’s a kind-hearted person.”

Keller puts UI in national stage

As the longest serving dean in the Big Ten, Dean Keller served as chair of the Big Ten Academic Graduate Deans Group twice as well as three-year terms on the board of directors for both the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and the AAU-Association of Graduate Schools.

Keller’s contributions to these national organizations started almost immediately when he became Graduate College dean.

His first day as interim dean in 2000, McFadden called him to see if the University of Iowa could host the Big Ten’s SROP Conference.

“John agreed to host the event for the Big Ten universities. But he did not just host, he put on a stellar, highly professional conference for 650 undergraduate students, who could showcase their research,” McFadden says. “This was a spectacular success. Joy Harjo, now the U.S. poet laureate, gave the dinner presentation and faculty mentors spoke about career paths in graduate education.

“It was really a high-watermark for the event up to that point. John’s enthusiasm was passed onto other deans. John saw it as an opportunity to a showcase this campus and showcase what graduate education can do to transform lives.”

Dean John Keller pictured with former Dean James Jakobsen and Rex Montgomery
Dean Keller with former Graduate College Dean James Jakobsen and former University of Iowa Biochemistry Professor Rex Montgomery.

Keller was a terrific partner to the Big Ten Academic Alliance and provided leadership to other deans across the Big Ten. He attended every meeting and regularly called the Big Ten office to share information on program and student service ideas across conference universities. 

“He was an excellent promoter of what graduate education could be on a campus and what it could do for students’ lives,” McFadden says. “If John called, you wanted to work with him on the project, because you knew it would be fun, successful, and exciting. John did not want the light just shining on him. It was important to shine the light on others in the organization and ultimately on the UI and the students who he served. That was his motivating characteristic.”

Keller undertook several major initiatives at the University of Iowa to enhance graduate education. He oversaw the development of 14 new graduate programs – including three interdisciplinary programs. Under his leadership, time to degree was reduced while completion rates improved. In addition to his academic oversight, Keller promoted publicly accessible research, holistic career preparation, and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

For his invaluable contributions to the University of Iowa graduate community, Keller received the prestigious Debra W. Stewart Award from the Council of Graduate Schools in 2017.

“For a guy who’s so unassuming and modest, as I was traveling across the country participating in graduate education events, everybody knew John Keller,” says Robin Davisson, co-chair of the Graduate College’s External Advisory Board and former faculty member at the University of Iowa. “He’s had a huge mark on graduate education in this country, not just at the University of Iowa. He has put in place some innovative programs for supporting students and elevating graduate education as a whole at the UI.”

The dean’s personal side

Personally, Dean Keller displayed congeniality, sociability, and a penchant for good-natured banter and antics throughout his days at the Graduate College.

It was no secret that Dean Keller is a big sports fans, with his favorite teams being the Iowa Hawkeyes, Green Bay Packers, and Chicago Cubs. In 2016, when the Cubs won their first World Series title, on occasion, he balanced his administrative work with watching Cubs’ playoff games on television.

“He’s always had a very personal connection with all the different folks who work in the Graduate College,” says Anne Sparks, academic affairs coordinator at the Graduate College. “We both love the Cubs. In 2016, there was a postseason game during work hours. John put the game on TV in the conference room and we both brought our work in there. We did our work with the game on the background. It was lovely to enjoy those human moments with him. He is a great person, colleague, and friend.”

Keller wasn’t shy about showing his spontaneous side to enliven relationships with staff and colleagues.

On occasion, the dean would emerge from his office donning “Groucho glasses”, the novelty disguise that functions as a caricature for the stage make-up worn by the comedian Groucho Marx. He also could be seen walking around the office wearing one of Paul Meintel’s fedora hats.

“The hat was significantly undersized on his head. However, I’m not saying that he has a big head,” Meintel jokes. “He would parade around the office in it, which was comical.”

No one appreciates his fun-loving side any more than mentor and good friend David Skorton, the former UI president and vice president for research who encouraged Keller to pursue the position of Graduate College dean.

Back when they both worked in Gilmore Hall, the dynamic duo went on a weight loss regime together. While it was an admirable idea, it didn’t produce great results due to their shenanigans.

“We decided to support each other by leaving snacks that the other could not resist on each other’s desk,” says Skorton, whose weakness was Peanut M&M’s. “Rather than have some terrific success, we actually gained weight on our weight loss regime thanks to each other.”

The Keller legacy

Skorton always felt that Keller was a logical choice to become Graduate College dean. He didn’t see his colleague as ego-driven; instead as someone who wanted to make a difference in the lives of graduate and professional students.

Dean John Keller pictured with former University of Iowa President David Skorton
Dean John Keller has a discussion with former University of Iowa President David Skorton.

While Skorton left Iowa in 2006 to become president of Cornell University, then secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and now president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges, he remained impressed with Keller’s work.

“John Keller is the genuine article. He a great teacher and totally devoted to students and the student experience,” Skorton says. “He is one of the reasons why Iowa is so highly respected in graduate education across the United States.”

While his time as Graduate College dean is over, Keller is serving the university as interim president until July 15, when Barbara Wilson becomes the University of Iowa’s 22nd president.

“I still can’t believe this happened, quite frankly, but I’m honored to serve in this role,” Keller says. “It’s a thrill of a lifetime, and I’m very honored and privileged. I never thought this would happen and I’m quite touched.”

Dean Keller will be remembered as someone who strived to contribute to the betterment of the University of Iowa and its students.

“John follows in footsteps of other excellent UI Graduate College deans who proceeded him, but he has taken it to another level with a student centric-approach that focuses on the basic tenants of making graduate education what it is today,” Skorton says. “He really cares and mostly gravitates toward the educational mission of discovering knowledge and then imparting it on others. He continues to keep Iowa on the map.”