Get to know Lisa Huffman, new dean of UC's CECH

Q & A with Dean Huffman, an incoming leader

On February 19, 2024, following an exhaustive professional search, the University of Cincinnati's College of Education, Criminal Justice, Human Services, and Information Technology (CECH) announced the hiring of Lisa Huffman, PhD, to the role of college dean. Huffman is taking over CECH leadership from Larry Johnson, whose retirement after 25 years in the role caps 33 years of service to UC.

Huffman joins UC from the College of Professional Education (COPE) at Texas Woman’s University – a public university system with campuses in Denton, Dallas and Houston that serves a culturally diverse, non-traditional student community – where she served as dean for the past six years. 

We chatted with Huffman in the days leading up to her July 1 start date at UC to ask a few questions about her life and previous professional experiences. Read on to learn about the new CECH dean's educational philosophies, her dedication to her family, her "A, E, I, O, U" and more.   

UC: Tell us about your background. You have lived, learned and worked in Indiana, Alabama and Texas? Where is home for you?

LH: I have definitely moved a few times. I have lived in California, Indiana (twice), Alabama (for graduate school), Oklahoma and Texas ... now Ohio!

I grew up in Southern California, outside L.A. in Arcadia, and most of my family still lives there – spread out between L.A. and San Diego. I love it in California. I mean, who wouldn’t when you can be at the beach or in the mountains in less than an hour? But the Midwest really feels like home for me. I went to college at Purdue and worked at Ball State for 15 years. My son was born in Indianapolis, and it was my husband’s first American home. He is from Kenya, where I met him while planning a study abroad trip.

Now we are very excited to explore and build roots in Cincinnati! We have already started exploring the many different Cincinnati neighborhoods and found a few favorite spots. I can’t wait to visit more.

Your focus in academia has largely been on education and teacher training. Are you excited for the opportunity to take on an expanded range of faculty instruction with CECH, which also includes criminal justice, human services and IT?

I have focused a good deal of my career on child development and educator preparation, but it is the diversity of programs in CECH that drew me to this position. I believe that a robust and sustainable community is one that has strong schools (PK-16), is mentally and physically healthy, is safe and equitable, and has access to quality information that can better our lives.

This is CECH. The work across CECH is essential to people’s lives and for preparing for the future.

Lisa Huffman, PhD CECH dean

When I look at CECH, I see we are about children, individuals, families, communities and society. Our college also has bridges into many colleges across campus, whether that is as part of an interprofessional health team; helping businesses access data or keep their data safe; or designing communities that facilitate mental and physical health for all citizens, to name just a few.

Innovation seems to be a theme running through your career. Can we expect innovation to be a priority under your leadership?

I think this innovative streak comes from my background in human development and systems theory. We are all part of a system and influence each other, so I see my job as listening and learning from everyone – to help bring ideas together or provide a seed to get things started and then to get out of the way. So yes, we will likely see innovations in CECH, but these won’t be my ideas. They will be our ideas.

Here's an example that illustrates this point.

As part of a year-long academic festival centered around a theme, our campus hosted notable speakers and various smaller events or activities organized by different departments. For this particular festival, the theme was sustainability. Cameron University featured speakers such as a water and drought expert, an urban planner, a farm-to-table chef/environmental advocate Rick Bayless (from Oklahoma) and actor/environmentalist Ed Begley Jr., among others.

My college hosted several smaller but impactful events brought forward by each unit, including a panel discussion on mental health focused on stopping the stigma, creating hydroponic tower gardens for local schools to teach children about growing their own food and healthy living, and a community-wide Outdoor Youth Expo. The expo focused on introducing youth to activities they might not otherwise experience, such as kayaking and archery. We even provided families with free bus service into the area so it was accessible to all. This event led to the co-sponsorship of the first Open Streets event in Lawton, which aimed to build accessible, strong and safe communities. Each of these events featured faculty and students from across the college working hands-on, because you learn by doing.

child holds book while standing beside a little free library box on a post

One of Dean Huffman's favorite projects at CU was the creation of a Little Free Libraries trail that encouraged community members to visit campus and engage with its resources. Photo/provided

One of my favorite projects was creating a Little Free Libraries trail on campus. It provided a wonderful way for community members to engage with the campus and to recycle books. Additionally, it encouraged the use of Cameron’s marked activity trail for health benefits and supported community development through education, with our teacher education students keeping the libraries stocked with a diverse array of books for all ages. My son loved visiting the libraries each weekend.

Communities need free access to information and beautiful, safe places to gather. University campuses serve as one of these vital access points. I am most proud that nearly 10 years later these activities continue to thrive, embodying the sustainability theme of the original festival.

Let me be clear that none of these ideas were mine. Rather, they came from the faculty and staff, from conversations with our community, and from listening and learning together.

I can already see that a community-engaged entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in CECH, and I can’t wait to see what new innovative ideas emerge. So, to answer the original question: Yes, we will likely see innovations in CECH, but these won’t be my ideas. They will be our ideas.

What are some beliefs you have around public higher education’s responsibilities to improve the community surrounding it?

I firmly believe that public higher education institutions have a responsibility to enhance the communities they reside in and beyond. Being publicly funded by the state and its citizens, we owe it to them to contribute actively to their well-being. We need to be in our communities and for our communities.

Our role extends beyond traditional education; it involves partnering with the community to tackle both significant and minor issues collaboratively. I am thrilled to be joining this college and UC, where this belief is shared. As an urban R1 institution, we have the unique opportunity to address complex problems on a larger scale, conduct pioneering research and demonstrate tangible impact.

CECH's many centers are already showcasing their commitment to improving lives in Cincinnati and beyond. Events like the Early IT Summer Camp and the CPS Basketball All-Star Showcase are just two examples of this dedication. Moving forward, it will be crucial to reflect on how we can further our mission to engage in research and to serve our communities effectively. Together, we can create innovative solutions and continue to make a positive difference.

Together, we will determine what is next for CECH.

Diversity has been an intentional aim of yours in past roles and is central to CECH’s value system as well. Could you speak to the importance of DEI initiatives at a college such as CECH?

This past year in Texas has been challenging personally and professionally, with the passage of several bills severely restricting DEI efforts in schools (PK-12 and universities) and restricting the rights of various citizens, including women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, immigrants and more. I know Ohio has faced similar bills. However, it is our diversity that makes us strong. Our success is directly tied to how we include and value the diversity of our members. 

For me, it is about creating spaces where all individuals feel welcomed, respected, valued and empowered. This goal has not changed with the passage of bills; maybe the words we use and the processes we follow have, but the ultimate goal of success for all remains the same.

I firmly believe in the vital role of public universities, and UC is a public research university at the heart of Cincinnati. There is no University of Cincinnati without the Cincinnati community. Therefore, we must be in our community, for our community. This includes all members of our communities – our college, our university, our city and beyond. I am looking forward to working with our Office of Inclusive Excellence and am committed to ensuring we are a community where everyone belongs and has a voice, built on equity, inclusion and justice for all.

Do you have any plans you hope to start pursuing on day one?

Leaders must be learners. Starting on day one, I will take on the role of a student, eager to learn from and with everyone in CECH. I recognize that there is a steep learning curve as I familiarize myself with the UC and CECH ways. I ask for patience and understanding as I ask questions to gain this knowledge.

My primary goal is to understand CECH's work thoroughly so that I can support the college effectively, connect with necessary resources, and highlight remarkable contributions to our community and beyond.

Are there any initiatives you've been a part of in the past that you're excited to implement at CECH? 

I look forward to focusing on what I call my A, E, I, O, U – Access, Excellence, Inclusivity, Opportunity, and Unrivaled success for all. For me, these are more than just vowels; they represent our goals for students, faculty, staff and the community.

We open doors. We strive to be the best. We are inclusive. We provide and leverage opportunities. And, together, we achieve unparalleled success.

I believe that CECH's interdisciplinary nature is crucial to addressing the complex problems facing our communities. This includes developing robust educational systems and educators, ensuring access to high-quality mental and physical health services, advancing technological and information systems, and creating physical safety in our communities through research and practice. Together, we can create a community that embodies these principles and works collaboratively to achieve these goals.

For me, these are more than vowels – A, E, I, O, U is what we want to do for our students, faculty, staff and community. In turn, it is what we hope they will do for others. I believe CECH's interdisciplinary nature is essential to addressing the intractable problems facing our communities. This would include focusing on developing strong educational systems and educators, ensuring access to high-quality mental and physical health services, developing technological and information systems, and creating physical safety in our communities through research and practice.

What’s one thing you would like the CECH community to know about you as you move to the area for this role?

As I mentioned earlier, I am, first and foremost, a learner. I genuinely care about people and am eager to get to know you both personally and professionally. And I promise you will also get to know me on a personal and professional level.

To share a bit about myself, I am a mom to a 14-year-old son, Jacob, who is passionate about football – like “Friday Nights Lights” crazy – and excited to start high school. My husband, Martin Shikuku Wakhanu, is from Kenya, so you can look forward to some of his Kenyan cooking in the future. Both Jacob and Martin have quickly become big fans of UC, thanks to (CECH director of college facilities) Greg Hollon and students Sydnie Appell and Jenna Easterling. Their happiness means the world to me, and I am grateful for the support.

Another thing to know about me is that I love to travel and, better yet, take students with me. I have led study-away trips to Kenya, Finland, Australia and Puerto Rico (for our DACA students who can’t leave the United States safely). I have also helped develop and support trips for students to Spain, Italy, England, Greece, Canada (again DACA-friendly but a bit more complex) and Costa Rica.

Any plans to change up the CECH Welcome Back BBQ this fall?

No, the Welcome Back BBQ is a fantastic event that brings our community together, and it is a wonderful legacy of Dr. Johnson's. The only difference you might notice is that I won't be the one cooking – and that's definitely a good thing!

Featured image at top: New College of Education, Criminal Justice, Human Services and Information Technology dean Lisa Huffman. Photo/provided

About CECH

The College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services is committed to the pursuit of discovery and excellence in research, teaching and service that addresses real world challenges and opportunities to create positive social change. The nationally renowned college includes four academic schools: School of Education, School of Criminal Justice, School of Human Services and School of Information Technology. CECH serves nearly 5,000 students and 151 full-time faculty and offers 35-degree programs and 39 certificates.

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Get to know Lisa Huffman, new dean of UC's CECH

July 1, 2024

UC News spoke with incoming CECH dean, Lisa Huffman, about her past experiences, the role family plays in her life, academic philosophies, goals for her time in this position and more. As we welcome the newest dean to University of Cincinnati, we encourage you to read on to learn more about Dean Huffman.