Defining a niche takes on added importance not only because of Rowan's transformation into a research institution - a state designation it received this year for the first time - but because of the challenges facing teacher education nationwide, Shealey said.
Those challenges include the rise of online education options, increased competition in the job market, perennial issues of funding, and questions about the role and effectiveness of teacher education programs.
"Schools and colleges of education are under attack," Shealey said. "There are forces that believe that we're not relevant. . . . I understand that kind of context as well, so that means that . . . we have to be more entrepreneurial."
Becoming more entrepreneurial, Shealey said, will come after the school has defined its mission, which it can then communicate to business leaders and philanthropic communities:
"If they see the College of Ed has a vision to really transform public education, they'll respond to that," Shealey said. "They'll give and they'll support us based on the fact that we have this vision, but we [also] have a track record of getting good results."
Classes began Sept. 3, and within a week she had completed one-on-one interviews with about 80 of nearly 200 adjunct, full- and part-time faculty members. Those half-hour meetings will be followed, she said, with a continued reconnaissance campaign: a series of meetings with superintendents of local school districts, principals.
Not that she lacks ideas for what the school's mission should be.
Shealey taught special education in central and South Florida from 1995 to 2001, receiving a master's degree from the University of South Florida, an educational specialist degree from the University of Miami, and, in 2003, a Ph.D. in education specializing in exceptional-student education from the University of Central Florida.
Shealey, Rowan's first black female dean, said she hoped to become a role model:
"If I'm not in these positions, then I think that there's a message that is sent that really says that someone that looks like me, someone that's my age, this may not be the job for them," Shealey said. "Because, to be honest all the deans that I have seen in higher ed, even as assistant professor, associate professor, just moving up in the ranks, and that I meet nationally, they are much older, predominantly they're white men, and then after that, white women."
But, she said, candidates have to be ready, put in the work, have the academic credentials "to accept a position like this."
Shealey's research has focused on the intersection of urban and special education. That interest and mission was particularly appealing, said Jim Newell, the university's provost, who interviewed Shealey for an hour by phone before the search committee began formal interviewing.
"She had vision, she had accomplishments . . . you could see where her work with urban teaching, all of the things she had done, would just fit in," Newell said.
"If you really want to have that kind of impact and that kind of prominence, you're going to want to have a bigger story to tell," Newell said. "I can imagine, in a decade, people are saying, 'Rowan transformed urban and rural education in South Jersey.' "
Of course, Shealey said, other niches are possible, and the college may end up specializing in fields such as STEM - science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - education, global education, or other areas.
"I'm not saying, you know, get behind the dean. But faculty and staff, they already know what I'm about," Shealey said. "They knew that when they brought me on, certainly I don't think they want me to change to having an interest in an expertise that I don't have. I would hope that I could contribute to whatever they're doing while not having to give up what I am, what I do."
To get there, Shealey will have to persuade school districts and principals to allow Rowan students into the classroom, which has been a point of friction, she said. She will put her social scientist training to work, collecting data to show the school's effectiveness.
That mirrors national trends, said James G. Cibulka, president of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, a national nongovernmental accreditation and education advocacy group.
"One finds a lot of good practices around the country, but they don't add up to a system of high performance. There's too much variability . . . I think some of the criticism would go away if we had better evidence," Cibulka said. In response, he said, teacher education programs have engaged in a race to rigor, looking for quantitative evidence of their programs' usefulness.
"Better data is one piece of a broader set of strategies for changing these programs - it is an absolutely essential piece," Cibulka said.
Shealey has set in her mind an accelerated timeline to effect change. She theoretically has time, with a standard academic appointment of an initial two-year term with an uncapped number of one-year renewals possible afterward. (She receives an annual salary of $175,000.)
But she wants to make big changes quickly. She's the one to make it happen, said LaVerne Berkel, the other associate dean at UMKC.
"She was able to accomplish a lot in a relatively short period of time," Berkel said. "If the charge is to get things done and get things done quickly, then I think she is well suited to that."
Shealey said she's ready for the challenge.
"After this year, people are going to see a whole new College of Ed. That's all I'm asking for, is one year. In higher ed time, that's a short amount of time, because it takes us a while to do things, so -" here Shealey breaks off, laughing - "it takes us a while, and I'm aware of that, but I told faculty, I said, 'It's a year, but after this year we have to come out very clear and very strategic in moving forward.' And I think we'll do that."
Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @elaijuh.