Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is set to become dean of the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service on Jan. 3, replacing the retired Skip Rutherford. She is now assistant dean at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and a political analyst for NBC and Telemundo. Previously a teacher at Northwestern University and Rutgers, she will be the first Latina dean at a presidential institution.
DeFrancesco Soto has a bachelor’s from the University of Arizona and master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from Duke University.
In her role as inaugural dean of civic engagement at the LBJ School, DeFrancesco Soto created a Civic Engagement Program and oversaw the launch and management of the LBJ Women’s Campaign School.
What are the challenges and the opportunities of replacing a longtime and popular dean like Skip Rutherford?
Dean Rutherford left a strong and vibrant base at the Clinton School of Public Service. This affords me the opportunity to continue to expand the mission of the school. Because of this foundation we can hit the ground running. And as to what some may call a challenge — being from out of state, I see it as an opportunity. As someone who thrives on engagement, this is something I am especially looking forward to, the opportunity to immerse myself in a new context, meet new people and cultivate new relationships.
We’ve seen an apparent change in public sentiment on public service. How can an institution like the Clinton School enhance the reputation of service and educate the public on its importance to democracy?
Public service is the raw material of our democracy. Today more than ever we need institutions such as the Clinton School to train our next generation of public service leaders. The Clinton School not only provides the public service skill training to fortify our communities, but it provides a point of stakeholder engagement through its wide array of public programming that brings folks together.
What does the Clinton School do well now? In what areas can it improve?
As the first school to offer a master’s in public service, the Clinton School is a trailblazer in higher education. The program developed a distinctive combination of classroom and experiential learning to train the next generation of public service leaders. Where I see room for improvement is in expansion — making sure that we can equip more folks with this unique educational opportunity and in turn reinforce the resilience of our democratic system.
You have an impressive resume and background, but you described yourself in a newspaper interview as a “student council nerd” who became a political scientist. A native of southern Arizona, you also called yourself “a border kid” immersed in both Mexican and American culture. How does your personal background inform your approach to academia, and how might it influence your work at the Clinton School?
I grew up between two cultures. I learned early on that differences are mutually enriching. Differences — in how we speak, think, dress and act — can easily lead to groups isolating within their own separate worlds. If we allow differences to divide us, then we miss out on all of the richness that differences can bring. An appreciation for Ricky Martin and George Strait shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, and because of the borderlands region where I grew up, they aren’t! While it is important to draw on differences, we must also push ourselves to find points of commonality. If we start with what unites us, then it’s a lot easier to fold in, appreciate and bridge differences.