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CCI Dean Mazer Embraces the Volunteer Spirit in First Year

As dean of the College of Communication and Information, Joe Mazer deals with a lot of numbers: the approximately 5,000 students majoring or minoring in CCI programs or meeting a general education requirement, five bachelor’s programs, two master’s programs, a PhD program, more than 100 faculty and staff, and of course a litany of budgets. Yet even with these all-important figures constantly demanding his attention, Mazer still manages to keep one aspect of CCI at the forefront of his mind and at the center of conversation: people.

All the planning and action he has undertaken in his first year as dean has centered around the success of people at CCI—faculty, students, staff, and alumni. Sometimes the mission of creating community is as simple as hosting a cookout for everyone at the Communications Building, with Mazer himself cooking and handing out the free food; and sometimes it’s more complex, such as instituting an inaugural associate dean of faculty affairs position to oversee professional development of faculty at CCI in order to recruit, retain, and grow the next generation of academic leaders. 

“Investing in people, in faculty, staff, and students is what drives the success of the college. We want students to be supported by faculty and staff, and to identify as a member of CCI and feel that it is their home and that they can be proud of that,” Mazer said. 

The First Year

When Mazer left his position as professor and chair of the Department of Communication at Clemson University to lead CCI in July 2021, he brought with him a vision to re-energize the college. He immediately started tackling an emergent to-do list that included big ticket items such as engaging all of CCI in a collaborative, bottom-up process to write a new college strategic plan to replace the one expiring in 2021.

The new CCI strategic plan’s goals are at the core of several other tasks Mazer has assumed, such as launching the CCI Office of Finance and Administration, and the CCI Office of Communications and Marketing, which required hiring six new staff. These offices were created to elevate the visibility of CCI locally and nationally, and to provide additional support to its four schools: the School of Communication Studies, the School of Information Sciences, the School of Journalism and Electronic Media, and the Tombras School of Advertising and Public Relations.

Dean Joe Mazer, center, speaks to CCI students about one of their school projects.

Mazer also expanded staff in other areas, including in the Office of Advancement, which has subsequently garnered annual gifts for the current fiscal year that have surpassed all annual gifts received in each of the last five years. It is this immediate success as well as the reimagining of CCI that continues to instill faith in those who selected Mazer for the dean position.

“Dr. Mazer has brought tremendous energy and a bold vision for the College of Communication and Information,” said Chancellor Donde Plowman. “I look forward to his continued leadership and what the future holds for this college.” 

Mazer also responded to the rapidly increasing enrollment in CCI’s college-wide online master’s degree concentration by launching a search for three new faculty members, all of whom will start in August 2022 to provide support and continue to grow the program. 

Looking Forward

With the five-year CCI strategic plan in place, Mazer’s next steps are to continue fulfilling a multi-faceted mission to address, among many points: teaching, student success, faculty development, scholarship, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Leading the plan is the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s land-grant mission, which is also driving the university’s new strategic plan.

“Land-grant institutions were developed to address the pressing challenges of the time. In the 1800s, those pressing challenges were agriculture and engineering. But when you look at 2022, while agriculture and engineering are still at the forefront, some of the most pressing challenges are in information; how it is disseminated and communicated, misinformation, disinformation, and understanding how that impacts society and relationships. This is how our campus, and our college, can make an impact by educating people to go out and tackle these challenges,” Mazer said. 

He noted UT is unique in that it holds three significant designations as a land-grant institution, a Research 1 university, and also as Tennessee’s flagship campus. Even more notably, it is only one of two universities in the country with those three designations to have a college that houses both communication and information sciences disciplines. 

Fulfilling this mission means launching many new initiatives, and while Mazer finds them all exciting, he’s particularly thrilled by the upcoming transformation of the Center for Undergraduate Programs and Advising into a new Student Success Center. Three new positions were added to the center, including a new head of career development, to reshape the support CCI offers students.

This transformation includes not just a focus on the services and support offered by the center, but will also encompass a physical transformation that will move the current center from the second floor of the Communications Building to a more prominent location with higher visibility. 

CCI Dean Joe Mazer, second from right, celebrates the naming of the Tombras School of Advertising and Public Relations with members of the Tombras agency and the school.

“When families come to visit the College, that’s what they want to see, and that’s why we’re reenvisioning it as a Student Success Center,” said Mazer, noting he envisions the center supporting students throughout the entire college process, from recruitment all the way to job placement.

Another significant development he will support is that of the newly named Tombras School of Advertising and Public Relations. During Mazer’s first year as dean, Knoxville-based Tombras Agency partnered with the school to create a first-of-its-kind landmark program and investment plan to modernize and expand the school’s programs. In doing so, it became the first named school on campus and the first named school of its kind among all land-grant universities in the country and in the SEC. The school is planning to use the gift in transformational ways that will benefit not just itself, but the entire college. 

While Mazer always credits those who work with him to make great things happen—he often deploys the saying, “If you want to go somewhere fast, you go alone. If you want to go far, you have to go together”— the leadership he’s provided has not gone unnoticed by UT’s administration.

“Joe’s first year as dean is a great success story. The college is humming with creative energies as Joe develops partnerships across campus and around the country. He has big ideas that are generating exciting opportunities for faculty and students,” Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor John Zomchick said. “As Joe, his team, and the faculty build on their successes of this first year, this great story is going to get better and better. CCI is a must-watch college under Joe’s leadership.”

Dean Joe Mazer speaks at the 2022 CCI Spring Commencement.

Looking Back

The re-directed focus to the land-grant mission is one of many reasons Mazer chose to come to UT. He also brought with him experiences from some of the successes he had at Clemson, which included expanding the department’s faculty and staff, adding a graduate program, and creating the first-of-its-kind Social Media Listening Center. 

It was the latter that created one of Mazer’s first ties to CCI, when a group of faculty visited Clemson to learn more about the center as they were about to build their own version of it, the Adam Brown Social Media Command Center. He connected and stayed in touch with Tombras School Associate Professor Courtney Childers, and from then on he kept an eye on what UT and CCI were doing.

Mazer is the first to state his academic leadership journey is an unusual one, as he had only completed one year as tenure-track faculty member at Clemson before stepping into the role of associate chair of his department. While there was obvious concern that taking on such heavy administrative duties could affect his teaching and research, it didn’t take long for his productivity to flourish alongside his leadership responsibilities.

Besides making his mark as a leader, Mazer is among the top 1-percent of the most prolific scholars in communication over the past decade, has made more than 100 research presentations at conferences, and has research included in more than 90 peer-reviewed books, book chapters, research briefs, and journal articles. These numbers and his many other accomplishments paint the picture of an educator, scholar, and administrator who is driven and goal-oriented. 

“You got one shot in life to make an impact, and that’s why I wake up every day and give 110 percent,” he said.

As a first-generation college student, Mazer can point directly back to one teacher who inspired his career. The teacher, George McFee, established the first-ever high school television station in the country in the small town of Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania. Students at the high school learned how to run the station in its entirety, in front of and behind the cameras. 

Mazer learned so much about the station’s operation that he and another student took charge of it when McFee fell ill midway through Mazer’s junior year, and died shortly thereafter. In hindsight, Mazer realizes McFee not only introduced him to communication, but also gave him an opportunity to teach and lead.

“My time with Mr. McFee really laid the foundation for what I’m doing today, I got into higher education to teach and to help students be successful. I wanted to do research and work with students on research, and contribute to the body of knowledge in our discipline,” he said. 

CCI Dean Joe Mazer with his wife, Chrissy Mazer, and their children, Owen and Claire.

Making a Home

When he accepted the dean position, Mazer didn’t take moving lightly, and coming to Knoxville from the much smaller college-town of Clemson has been an adjustment. His wife, Chrissy, is an instructor in UT’s Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies. They have two children, 9-year-old Claire and 7-year-old Owen, who have quickly adapted to their new hometown. Claire has continued riding and competing in shows with her horse, Flash, and Owen just tested up to his green senior belt in karate.

While there’s a lot the family is enjoying about living in Knoxville and East Tennessee, one of their very favorite pastimes is attending UT football games. They don’t miss a home game, and Mazer said he loves how everyone comes together to support the Vols. While a lot of times campus events, including football games, also double as networking opportunities for Mazer, it’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job.

“The amount of events that happen on this campus is really extraordinary, there’s almost something weekly for people to come together and celebrate and honor our community. I think people here genuinely enjoy being in community with others,” he said.

Perhaps one of the easiest adjustments for Mazer in the whole move has been embracing the Volunteer spirit. Helping people has always been a driver for the dean, so the Volunteer spirit aligns well with his personal approach to life.

“Volunteers stand up and step out and they lead. They have the courage to step up and say ‘I am ready to make a difference, I can make a difference, I want to make a difference’,” he said.