Ensuring a Legacy of Educational Excellence and Equity

Wanda Blanchett

In her 32 plus years as an educator, Dr. Wanda J. Blanchett has taught and inspired countless people, from her early career to her current position as Dean of Rutgers Graduate School of Education. Dr. Blanchett has learned her own lessons too.

“The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is it’s important to walk the talk of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Community is at the heart of everything we try to do with the GSE, and it takes all of us to do the work,” Dr. Blanchett said.

Blanchett, GSE dean since 2014, will step down in July 2024. She said being dean has been the greatest honor of her career.

Blanchett’s first teacher was her maternal grandmother, who lived with Blanchett and her family for nearly 20 years. “My grandmother instilled in me a really strong desire to be curious about things,” Blanchett said. “Her encouragement of my intellectual development was priceless.” Blanchett’s grandmother was adamant that her two youngest grandchildren with whom she lived would not have Southern accents, prompting Blanchett’s desire to become a speech language pathologist.

While studying at the University of Central Arkansas, Blanchett majored in speech language pathology but was required to minor in special education. Blanchett chose special education as her focus and fell in love with it, appalled at the poor quality of education in schools for students with disabilities, especially students of color labeled as having disabilities. Soon, Blanchett’s minor became her major, upending her career plans and extending her undergraduate educational journey. She graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in special education from the University of Central Arkansas and then earned her Ph.D. in special education from The Pennsylvania State University.

Blanchett held special education, urban education, and teacher education faculty appointments at Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) before becoming associate dean for academic affairs at UWM and associate dean for academic programs and curriculum at the University of Colorado-Denver. Before coming to the GSE, Dr. Blanchett was the Ewing Marion Kauffman Endowed Chair in Teacher Education and dean of the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Education.

She came to Rutgers GSE because of exceptional faculty and the diversity of students, many of whom are first-generation and working while going to school. “Seeing the talent, grit, and determination of our Rutgers GSE students here is inspiring,” Blanchett said.

GSE’s emphasis on Advancing Excellence and Equity in Education was also a huge draw. Blanchett’s career has concentrated on addressing educational inequity. “I want to make sure that no one is left out because of any uniqueness about who they are or what they have access to on the basis of race, class, ability, et cetera,” she said.

With GSE already committed to diversity and inclusion, Blanchett’s goal was to take the school to the next level. “I think that what all effective leaders do when someone hands them the baton is to look at how they can galvanize a community and achieve even greater progress,” she said.

“I believe that what we do is vitally important to our society and to our democracy,” Blanchett said. “When we educate people, we give them an opportunity to live out the real meaning of life, which is less about what you do for yourself, and more about what you do for others.”

During Blanchett’s tenure, GSE has further diversified its student body in its three doctoral programs. She also pointed to prestigious awards and accolades received by the school, faculty, and students. As just one example, Rutgers GSE was the only school in the country in 2022 to have three faculty receive National Academy of Education Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowships. A significant number of students have received fellowships with the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, as well as other national awards over the last decade.

Blanchett decided to step down from her dean position because she believes GSE is in an exceptional place and has achieved the major goals in its strategic plan. “In leadership, one has to know when it’s time, and for me, part of it being time is that our strategic plan has been overwhelmingly accomplished. The rankings of the school are the best that they have been. The caliber of the faculty, including its diversity, is the best it has been. Our research expenditures are significantly up in terms of externally funded research,” Blanchett said. “With all the national attention on the work of the school, the time is right for a new leader who can help the GSE to chart a path for its next 100 years.”

Blanchett hopes that the GSE will continue its long and rich history of innovation. “Whatever the future holds for diversity and social justice in education, leadership, and cognitive science, the GSE should strive to remain on the cutting edge of that,” she said. She also believes that we must continue to interrogate long-standing issues and challenges that face our country and educational systems, such as ongoing inequities in society and at all levels of educational access. “That’s the work going forward, while also figuring out how we can make use of new and varied technologies to reach and serve people that historically have not been served well,” she said.

After her service as dean ends in summer 2024, Blanchett will take a year’s research leave and return to a faculty role and plans to share what she has learned during 20 years of higher education leadership. She also looks forward to spending more time working on behalf of her church and local community. Asked to give advice to her successor, Blanchett emphasized that Rutgers is an excellent place to work and serve, and to build a career. For GSE specifically, Blanchett says the school is a special and dynamic place. “I thank you ALL for allowing me the great privilege of serving as your dean for a decade— it has been an honor,” she said.

“I’ve never worked with the level of talent all in one place that I’ve had the privilege of working with at Rutgers and the GSE,” Blanchett said. “I’ve also had the privilege to be mentored by dynamic leaders who see our collective work as part of a moral obligation to leave the world better than we found it. When GSE alums leave here, they go and do extraordinary things.”

She will be off to do more extraordinary things as well. But first, Blanchett has one final year as dean and has no intention of slowing down. Asked what she still wants to accomplish as dean, Blanchett quickly replied, “Everything.”

Read more success stories in the 2023 Rutgers Graduate School of Education Impact Report.