Linda Maxson, Liberal Arts and Sciences

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

A single frog earring dangles from Linda Maxson’s left ear. Wearing a purple embroidered jacket with jade colored beads sitting about her neck, Maxson sits sandwiched between two walls that hold handcrafted frog paintings. On a table in the middle of the room sits a glass frog, swirled with colors of green and blue. Maxson can tell you where each item came from.

“People bring these to me; they all try to bring me something I don’t already have,” says Maxson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS). “They see a frog and they think, ‘I have to get that for Linda.’

“You could say I’ve heightened people’s awareness of frogs.”

Maxson, who was born in New York City but raised just outside of Detroit, attended San Diego State University (SDSU), earning a BS in zoology and an MA in biology. She later earned a PhD in genetics through a joint doctoral program from the University of California at Berkeley and SDSU.

Before becoming dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at The University of Iowa, she taught and administered at universities including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Penn State. Maxson also served as the associate vice chancellor and dean of undergraduate academic affairs at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. While at these institutions, Maxson founded several academic student programs that are, to this day, still in place.

As a scientist, Maxson has had a distinguished career in molecular evolutionary biology. She did fieldwork on four continents, published more than 115 papers in premier journals, and authored three editions of a genetics textbook. The National Science Foundation continuously supported her research in molecular systematics for more than 20 years. A recipient of the Distinguished Herpetologist Award of the Herpetologists’ League, she is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

fyi sat down with Dean Maxson to learn about the challenges of her job as dean of the largest undergraduate college and how frogs have become a staple of her identity and career.

Your undergraduate degree was in zoology—what was the appeal?

I originally thought I wanted to be a medical doctor. Accordingly I enrolled in a zoology program, what would be biology today. I was put in an honors program and I had an advisor who invited me to work on his research—I was hooked. As a junior, I published a paper in a leading science journal. It was something I’ll never forget. I never considered studying medicine again!

What is it about frogs that fascinates you?

My first research experience was in human genetics and the inheritance of cystic fibrosis. My next research project was with my honors advisor, who at the time was studying population genetics of frogs. My first assignment: catch frogs, breed them, and raise the tadpoles to study the inheritance of color in these little tree frogs.

I went on to get my doctorate in the lab that was working on the timing of human evolution (when the first human appeared in the fossil record). They needed someone to do parallel work on evolutionary timing of an organism that wasn’t as emotion-laden as humans. I was interested in rates of change and evolution. Frogs are very old organisms, appearing in the fossil record several hundreds of millions of years ago, but anytime you see a frog—and there are more than 6,000 species of frogs—you’ll always recognize it as a frog, because all the species look like frogs. Mammals (of which there are also about 6,000 species), however, have evolved into very different body forms from species to species, and have done so in a comparatively short period of time (about 60 million years). That difference in rates of change interested me. I became the frog expert, and it just blossomed into some really interesting research.

With research you never know where you’re going; you just follow wherever it takes you. Frogs became an interesting organism that were good to study for the questions I was interested in asking.

Are there any new plans in store for College of Liberal Arts and Sciences?

We’re getting a wonderful $1 million gift to help support a new writing certificate in the college. I can’t announce yet who our wonderful donors are, but I’m terribly excited about the opportunity and impact this gift will make for all undergraduate students at Iowa. Any student who enters the University, not just the student in arts and sciences, can participate and earn a writing certificate at the Writing University. It’s a program developed by associate dean Helena Dettmer—we’ve been talking about implementing such a program for a while now.

The donors were excited when told about the program; their generous gift will allow the program to become much larger than we originally anticipated. We’ll have a core of writing courses, and we’ll be able to hire a staff coordinator to oversee this certificate program. It’s going to be combined with a living-learning community, so students in this program also can live in the writing learning community.

What are some of the challenges you face as the dean of the largest undergraduate college on campus?

There are several; it depends on the time of year. One is that we never seem to have enough resources to do the kinds of things we would like to do, in terms of people, staff, money, and buildings to house the programs we want to offer our students. CLAS has complex needs because we are the primary undergraduate college. CLAS is a very diverse student body with more than 50 different majors, and we’re not allowed to request tuition surcharges for our students. Consequently, we just don’t have the resources we think the students in the college deserve, making my work even more challenging to implement needed changes.

I spend seven days a week in my office. It’s not always full days on Saturday and Sunday, but CLAS is a big college and I feel an obligation to the faculty, staff, and students to be sure our work is done and done well. We keep CLAS moving forward while also paying needed attention to all the work that must to be done to assure that our faculty in the School of Music and the School of Art and Art History have the appropriate buildings designed and built to replace the academic homes destroyed in the flood of 2008.

What about some of the joys of your job?

I like being able to facilitate the work of the faculty, both in the classroom and in their scholarship and creative activity. I try to help find ways to provide the faculty with the resources they need to keep students working in their laboratories on their research projects, to make it a little easier for our current faculty than it was when I was coming through the system. I also want to provide many more opportunities for students to be actively engaged with our faculty in their work.

What are some of your favorite hobbies, when you find the time to enjoy them?

My husband and I do a lot of bird watching, which is now limited to the Waterworks in Iowa City and in Florida. I have a 9-month-old granddaughter in Florida—when I get some free time, I try to make it out there. I also enjoy baking bread from scratch. I like to bake a nice challah or I have a fun Basque bread recipe. And I love to make cookies and desserts to bring in to my staff, who are politely appreciative of my baking.

What kind of books are you interested in?

I enjoy reading good fiction and mystery stories. I also enjoy reading many of the books written by CLAS faculty, including present and former faculty and students in the Writers’ Workshop.