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October 24, 2018

Catching up with Jeff Russell

Written By: Tom Ziemer

Jeff Russell
Jeff Russell

There are stacks of papers—orderly stacks, but stacks nonetheless—covering Jeff Russell’s desk. And the top of a bookshelf. And a table. Throw in the dumbbells sitting on the floor, and it becomes apparent that the vice provost for lifelong learning and dean of the Division of Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison likes to stay busy.

Which might explain why, in addition to leading a major campus unit, he still guest lectures in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, teaches in the Master of Engineering in Engineering Management Program, serves on doctoral committees and helps conduct construction research. Oh, and he recently volunteered to co-chair a campus fundraising campaign.

“I’ve kept my hand in teaching and on committees and on a few research projects, because I really enjoy staying intellectually active and engaged with students,” says Russell, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who’s in his 30th year on the UW-Madison campus. “If somebody would tell me I can’t do any of that, it would make it very difficult for me. I don’t want to be a full-time administrator, because then I think you lose touch with the core mission of what we’re about: student development, learning, discovery, those kinds of things.”

Russell, who took over as dean of the Division of Continuing Studies in 2011, leads an operation whose offerings for returning and nontraditional students range from online professional master’s and certificate programs to non-credit professional development and personal enrichment classes.

He credits longtime Professor of Engineering Professional Development C. Allen Wortley with sparking his interest in teaching working professionals. The role of technology in learning has also long fascinated Russell, who started capturing his lectures on video in the late 1990s to offer students better access. His current role brings together both of those ideas.

“When you think about the adult learner, it is a design challenge of how do you understand their context? And then how do you design learning and deliver it in a way that’s accessible and creates meaningful learning experiences for them?” he says. “We’re not just content dispensers anymore.”

As a co-founder of the Construction Engineering and Management Program in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, he also remains interested and involved in the construction industry. In recent years, he’s assisted Awad Hanna, the Boldt Company Professor in Construction and Engineering Management and current chair of the program, with research projects on how to sequence work and construction readiness.

But Russell no longer has direct advisees—even his schedule has its limits—and he says he misses interacting as extensively with students.

“There’s more work and opportunities than I think I’ve got time for,” he says, “and I feel energized and passionate about what I’m doing.”