UIC Library Dean’s goals include student success, social justice

Rhea Ballard Thrower, UIC University Library Dean
Rhea Ballard-Thrower, UIC University Library Dean

Rhea Ballard-Thrower has recently been appointed University Librarian and Dean of Libraries at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC). Prior to her appointment at UIC, Ballard-Thrower was Executive Director of the Howard University Libraries and a tenured professor at the Howard University School of Law.

As a law professor, she has taught advanced legal research using the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program pedagogy, where she taught law students and incarcerated students in the same class at a correctional facility.

At UIC, Dean Ballard-Thrower holds the rank of professor in the University Library and an affiliate faculty position at the UIC John Marshall Law School, where she plans to teach advanced legal research.

Professor Ballard-Thrower holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Cincinnati, a Master of Information and Library Studies from the University of Michigan, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Kentucky College of Law. Prior to becoming UIC Dean of Libraries and working at Howard University, she also was associate director of the Georgia State University Law Library and worked as a reference librarian at the Tarlton Law Library at the University of Texas-Austin. Professor Ballard-Thrower has been a legal bibliography instructor, conference presenter and author of many articles on law librarianship.

Dean Ballard-Thrower recently spoke with UIC Today:

What is your goal as the new University Librarian and Dean of Libraries at UIC and what would you like to accomplish?

I have four goals, or maybe one goal with four parts: student success, faculty support, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives, and social justice. No. 1 is student success. I believe this is why we do what we do. Otherwise, UIC would be an excellent research institution with a hospital, but we are more than that. We are an educational institution. One of the things I was attracted to about UIC, which we can do a better job of promoting, is that we are a Research 1 institution with Pell Grant eligible and first-generation students. That UIC has top-level research and also has this amazing diversity in its student body is exceptional. We have students of color who get the opportunity to work with top-notch professors, scientists and scholars to produce amazing work. In many ways, we could be a model for what other universities aspire to be. Students of color and all the other wonderful aspects of diversity like sexual orientation, religion, etc., create great diversity on our UIC campuses. The library with its DEI Council has been an early proponent of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and I plan to support the library system in those efforts. The library must also support the faculty with their research and teaching to enable them to educate and guide the students. And finally, there is social justice. I feel the library can take an active role in providing inclusive resources, which represent us all.

Please share a little bit about your background and how it might influence and guide your new position as Dean?

I started at the University of Texas Austin. One of the things I have in common with UIC is coming from a major state consortium. At UIC, we benefit from having the opportunity to work with other amazing academic institutions within the University of Illinois System. I’m familiar with working in a system where you have many top universities, who are highly competitive, but at the same time can be supportive of each other. I think healthy competition between us can make the whole state system better.

My connections to Howard University and Georgia State University are among the things that give me a unique perspective. I worked at Howard, an institution that literally was founded on social justice, and I also have a connection to an urban university (Georgia State), which has a large Black student body and a commuter population. I bring all of these experiences with me to UIC. I have the benefit of working with a state consortium, an urban university with a diverse community, and a university that has been instrumental in changing society.

How do you see UIC’s role in the greater library and collections world?

One of the things that librarians do really well is to classify and organize information. Thus, I feel we can take the lead in developing standards and procedures for data management. In 2023, all NIH grant proposals must include a data sharing plan. The goal is for final research data to be made freely available for others. Based on what happened with the scientific journals, I am concerned that a commercial vendor will somehow manipulate this publicly released data created by our academic researchers and scholars, repackage it, and then sell it back to us at very expensive rates. Thus, I see this time as a great opportunity to provide a systematic structure to organize this big data not only at UIC but for other institutions as well.

How do you get the greater community to support UIC and the Library and how will your background at Howard University, with legal research and work with instructing incarcerated college students inform your work here at UIC?

There are two parts to building community support. The first part is that we have to be engaged in the community. To get the community to support UIC, we have to “be” in the community. A good example of this is how UIC has administered the COVID vaccine to those in our community.

As for the UIC Library system, we have been engaged with the community by teaching classes, archiving special collections, and working with the various UIC colleges on community-wide projects, etc. Yet, I think the libraries could do more. I don’t think one typically puts academic libraries and combating mass incarceration together. But, I believe supporting returning citizens so they can reenter society and go to college is a proven way we can eliminate the vicious cycle of coming out and going back into the system. UIC has faculty who are already engaged in teaching at Stateville Correctional Center. However, the library is not engaged in this type of education. My research and teaching focus is on teaching legal research skills to incarcerated residents. So, my goal is to get the library more involved in this process.

Why are libraries and research important now?

Oh my, to counter ‘Fake News.’

Libraries are important because our goal is to make sure we provide truthful information. This is very important now, as we have those who are COVID vaccine-hesitant. Unfortunately, there is misinformation I’ve read online about the COVID vaccine that has people scared. It’s very, very important that libraries serve a role in providing the truth. At UIC, it’s particularly important because we are actively involved in administering the vaccine. We have to make sure that verified and truthful information is available to the public. Libraries have a role to play because that’s what we do. We provide verifiable resources and information to those who need them.

How do you see the role of the Library within the UIC community?

It goes back to my first goal – student success. The library is here to help students on their very first days on campus all the way to obtaining their Ph.D.s, M.D.s, or J.D.s. And/or, all the amazing degrees we offer at this institution in between. Student success, to me, is the UIC Library system’s first job. As I’ve said to my team, ‘If that freshman fails, we’ll never have that medical doctor, social worker, teacher, Ph.D., or law professor.’ That’s why, for me, our number one goal must be helping facilitate student success.

What is one thing most people might not know about you?

I’ve jumped out of an airplane. I’ve been skydiving and I absolutely loved it. It tells you a lot about my personality. I am a thoughtful risk-taker. Skydiving instructors are licensed and before you jump out of a plane, you have to have training. So, it’s not like bungee jumping. There is a process to skydiving, versus when you put on a big rubber band and jump off a cliff. That makes no sense to me. Of course, I am sure there are many others who would say jumping out of a perfectly functioning airplane makes no sense either. Touché – but after free fall when you deploy the parachute, you get to see the tops of trees and buildings. It is really amazing. You get a full picture of how wonderful our world can be. In my small way, I hope my leadership of the UIC Library system will help to make our world a better place to be for everyone.

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