Congratulations to Michael Dennin for being nominated for the sixth annual Innovator of the Year Awards! Hosted by the Orange County Business Journal, this awards program recognizes five innovators who are effecting real change in the Orange County community. This year marks Michael’s fourth nomination for this honor. 

As Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, Dean of Undergraduate Education and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), Michael’s campus responsibilities are diverse. However, he tackles each new challenge with determination, innovation, and a genuine desire to improve student outcomes. When it comes to taking decisive action and striving for change, few have done more than Michael. While he has accomplished much in his various roles, his greatest impact on UCI’s community has been his commitment to pedagogical innovation, educational accessibility and inclusive excellence.

One of Michael’s most notable contributions was the creation of the new Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (OVPTL). By uniting the Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE), Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation (DTEI) and Division of Summer Session, Michael combined the expertise and resources of these three units to better support UCI’s students, faculty and staff. The establishment of the OVPTL has led to the creation of updated academic programs, exciting community partnerships and increased national outreach—ultimately resulting in a number of recognitions for UCI’s support of student diversity and college access. 

In support of pedagogical innovation, Michael oversaw UCI’s multi-year, $67-million effort to create the Anteater Learning Pavillion (ALP). Designed with research-backed active learning principles in mind and heralded as California’s first active learning facility, the ALP opened in 2018 to offer UCI faculty and students access to smart classrooms, high-tech lecture halls, fully-equipped computer labs and a variety of collaborative study areas. To encourage faculty to adopt active learning strategies, Michael also supported the creation of the Active Learning Institute (ALI), a training program that prepares faculty to teach at the ALP.  Faculty participating in the ALI learn what active learning is, how to reimagine courses utilizing active learning strategies, how to create assignments that actively engage students and how to utilize technology to support active learning principles. 

Michael is also teaming up with Dean Richard Arum of the UCI School of Education to co-lead a long-term national research project investigating the value of liberal arts education. The project aims to improve understanding of the value of undergraduate educational experiences and promote evidence-based models of undergraduate student success. Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Michael has helped raise 1.1 million in funding for the study. Recently, Michael and Richard Arum, Dean of UCI School of Education, discussed the progress of this cutting-edge research in a segment for PBS NewsHour.  

In the areas of educational accessibility and inclusive excellence, Michael led the OVPTL to introduce several programs and initiatives to support traditionally underrepresented student populations. For instance, Michael played an instrumental role in the creation of UCI’s Student Success Initiatives (SSI). SSI offers a variety of support programs and services to assist UCI’s diverse student body and improve their educational and future outcomes. Housed within the Division of Undergraduate Education, SSI serves first-generation students, low-income students, current/former foster youth, international students, transfer students, students with disabilities and a number of other marginalized student populations.

Michael supported the establishment of the First-Generation Faculty Initiative at UCI to further assist UCI’s first-generation students. The initiative encourages students, faculty and staff to identify themselves as the first in their families to attend college. Not only does the program recognize the social and cultural challenges that UCI’s first-gen students face in pursuit of a college education, but it also helps them find a sense of belonging and build a community of support on campus. Following the success of the First-Generation Faculty Initiative at UCI, the program is now being implemented across the entire UC system. In 2019, Michael was recognized for his work with the initiative when he received the Gold Award in Diversity Programs at the 2019 CASE District VII Competition.

Most recently, Michael demonstrated his commitment to UCI’s student body as campus quickly transitioned to a remote setting due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After the announcement that UCI would offer remote instruction for Spring and Summer 2020, Michael’s top priority was ensuring that UCI’s undergraduate population had the tools, resources and support they needed to continue their academic success. He led the OVPTL in a partnership with UCI’s Office of Information and Technology to identify students who did not have access to the technological resources necessary for remote learning. With the creation of the Student Laptop Loan Program, the OVPTL and its units came together to offer students free laptop loans so they could access online materials and programs for their courses. Free internet hotspots were also loaned out to students who did not have access to a reliable internet connection at home.

With UCI committing to remote instruction for Fall Quarter 2020 and offering a remote learning option for the remainder of the 2020-2021 academic year, Michael is working to provide essential messaging for both new and returning students. In addition to creating informational videos where he addresses student concerns, he has also embarked on a campuswide communication effort to ensure that students have access to updated information, relevant resources and support programs.

While many in higher education administration are content to maintain the status quo, Michael constantly strives to make campus a better place for all. He genuinely cares about UCI’s students, faculty and staff and is ready to put in the work to prove it. It is Michael’s commitment to UCI and its extended community that makes him a worthy nominee for this year’s Innovator of the Year Awards. 

Information on Michael and the other nominees for the 2020 Innovator of the Year Awards was featured in a special report published by the Orange County Business Journal on August 17, 2020. This year’s virtual awards event will be streamed on their website on September 24, 2020.

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