New Face: Sean Mulvenon

This new associate dean in the College of Education says that working a variety of jobs has taught him to respect all occupations.

BY KELSEY HAND • Read this article at the UNLV News Center

Sean Mulvenon, College of Education photographed for New Faces on August 21, 2017. (R. Marsh Starks / UNLV Creative Services)

With a background as a statistician, Sean Mulvenon joins the College of Education as both a faculty member and as the associate dean of research and sponsored projects with a plan to increase research funding and opportunities for faculty and students at UNLV.

Tell us about an object in your office that has significance to you.

I have a red button that is similar to the “easy” button you see on TV, but this is a “bull****” button. Several years ago during a meeting at my research office with several doctoral students I was getting the “yabba dabba do” responses to a few projects and I said “that’s bull****! You need to develop a better protocol.” They loved my reaction that day and then found this button in a novelty shop and decided it was a perfect gift for me. Seldom does a person visiting my office refrain from hitting the button to hear one of the five versions of “That’s bull****” and chuckle. I think this button sets a tone of candor, clarity, and levity.

Why did you decide to come to UNLV?

Several reasons made UNLV a wonderful career move for me. UNLV’s Top Tier mission and the aligned support from the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, Clark County School District, Nevada Legislature, NSHE, and many others within the community make this a wonderful place to be, and the expansion and growth of research in the College of Education requires the positive support of these groups; The opportunity to join the college’s leadership team of Dean (Kim) Metcalf, Dr. (Danica) Hays and Dr. (Doris) Watson, who are amazing and knowledgeable regarding the commitment required to be successful; and the energetic faculty within the College of Education, who are active in grant writing and scholarship, provide the intellectual capital to be successful.

What about UNLV strikes you as different from other places you’ve worked or where you went to school?

UNLV is a big little school. The university reports approximately 30,000 students, but as a large university, it has a smaller feel relative to other universities where I have been. Additionally, this is the first campus I have been on since 1982 that does not have a football field on site. Which may explain why my question “what is the faculty discount for football tickets?” led to such chaos at the UNLV ticket office. Two ticket agents, one facilities maintenance worker, two administrative assistants, and an assistant director in the athletic department later, I had my tickets, with the faculty discount of 20 percent!

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Yakima, Washington, a small town in south central Washington. Yakima County is often referred to as the “fruit bowl of the world” because of the fruits and produce generated in this community and shipped everywhere. I’m most proud of the hops we grow for beer.

What other jobs have you had?

I have a long history of regular jobs beginning with delivery of newspapers to 70 homes when I was 10 and a half years old. I then continued with various jobs to support myself during school, including working on golf course maintenance crews through high school and college breaks, working as a janitor at Nordstrom’s and in the Kennedy Library at Eastern Washington University. During graduate school I worked a graveyard shift as a bellman at a Scottsdale Resort and various graduate research assistantships during my time at Arizona State University.

After earning my doctorate, I served as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois before joining the faculty at the University of Arkansas. There, I served as a professor and the director of research and assessment in the office of the vice provost of research and economic development. I also had the opportunity to serve as the senior advisor to the deputy secretary of education in Washington, D.C. I also created the National Office for Research on Measurement and Evaluation Systems (NORMES) and directed over $12 million in funding as principal investigator.

I believe my early experience framed a dedicated work ethic, respect for all types of jobs, and it paid for all my schooling that led me to place greater value on my education. Additionally, working on golf courses and as a bellman, janitor, etc. helped grow my interpersonal skills, appreciation for all roles in life, and made me a much better academic.

Tell us about a time in your life when you’ve been daring.

Any major research project requires the principal investigator to be daring. You must embrace the risk of failing, the risk of succeeding, and the risk of public record and accountability for your research. You have to be willing to fail, and willing to use both the negative and positive information you find to move forward. And in the process, you must learn to ignore any bruises to your academic self-esteem.

Finish this sentence, “If I couldn’t work in my field, I would like to…”

Referee golf rounds. I am certified as a United States Golf Associate rules official and I have worked many of their national championships as an official. I would enjoy doing this full time, focusing on junior golf programs and the NCAA competitions.

Tell us about someone you admire and why.

Father Himes, a Jesuit priest, who during the last two years of high school when I lived in seven foster homes taught me perseverance, discipline, and to never feel sorry for myself. The day after I had moved between two foster homes, in an understandably difficult situation, Father Himes put his arm over my shoulder and said, “I know you had a bad day yesterday, but you didn’t do your homework!” There are very few days that go by where I do not think of that simple life message.

I also admire Albert Einstein. Yes, he was the father of nuclear physics (my undergrad degree), but the message in his quote, “Do not tell me your difficulties in mathematics for I can assure you mine are still greater” is a lesson in keeping things in perspective. In addition to many other things, his writing, thoughts, and lessons contained in Opinions and Ideas, a collection of his letters, essays and other works, are excellent… They assert his commanding presence and his ability to influence an academic perspective.

Any tips for success?

Focus on how to solve problems, not why there are problems. I have always asked my doctoral students to share any problems they encounter, but they must also share a possible solution they have developed to move forward.

Pastimes or hobbies?

Avid golfer. Mocking the neighbors who spend all day working in their yards. Tailgating with other faculty and doctoral students at football games. Generator, TVs, tents, coolers, I have the full SEC (Southeastern Conference) fun pack for tailgating, which I have converted to UNLV gear. Go Rebels!