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Campus First: Carolee Dodge Francis is first Native woman to chair a department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison

A Native American Indian woman, with light brown curly hair, wearing a royal blue dress with silver beads.

Carolee Dodge Francis, EdD, Ecology of Human Well-Being Professor, grew up on the Menominee reservation in Northeastern Wisconsin. A member of the Oneida Nation, she was the first person in her immediate family to complete a college degree. Now she is adding another first to her remarkable career that has spanned public health, community engagement and higher education — she is the first Native woman to chair a department on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus.

Dr. Dodge Francis is Chair of the Civil Society and Community Studies Department at the School of Human Ecology. For the last 30 years, she has held a variety of influential roles in public health and health education in Native American communities, both rural and urban, as well as in higher education.

While earning her undergraduate degree, she experienced the challenges of being one of the only Native students, as well as a first generation college student. She was grateful to eventually find a small community of other Native students, especially one Native woman from Minnesota who, “really took me under her wing and guided and inspired me.” Dr. Dodge Francis still keeps in touch with her earliest mentor, and the importance of paying forward the life-changing benefits of mentorship has become central to her life’s work.

Three people, smiling, stand together in front of a blue tie dyed backdrop.
Dr. Carolee Dodge Francis stands with Paige Skenandore, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, and Josie Lee, Ho-Chunk Nation, at the Indigenous EcoWell Initiative’s Bead Exhibition event they organized together in 2022. Photo by Dakota Mace.

Dr. Dodge Francis is keenly aware — and actively working to address — the shortage of American Indian/Alaska Natives pursuing the fields of biomedical, behavioral, and clinical research. For the last decade, she has led a National Institutes of Health (NIH R25) research education program for high school students that provides hands-on experiences with biomedical, behavioral, and clinical and social sciences research in diabetes, endocrinology, metabolism, nutrition, and obesity. The program provides students with strong mentorship. Some of the first students in this program are now applying to medical school and other graduate programs. “A father of one of these students told me that his daughter was applying to a medical school with an emphasis in neuroscience because of this initial experience,” she says. “I simply ask these students to keep the mentorship circle going — to pay it forward.”

One of her mentees, Dr. Nicole Bowman (Lunaape/Mohican), Associate Scientist, Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison, says Dr. Dodge Francis is “a culturally responsive and caring professional who goes above and beyond to remind us of the kinship we have to those who’ve paved the way before us and how our work today will make a difference for the next seven generations into the future.”

Dr. Bowman adds, “I think she has supported and graduated the most Native and non-Native undergraduate and graduate students in the U.S.!”

Working with young people has always been energizing and gratifying for Dr. Dodge Francis. “I love the energy, creativity, and curiosity of young people and how they see the possibilities,” she says. “I encourage my students to think about where they can be most impactful — whether that means returning to your tribal community or working with government agencies or other pathways.”

Dr. Dodge Francis’ father taught her that as her elder he would walk with her, but not ahead of her, an idea she actualizes with her students. “My role is to help guide and encourage them so they can flourish and create their own leadership and journey. My students sometimes say to me, ‘I want to be just like you,’ and I say, ‘I want you to be better than me.’”

Megan Murphy-Belcaster, Native MD Candidate, and Medical Students Association’s Equity and Diversity Representative at UW–Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health, says Dr. Dodge Francis is “the inspiration for the type of mentor I hope to be to my own students someday. She has been patient, encouraging, and highly motivated to see me succeed as a young, Native professional.”

Carolee Dodge Francis sits at a table, speaking. Alvin Thomas is sitting next to her. A paneled window and bottom of a projected digital slide shows in the background.
Dr. Dodge Francis shares insights with students at the Equity and Justice Network Summer Institute at the School of Human Ecology in the summer of 2022. (Pictured on the left is Dr. Alvin Thomas.) Photo by Rosie Yang Photography.

Native faculty members also benefit from Dr. Dodge Francis’ example and mentorship.

“As a junior, tenure-track, Native scholar, Dr. Dodge Francis has been a tremendous mentor to me,” says Dr. Kasey Keeler, Assistant Professor, Civil Society and Community Studies, School of Human Ecology, and American Indian Studies. “Having this kind of mentor, particularly for Native women, is a true asset, especially when so few Native women have attained full professorship in academia. She models professionalism, humility, and cultural teachings, going far beyond what is expected of her.”

Dr. Dodge Francis says there were no Native faculty at her college when she was an undergraduate student: “I was a learner and a teacher at the same time in that I was often asked by faculty to weigh in or guide class discussion on Native topics.” Even at the graduate level this continued to occur.

In collaboration with her fellow Human Ecology Native faculty colleagues, Drs. Kasey Keeler and Brian McInnes, Dr. Dodge Francis leads the School’s Indigenous EcoWell Initiative, which is building a community of Native scholars, practitioners, undergraduate, and graduate students.

“I see our work like that of creating beadwork, incorporating artistry, culture, and traditions.” Dr. Dodge Francis says. “So when I hear about the exciting work that faculty and students have underway and how insightful it is — whether it’s for social justice or addressing health disparities — it makes me feel hopeful for the future.”

As a researcher, Dr. Dodge Francis has been a principal investigator for several NIH federally funded grants. She is a member of a global evaluation committee EvalIndigenous, which focuses on ensuring that policies and evaluation practices for Indigenous peoples are based on equity, fairness, and justice.

Prior to joining UW–Madison in 2019, Dr. Dodge Francis was an Associate Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the School of Public Health.

Before her higher education career, she held a number of public health, health promotion, and health educator roles in Native communities. In the 1980s, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, she served as the founding Executive Director of the Minnesota American Indian AIDS Task Force (now called Indigenous Peoples Task Force), which led to a role as a public health external evaluator for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) within tribal communities.

Her diabetes prevention work took her to Native communities across the 48 contiguous states, but she holds a special place for Alaska. There she traveled by bush plane, snowmobile, and four wheelers to reach villages in the remote areas of the state and was welcomed into the homes of Alaska Native families, providing a learning experience not found in the textbooks.

Three people stand together smiling. Behind them is a railing and a bright window with red, yellow, orange and green circles in it.
Dr. Carolee Dodge Francis, Chancellor Mnookin and Dean Soyeon Shim stand together in Nancy Nicholas Hall in fall 2022. Photo by Andy Manis.

“Having Dr. Dodge Francis join the faculty at UW–Madison has been a wonderful addition to our campus community,” says Danielle L. Yancey, MS, Director, Native American Center for Health Professions at UW–Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health. “She is an exceptional mentor and has worked with our students with the Native American Center for Health Professions, offering research mentorship that has led to several publications to increase the representation of Indigenous voices in health scholarship. She is a tremendous role model, and we are fortunate to have her here.”

In her latest leadership role, Dr. Dodge Francis is focusing on reimagining the Civil Society and Community Studies department at the School of Human Ecology. She will actively facilitate mentorship opportunities for faculty and student research, and continue the dialogue with tribal communities on how we can support Native students within the School of Human Ecology, the UW–Madison campus, and across the state.

“Throughout my career when considering new opportunities, and as a guiding philosophy, I’ve always asked myself: ‘Can I make a difference and be a catalyst for change? And will this difference have a human-centered effect’” Dr. Dodge Francis says.

School of Human Ecology Dean Dr. Soyeon Shim lauds Dr. Dodge Francis’ extraordinary career and the tremendous ripple effect she is creating through her mentorship, research, and teaching. “Every day, she is influencing and inspiring our students, faculty, and communities with her knowledge, experience, and compassion,” she says. “We are so proud and grateful for her important work and leadership and know that she is going to make exceptional progress possible in her latest role. Congratulations to Dr. Carolee Dodge Francis on this well-earned campus ‘first’ distinction!”