Red and white square tiles in the Robin's Nest Café.

Meet Dean Shim

Vision & Mission

You’ve said that making a difference begins in empathy.
For you, how does empathy connect with vision and mission?


If you want to make a difference, begin by asking, What do people need? What do they want?

For organizations, vision is a question of Who do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to be known for? But to answer that, you need to work to understand and empathize with the people you want to reach. For me, this is the first step in developing a vision.

In human ecology, we understand that people all over the world share some fundamental wants and needs. They want happy families. They want well-being and financial security. Many are innovative and entrepreneurial and want the ability to pursue new opportunities.

So that’s one group of people that the School of Human Ecology serves — families and communities. But of course, we are a school. So we also ask, What do students want? They want a great education. They want to be well prepared for employment and meaningful careers.

And finally, we are part of the UW system serving the state of Wisconsin through the Wisconsin Idea. What does Wisconsin need? Like every state, we need a strong economy to help the people and businesses of Wisconsin thrive.

Once you understand and integrate all of these different needs and desires, vision naturally follows, expressing the idea of a world where these needs are met. For the School of Human Ecology, that means a vision to prepare students for the 21st century, improve people’s lives, and drive economic growth.


A vision statement is very high-level. It’s the dream destination and is meant to inspire people to come with you on that journey. Your mission is what helps you to navigate that journey, so a good mission needs to do several things.

Of course, it needs to align with your vision and aspirations. If you are part of a larger organization, your mission also needs to align with their mission. For the School of Human Ecology, that means UW–Madison’s mission of teaching, research, and outreach.

And finally, your mission needs to serve your particular stakeholders within that bigger picture. We have many audiences at the School of Human Ecology, but at the core are our students, their parents, and our faculty members.

When we are exploring a new opportunity, I always come back to our mission, asking, Is this something we should be doing? How does this connect to our priorities?

A mission statement is your North Star. If you are ever unsure, your mission shows the way.

But again, knowing the way is not enough. You need a way to get there. This is why I encourage people to think big-picture as well as who they want to be tomorrow or two years from now.

Vision gives you a destination, and mission helps you navigate, but you need strategic goals to get there. Without achievable, short-term goals, your aspirations will almost always go unrealized.

Strategy & Goals

The word “strategic” is used to mean a lot of different things.
What does “strategy” mean to you?

We all operate within a larger system. To succeed, you need to find your niche.

So strategy begins with self-assessment: know your strengths, know what makes you unique. Then match those strengths and unique qualities to existing needs and opportunities.

I’ll share some examples of what I mean.

One of our most important resources at the School of Human Ecology is the Child Development Lab. It’s valuable for families and researchers, and it is something unique on campus. Of course, the university has a mandate to serve our communities, and Wisconsin has many struggling families. Matching our strengths to these needs was my inspiration for the Prenatal to Five initiative at the intersection of:

  • A statewide need to improve childhood well-being
  • UW’s land-grant mandate to disseminate knowledge for public good
  • Studies demonstrating that interventions in the earliest years of a child’s life can yield profound, far-reaching returns
  • SoHE’s unique strengths in childhood development, including the Child Development Lab and extensive research on parenting, childhood health, digital learning in childhood, and more

Another example, the campus created the Native American Environment, Health, and Community Cluster to better connect with sovereign Native Nations, and one thing learned through that work was that tribal communities wanted more support in meeting the needs of their youth and families.

The School of Human Ecology has cultivated a good reputation among Indigenous cultures working with Native American students. So we’ve leveraged our strengths in child and family well-being in another way with the the Indigenous EcoWell Initiative, building on the work of Paul Robbins of the Nelson Institute, who brought together Chiefs and Native leaders to address environmental issues.

Those meetings also surfaced a desire from Native American community leaders for more work to meet the needs of Indigenous youth and families.

This need in the community dovetailed strategically with work by SoHE’s Department of Civil Society & Community Studies engaged with tribal communities, research through the Child Development Lab, and extensive scholarship within the Department of Human Development & Family Studies.

One more example began with our Personal Finance major. Again, this is something unique to the School of Human Ecology — there is nothing similar on campus. And we have scholars with deep expertise in financial literacy, including my own APLUS study on financial knowledge and well-being.

Who needs financial literacy? Everybody! Particularly college students. So aligning our strengths with that need on campus led to the School of Human Ecology’s Financial Life Skills Course, which has reached more than  3,750 students across campus since its inception and continues to be in high demand each semester.

The success of the Financial Life Skills Course, available to all UW students, from incoming freshman to outgoing, job-hunting graduates, is the outcome of strategically connecting:

  • The general need for greater financial knowledge and skills among college students
  • SoHE’s unique strengths in personal finance, including the Personal Finance major, the APLUS study, and other research on financial literacy and efficacy

Not only has it become one of the most popular classes on campus, its creation also demonstrated SoHE’s commitment to being a strong campus partner.

As a result, SoHE was well positioned to expand the Personal Finance Major to offer University of Wisconsin–Madison’s first fully online degree.

One more thing: While each of these examples illustrates the strategy of connecting strengths to needs and opportunities, it’s important to remember that strategy alone is not enough. You also need actionable goals!

For example, one of our goals has been to raise the profile of the School of Human Ecology – on campus as well as nationally within the field. Each of the examples I mentioned helped us advance that goal.

Without goals to move toward, strategy will just sit on a shelf collecting dust! Success is the point where strategy and goals converge.

Building Teams & Earning Trust

Many would say that being able to inspire, direct, and support people is the ultimate test of leadership. As dean at the School of Human Ecology, what have you learned about working with people?

Building Teams

Early in my career, I was especially impressed by accomplished people. So much so that I thought if I brought in endowed chairs that everyone revered, that would not only elevate our reputation but also make us stronger. Instead, I quickly learned two things.

First, someone’s work and reputation cannot be your sole consideration. Personality matters. Character matters. And some people — even very brilliant people — develop such a sense of self-importance that it can be discouraging to the people around them.

The second thing is that I’ve become very much a systems thinker. No person works in isolation. We all work within many systems.

What I’ve come to understand is that truly excellent people are those who build up the people and systems around them.

Today, I’m still interested in those highly accomplished people. But I’m more invested in creating systems that inspire and support accomplishment. Instead of prioritizing the next superstar, I work to make sure that all our people have the resources they need to succeed.

Long-term success can’t hinge on a limited number of people. Instead, we all work together to create strong platforms for people to build on and to sustain our success when someone does leave. Excellence must incorporate everyone, and everyone should contribute to the greater good.

Earning Trust

When I arrived at UW–Madison, I was an unknown quantity, as they say. This was very different from my previous position, where I had built the program and hired most of the staff. As the new dean of the School of Human Ecology, I stepped into someone else’s team and legacy. There was no reason for people not to trust me, but no reason for them to trust me, either.

I knew that earning trust was critical, and that I had to show I wasn’t here to impose my agenda but to support a vision we all believed in.

So very early on, I brought everyone together to work on strategic planning and budget allocation. In the end, everyone got some of what they wanted, and I had earned trust by listening, empowering people to build a shared vision, and then providing the resources needed to reach it.

Beyond earning trust, that initial planning for SoHE has been key through the years. As just one example, SoHE created the university’s first online undergraduate degree as part of our Personal Finance program. It required a lot of hard work, and I could have met a lot of internal resistance when proposing it.

Instead, when the chancellor asked us to lead on this campus initiative, SoHE people seized the opportunity. We were able to say yes right away because our priorities hadn’t been set by me — they had come from everyone as part of the strategic plan that we had built together!

The Power of Partnerships

The School of Human Ecology has forged a number of strategic partnerships over the past several years. As a leader, how do you approach collaboration?

The bulk of what I’ve been able to accomplish so far has been achieved through building partnerships. As I’ve said, a vision and mission are critical. You also need strategies and goals for achieving your mission, teams built on trust, and systems that help everyone succeed.

But even with all of these things, very few organizations have all of the resources they need to achieve their goals on their own. We reach our goals not only by focusing on outcomes, but also by sharing that focus with partners who have similar goals and complementary resources.

Of course, building partnerships is a lot of work! You need to seek people out, bring them together, share your vision, and help them see how working together you can each achieve more. You need to show them what you can do for them and define what you need from them.

It takes work, and it takes patience! But the results are more than worth it.

When people see what partnerships make possible, they get inspired! That’s when great things can happen.

Our Mind-Body & Family Well-Being Initiative, in partnership with the Center for Healthy Minds, is an excellent example. Each side offered unique and complementary strengths, so we pulled them together into an even stronger partnership. I knew that SoHE could advance their work through our Child Development Lab and faculty expertise on children and families, in particular the scholarship of Julie Poehlmann-Tynan a clinical child-psychologist and SoHE’s Dorothy A. O’Brien Professor in Human Ecology,

This partnership also helped fortify our efforts to recruit Larissa Duncan, now SoHE’s Elizabeth C. Davies Chair in Child and Family Well-Being, and Dr. Charles Raison, today the Mary Sue and Mike Shannon Distinguished Chair for Healthy Minds, Children, and Families.

Another example is the School of Human Ecology’s leadership on Design Thinking and Innovation. Design Thinking was gaining importance nationally, and I knew that UW-Madison  should be graduating students trained to think creatively about how to make a difference in the world. The school had amazing assets to contribute, but they were underutilized and confined to our small Design Studies program. So I sought partners.

The establishment of the Design Thinking initiative at UW–Madison illustrates the power of partnerships built on mutual advantage and opportunity, fusing parallel tracks of activity on campus to create something new and exciting.

– Provost John Karl Scholz, October 28, 2021

As Design Thinking gained traction in higher education across the country, I knew that SoHE had relevant assets unique to the UW system, including:

At the same time, it was clear that the Textile Collection was underutilized and that these assets alone were not enough to establish a meaningful foundation for Design Thinking work at UW-Madison. 

I am proud that today the Design Thinking initiative at UW-Madison includes: 

In addition to support from SoHE alumna Elizabeth Holloway Schar and her husband Mark (introduced to Design Thinking through his alma mater, Stanford University), The Chipstone Foundation continues to be a key partner for the UW-Madison Design Thinking initiative.

For The Chipstone Foundation, which funded recruitment of Executive Director Sarah Anne Carter to lead the CDMC, the material culture represented within the Textile Collection offers an important complement to its renown collections of early American furniture, historical American prints, and early English and American ceramics. 

Chipstone’s relationship with SoHE also opens doors for new perspectives and scholarship within the foundation’s educational programming, which is directed by graduate students at US universities.

From vision to reality was an eight-year journey, but that time also allowed for the right people and supporters to get behind our vision and make our work even stronger. Today, as a result, Design Thinking has a home base on campus and is taking off in ways we never imagined.

Funding & Growth

In our society, leadership is usually associated with growth, both financial and in terms of scope of activities. As SoHE dean, what advice would you offer on these topics?


When you demonstrate
impact, that’s when gifts grow
in scale and number.

Fundraising is an important part of the School of Human Ecology’s success. We grow through fundraising, and while the range of gifts varies, together they create a vital pipeline for investment. As a leader, my job is to ensure that pipeline has the capacity to support what we want to accomplish.

Donors are another kind of partner. I look to these external partnerships for help, sharing our vision, and asking others to help us reach it. Cultivating these partnerships takes effort and patience. It requires an authentic and sincere connection to build relationships on shared values. It takes work to show good stewardship of investment, which is very important to donors.

It also takes strategy. I work hard to get initial funding, which becomes a way to show a taste of what we can do if we have the right resources. When you demonstrate impact, that’s when gifts grow in scale and number. Donors who give fifty dollars, which was the first gift from the Morgridges, can become billion-dollar philanthropists.

Of course, that’s rare, but $10,000 can become $100,000, $100,000 becomes a million, and one million becomes ten million. The School of Human Ecology now has many supporters who once gave here and there but then developed a sense of connection to a vision we shared and became million-dollar donors.

What’s critical is understanding that donors fund ideas. They might give to create endowed chairs and provide graduate fellowships, but they’re really investing in ideas. People give to the School of Human Ecology because we’ve inspired them to believe in what is happening here and what we can accomplish together.


I’ve always believed
that long-range success depends
on being proactive.

Although I work in academia, I have always taken an entrepreneurial approach to growth in the sense of taking risks and seizing opportunities, tracing all the way back to my moving to America on my own at age 25. I’ve always believed that long-range success depends on being proactive, so an important part of my job is cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit at the School of Human Ecology.

But to achieve growth, you first need a strong foundation. When I first came to Human Ecology, I recognized significant challenges that needed to be resolved before we could focus on becoming bigger and better. We did that, and in the years since, here in 2021, we have doubled enrollment, we lead the UW system in online degrees, and we have raised our profile with strategic partnerships and campus-wide course offerings.

Our teams have learned to think in a visionary way. They’re not afraid of new ideas or pushing our work to the next level. They are excited by challenges that others might see as intimidating. More recently, we’ve focused that energy into transforming the School of Human Ecology into a high-performing organization or HPO, built on tenets of authentic leadership, shared values, clear objectives, teamwork, innovation and accountability.

Final thought: I think our work on becoming a high-performing organization also demonstrates what I see as one more critical leadership skill, and that’s being able to discern what an organization needs most at a given time.

We now have teams in place that can drive the School of Human Ecology’s evolution, but they are, themselves, still growing into their potential. To ensure that we become a sustainable and enduring HPO, my leadership can now best serve Human Ecology by fully nurturing leadership in others.