A Woman of Achievement
Lisa Tadesco '81, a top administrator at the University at Michigan, crafts a career in research and public service.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure-in dentistry, human relationships, and university administration. Lisa A. Tedesco, Ph.D. '81 & M.Ed. '75, learned those lessons at UB and is using them in her new job as vice president and secretary of the University of Michigan (U-M) in Ann Arbor.
Tedesco is one of a small but growing number of women working in the highest ranks of American universities. At U-M, five of 11 executive officers are women, a particularly favorable balance in comparison with many large research universities.
Sitting in her new office, Tedesco says that most, if not all, of what she needed to know to succeed in her career she found at UB. "It was all there-human development, how communities work together, psychological aspects that contribute to performance," she says. "You don't realize it when you're going through, but you're getting it all, in various experiences along the way."
As a child growing up in the small, blue-collar town of Washington, New Jersey, Tedesco never envisioned a career in academic dentistry or university administration. Her grandparents had immigrated to the U.S. from Italy. Her father was a factory foreman, her mother worked for the phone company. But these modest circumstances do not fully reveal the scope of parental influence. Her mother-who once wrote a prize-winning essay called "Touching the Liberty Bell"- has been a strong role model for Tedesco.
After high school, Tedesco studied business and secondary education at the University of Bridgeport, an urban institution in southern Connecticut. She taught for a year in a storefront school in a poor part of the city. "I've always valued service to the communities where we live and work," she says. To broaden her options, she came to Buffalo for graduate work in educational psychology.
At UB, Tedesco specialized in how young people learn, how they shape expectations for themselves, and what can be done to help them thrive in school. "It's amazing what people can achieve when they have positive expectations," she says.
In Tedesco's case, positive expectations came from former UB faculty member Judith Albino, who became Tedesco's mentor and, later, colleague and friend. Albino, associate provost and dean of the graduate school when she left UB in 1990, was a longtime professor in the UB dental school's behavioral sciences department. Tedesco was Albino's research assistant on a project funded by the National Institute of Dental Research. "Lisa is one of those rare individuals who not only can work across disciplines, but who is able to absorb the subtleties of another disciplinary culture," says Albino, now president emerita of the University of Colorado.
With a foundation in educational psychology, Tedesco branched out into health psychology and academic dentistry, where she worked for 18 years, first in the UB graduate school and later as a faculty member in the dental school. Her work has focused on changing people's attitudes and behaviors to prevent periodontal disease, a condition since found to correlate with heart disease and other illnesses. She worked with SUNY Distinguished Professor Robert Genco in the UB dental school, conducting research on stress and periodontal disease, a project with which she remains associated today.
Is it intimidating for a non-dentist to work among dentists? No, Tedesco says. In fact, over the years many have mistaken her for one. "I wasn't a dentist, but neither were they psychologists or basic researchers," she points out. "This was where I learned about collaboration. To this day, I think I thrived because I approached it as a multicultural experience."
Tedesco loved the intellectual challenge of scientific research. "But you do more and more research, and you focus, focus, focus. Pretty soon there are very few people who know what you're talking about," she says. "I became increasingly interested in how the basic research could be used to improve clinical practice. Before I knew it, I was asking myself questions about organizational behavior, such as, ‘What do we have to put in the curriculum to accomplish this particular goal?'"
Her first step into administration came in 1989, when she was appointed associate dean for educational planning in the UB dental school. In that role, Tedesco supervised curriculum evaluation and redesign. Both at UB and, later, at U-M, she pushed for more case-based teaching, peer review of teaching, and other improvements in the way clinical judgment and thinking skills are conveyed to future health professionals. She also worked to foster stronger relationships between dentists, the dental school and the communities they serve. As though by plan, these projects seemed to echo educational psychology concepts Tedesco had learned earlier at UB.
Tedesco's success at UB raised her profile nationally. In 1991, she was a fellow in the Pew National Dental Leadership Development Program. The following year, she was recruited as associate dean for academic affairs at the U-M School of Dentistry, where she supervised curriculum, educational resources, student affairs, minority affairs and multicultural programs. "I was ready for the job," she says. "I wanted to see how much positive change we could bear, if we were prepared to be the designers of our future."
Bernard Machen, then dean of the U-M dental school, recruited Tedesco. "She was well respected as a researcher, yet her people skills are her greatest asset. She wins by the force of her logic and the power of her persuasion," says Machen, now president of the University of Utah.
Tedesco helped conduct a "cultural audit" of the dental school, seeking to improve the climate at a school that already has graduated more African American dentists over the past 20 years than any other in the country, except for Meharry Medical College and Howard University, both predominantly African American institutions. "We wanted to expose the myths that lead to bias. And we came up with programs for student orientation and conflict resolution," she says.
She began working with the U-M president to coordinate projects promoting diversity and advancement of women. In nearby Ypsilanti, she is working with other U-M health science schools on the HOPE (Health Occupations Partnership Education) Project, which aims to keep more public school minority and disadvantaged students in the pipeline for careers in the fields of science and allied health.
More entries on her 35-page resume: Tedesco was president of the American Association of Dental Schools-splashy AADS posters sit on the floor of her U-M office. In 1995, she was inducted as an honorary member of the American Dental Association. In 1996–97, she was a fellow in the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) Program for Women, sponsored by Allegheny University of the Health Sciences and the Institute for Women's Health.
Surveying diversity in higher education today, Tedesco sees tremendous progress. "We're all working very hard, with a great amount of sincerity and desire," she says. "In some cases, we're having a hard time preserving and extending our advances. We need to learn to work together, to suspend our beliefs, to better understand each other, and to move ahead."
Tedesco is married to David Kuehn, whom she met in 1977 when she was involved in community work to support the Buffalo Philharmonic and he was principal trumpeter for the orchestra. Kuehn, now a freelance musician who recently performed in Beijing with Maggio Musicale Fiorentino under the direction of Zubin Mehta, continued to serve on the UB performance faculty until 1992, when the couple moved to Ann Arbor. They have twin daughters, Amelia ("Mimi") and Anna ("Coco"), born in 1985 during a Buffalo blizzard. Kuehn's son, Scott (B.A. '94), is a UB alumnus in international studies and Japanese language.
As David Kuehn has advanced his own international career, he has also supported his wife's advancement. "He recognizes that when opportunities do happen, you need to take advantage of them," Tedesco says. "That has been very important to me."
Anne Valentine Martino is a freelance writer based in Ypsilanti, Michigan.