A desire to think critically and creatively put Professor Emerita Marilyn DeLong on the path to a career in higher education. Serving as associate dean before, during, and after the creation of the College of Design, DeLong helped shape the college’s graduate education programs. Her skill for seeing connections and her passion for helping women earn their Ph.D. degrees have made her a highly regarded and celebrated educator and mentor. In this interview, DeLong talks about her career, her future plans, and her advice for design academics and professionals.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in academia?
My family has a long history of teaching. Most of my aunts and uncles were teachers—one uncle was a faculty member at the U; one aunt was faculty in Texas. I began teaching in high school while my husband was completing his engineering degree. Such a position didn’t give me enough time to think critically so I pursued a graduate degree. Eventually, I discovered that it is rare to find a 40-hour-a-week position that allows you time to think and reflect. I learned you just have to make time to read and think critically to create innovative ideas.
What accomplishments are you most proud of from your career with the University?
I was associate dean when the College of Design was formed, both before and after formation, so I felt like I helped with the transition. I was instrumental in making a few strategic moves, i.e. transitioning from a general graduate program to one specializing in design. I also found I had a gift for making linkages, pointing out to students and faculty how they could make a difference. One of my successful linkages was our research with 3M computer software engineers. We formed a skunkworks that brought in enough funding for research assistantships for eight students to complete their graduate education and move into academic positions.
What was your favorite class to teach or favorite part of teaching?
I enjoyed teaching all of the classes but the graduate-level classes were my favorite because of the 1:1 relationships that could be formed with students. The graduate classes for which I designed the curriculum included “Innovation Theory”, “Aesthetics & Design”, and “Material Culture”. These eventually were transformed from having a focus on apparel to focusing more generally on design. In these classes, we often did both team and individual projects that resulted in publications or presentations at professional conferences. I enjoyed seeing what happened when students successfully presented their projects in the professional arena!
You’ve been involved in the organization of many of the college’s events and exhibitions. Is there one that especially sticks out to you as your favorite?
I think the Design Graduate Program celebration of 100 years: the exhibition and accompanying celebratory event were my favorites. This included a team of faculty and staff who worked together to make a glorious event. KeySook Geum, my first postdoctoral visiting scholar, was the keynote speaker. During her keynote, she discussed her designs for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Korea. I was very proud of her!
Higher education has changed quite a bit over the course of your career. What’s been the biggest or most surprising change?
The biggest change has been the increasing number of women who have succeeded in completing their Ph.D. As a professor, I felt that my job was to help these students, many of whom were international students, have enough confidence in their research that they could defend their research, even when English was a second language. I wanted to help them to go forth and make a difference within their professions and they did just that! Some of my international students have returned to become faculty and administrators in their country of origin; many have stayed in the U.S. to become successful industry or academic leaders.
What are your plans for retirement?
I will continue to find exciting and meaningful work. I have already promised to continue to help current graduate students with publications and presentations and I will supervise/mentor my current graduate students to their degree completion. Other current projects include finishing a digital textbook that I am co-writing with a colleague at the University of California. I also plan to return to my painting as I love to dabble in color mixing. I started a family memoir comparing the memories of various generations growing up within a large family and generational network. Who knows where my energy will take me?
Any words of advice for current faculty members or design professionals?
Yes! The design field is in a critical transition based on climate change, the pandemic, and other significant cultural changes. So wherever you land, consider your impact on the future and what is needed in design based upon the needs of the user and the society.