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New Provost Jiseon Lee Isbara Helps Usher in Change at Otis College

Starting July 1, Lee Isbara brings experience as an artist and educator. 
Anna Raya

Jiseon Lee Isbara is many things. When Otis College’s incoming Provost was still a candidate for the role, she presented to the community about her experiences as an artist, educator, administrator, and immigrant. The South Korea native most recently served as the Interim President of Oregon College of Art and Craft, where she also spent time as the Dean of Academic Affairs and Chief Academic Officer, a professor, and head of the college’s Fibers program. She is a practicing artist, working in fibers, and has exhibited her work nationally and internationally. She holds BFA and MFA degrees in Textiles from the Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, Korea, and also an MFA in Fibers from Colorado State University. In the Provost’s role, and as Otis’s Chief Academic Officer, Lee Isbara will plan, develop, and implement all academic programs and policies, ensuring academic excellence across all disciplines in coordination with other academic leaders. She also will be responsible for advancing Otis’s distinction by helping to recruit and develop Department Chairs, faculty, and academic appointees. 

During Lee Isbara’s candidate presentation back in March, she also shared that she is a mother, reader, runner/hiker, binge TV watcher, cook, traveler, and organizer. She got an early start at Otis by attending meetings and forums through Zoom the past several weeks—her first official day is July 1, taking over from Interim Provost Kim Russo—and already has shown an approachable, open, can-do attitude about the work she will tackle once she starts. Otis, like other art and design colleges in the country, is facing many challenges right now: returning in the Fall semester during the COVID-19 pandemic, and also going through rigorous change spurred by calls among students, alumni, faculty, and staff to address the impact of systemic racism on members of the Otis Community. 

In March, Lee Isbara talked about how a college’s curriculum should be evaluated and updated regularly so that students of different backgrounds are included. This aligns with what members of the Otis Community expressed in the open forums that were held earlier this month during a period of dialogue, listening, and reflection in the wake of national conversations on racism that have been happening. 

This week, Lee Isbara took some time to tell us more about her goals and plans for the College. 

What are you most excited about doing in your new role at Otis?

I am excited to join Otis at a time when all community members are motivated to share their ideas and roll up their sleeves to make a difference. With a pandemic, coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement, the college navigates many unknowns and challenging topics. I congratulate Otis Community members for successfully demonstrating their dedication and commitment to finding creative solutions during this difficult time. I was impressed with the depth and breadth of discussions regarding diversity and disparities that the Otis Community summoned together. 

How do you think your experiences as an immigrant might impact your ability to relate to and help Otis students who come from a variety of backgrounds?

I am a first-generation immigrant from South Korea, with a recent history of colonial occupation, war, military dictatorship, and rapid political and economic advancement. I also am raising a multicultural family, navigating racial and religious discussions daily. My perspective of political, socioeconomic, and cultural systems is therefore uniquely complex, although one could argue that it is intersectional or peripheral. I try to be keenly aware of biases and prejudices I might have because of my background and upbringing. There’s much to learn from students who come with amazing life stories and aspirations. It is the students who help me broaden my understanding of the world I belong to.  

What do you think are the College’s immediate curricular needs, and what are some of the more long-term goals you have? 

My general goal as an educator is to constantly revise the curriculum to reflect the contemporary inquiries and discourses for students of the present-day and future, while supporting a variety of learning styles and upkeeping the rigor. I will engage in discussions with faculty and respective staff to understand ongoing short- and long-term curriculum development. I am personally interested in motivating and empowering faculty to decolonize the curriculum by promoting equitable and inclusive perspectives, especially the way we could sustainably contribute to removing barriers imposed by systemic racism, socioeconomic disparities, and cultural marginalization.

You’ve said that one of your values is for students to go out and influence the world. What other hopes do you have for Otis students? 

I’ve lived almost half of my life in the U.S., where democracy and capitalism are valued as guiding ideology. The system is fragile and requires critical examination, thoughtful actions, and empathy to keep the system enlightened and healthy. Art and design education enables students to be future thinkers and makers who will influence what and how we use, see, watch, interact with, and listen to. What our students will make in the future in creative industries holds much importance in our lives. The education we provide to Otis students should encourage them to understand and activate the power of their influence as individuals and professionals, in changing our society.  

You said your other core values are: a mission-oriented collaborative community; holistic education; and an inclusive learning environment. What are your plans for applying these values to your work as our new Provost?

I trust that Otis is a mission-oriented educational institution, where we promote productive collaboration to provide holistic education. As Provost, my work will always start with facilitating discussions of various community members to foster ownership of our values, goals, and outcomes we collectively work on.

What else would you like the Otis Community to know about you?

I love to hike and run. It helps my mind to wander in ways that connect incongruent ideas that are swirling around in my head. Not to mention that nature just provides amazing layers of beauty that I can’t find elsewhere. 

Portrait and artwork courtesy of Jiseon Lee Isbara