From Defiance To Dean

R. Karl Rethemeyer was appointed dean of Rockefeller College on April 20, 2018 after a lifetime of using education to build new opportunities.

From an early age, Randy Karl Rethemeyer knew he couldn’t follow in his parents’ footsteps. Born with a heart condition that has resulted in four open heart surgeries, he knew he would have to carve his own path in this world.

Rethemeyer grew up in Defiance, Missouri — population sub-100. All four of his grandparents farmed. His parents farmed too, and as a child he spent his days playing in the field with his sister as his father tended land for wheat, soybeans, and corn. For years, Rethemeyer’s parents endured the long days and hardships that came with farming and working a second job to make ends meet.

“For basically the first 10 years of my life, I would see only one parent at a time because they were trying to make a go at farming while working at hospitals 40 miles away,” explained Rethemeyer.

In the late 1970s, Rethemeyer’s father was offered a hospital management position. The caveat, however, was that it required a college degree — something no one in his immediate family had. Rethemeyer closely observed as both his parents attended night school and worked hard to earn their degrees on the non-traditional track. Seeing the value of an education, Rethemeyer’s mother encouraged her son to attend college right after high school.

“My mother always really, really pushed that. The other reason she pushed it was because I was born with a heart condition. I wasn’t destined to farm as a vocation because it was physically not possible,” said Rethemeyer.

“So I began to think about how I was going to make my way in the world. In rural Missouri, you saw teachers, you saw the post office — I saw a lot of doctors because I was sick — and you saw people that work in government,” said Rethemeyer. “Early on, I developed an interest in history, politics, and policy.”

Rethemeyer became actively involved in the 4-H organization, which served as his gateway out of Defiance and allowed him to travel across the country and the world.

“I went to the University of Missouri for programs in the summer, and I had three opportunities to go to Washington, D.C. through that program,” stated Rethemeyer. “In 1985, 4-H sent me to Australia for the summer on an agricultural exchange.” It was on that trip that Rethemeyer first dropped his childhood name down to an initial and began introducing himself as “Karl,” — a change that became permanent five years later when he interned at the U.S. Consulate General in Sydney, Australia.

Those experiences cemented his decision to attend a university away from home. At a college fair in St. Louis, Karl was approached by a recruiter from the University of Pennsylvania.

“I was predisposed to go there from the very beginning. They really took an interest in me as a student, and having come from the middle of nowhere, I had no idea whether I really had the wherewithal to get into an Ivy League college,” said Rethemeyer. “It’s one of the reasons I am so interested in the recruiting process now at the graduate and undergraduate level — one recruiter made a big difference in my life.”

Accepted, Rethemeyer chose to make the move to Philadelphia in 1986 and became the first in his family to pursue a four-year degree on the traditional plan. There, he earned not one, but two undergraduate degrees — a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in international relations and economics, and a Bachelor of Science, concentrating in economics from the Wharton School of Business.

A health scare kept Rethemeyer on campus for a fifth year, but it was during that year that he won a Thouron Scholarship. It paid for a master’s degree in the United Kingdom. So, upon graduating summa cum laude in 1991, Rethemeyer set off to attend the London School of Economics and pursued a master’s in development studies.

“I thought I would go down the path of being an international development specialist or possibly a Foreign Service Officer. But again, my health intervened, and it became very clear that I was not going to be able to do that,” Rethemeyer explained.

Rethemeyer returned to Penn in 1992 and worked as a research staffer at the National Center of Adult Literacy and the International Literacy Institute. There, he gained valuable experience finding external funders for various projects.

In 1995, Rethemeyer had a change of heart and decided he wanted to focus more on domestic policy. He applied for and got into the Kennedy School of Government’s PhD program at Harvard University. Interested in the social impact of the internet, Rethemeyer went to Harvard wanting to learn about the economics of deploying high-speed internet to homes.

“This is 1995 — everybody is on modems and dial-up and I had been running something called the Literacy Technology Lab at Penn, which helped educators who worked with low literate adults or adults that were pursuing English as a second language think about and use computers and information technology as part of their instruction,” said Rethemeyer. “I thought I wanted to understand how high-speed internet would be deployed to every home, but I was equally fascinated by the way those adult basic education (ABE) specialists were using the internet for political and policy purposes.”

After starting classes at Harvard, Rethemeyer found that he wasn’t completely passionate about the economics of broadband internet. Instead, he found that he was much more of a management and policy process person after a book on the required reading list caught his interest — The Organizational State: Social Choice in National Policy Domains.

“I got very interested in thinking about the policy process, and more than anything else, I got very interested in the concept of networks,” said Rethemeyer. “Networks helped explain what those ABE specialists were doing.”

Ever since, Rethemeyer has used quantitative social network methods in his research. His dissertation focused on state-level policy making with respect to adult basic education and the care of the severely mentally ill. He looked to answer the questions, “How did networks affect the making of policy and how was the internet changing the nature of those networks?”

After graduating from the Kennedy School in 2002, Rethemeyer continued the same program of research at the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy where he began his academic career as an assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration and Policy.

Early in his career at Rockefeller, Rethemeyer met fellow new faculty member, Victor Asal, who was studying terrorism. Over pizza at a local deli, the two brainstormed a project that would help them get tenure and secure a steady stream of research grants: The Big Allied and Dangerous (BAAD) dataset. BAAD offers in-depth information on hundreds of terrorist groups and their alliance relationships during the period of 1998-2017. This project has been a central piece of Rethemeyer’s research.

“There’s really two pillars to my career,” said Rethemeyer. “One is on networks and policy making and implementation, and the other is on the nature of insurgent and terrorist organizations and terrorist networks.”

Over the past 16 years, Rethemeyer has made his mark at Rockefeller College. He navigated his way up the ladder as a member of the faculty, earning the title of full professor in July 2017. Concurrently, he has made a significant impact as an administrator. When former dean, David Rousseau, agreed to lead UAlbany’s first-in-the-nation College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC) in March 2015, Rethemeyer accepted the role of interim dean of Rockefeller College.

On April 20, 2018, Rethemeyer was permanently appointed dean by UAlbany President Dr. Havidán Rodríguez.

During his tenure, Rethemeyer has seen the College grow substantially. In just three years, the College has completely revamped both the political science and public policy majors, created a revised MA in Political Science, and launched a new Master of International Affairs degree.

In addition, Rockefeller College has consistently been recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the nation’s premier schools of public affairs, including ranking fifth in Information and Technology Management, 10th in Nonprofit Management, 14th in Public Finance and Budgeting, and 15th in Public Management and Leadership.

However, the greatest growth Rethemeyer has observed during his 16 years at the University at Albany has to do with diversity. “We started diverse, but we’ve become extremely diverse in the last 8-10 years. It’s something that makes me proud to work in public education, especially at this University,” stated Rethemeyer.

“We are offering people from every background a chance to do what I did — make a change in their lives by going to college. Thousands of students choose us because we provide a great education at an affordable price in an inclusive environment. For me, that’s a really fulfilling piece of our mission. We prepare a cross-section of America to be great citizens and contributors to their communities.”

From the heart of America, Rethemeyer became an Ivy League scholar, a world traveler, and now… dean.

“I knew I couldn’t do what my parents did. I needed to find a different path and the university I went to set me off on that path,” said Rethemeyer. “I am perpetually grateful for the opportunity gifted to me by that degree. As dean, I am eager to help others who are also trying to make a difference in their life by coming here and realizing the things they want to do.”