ASU's Hugh Downs School names Sarah J. Tracy as school director


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The new director of Arizona State University’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication wants to bring awareness to the vital role communication plays in all aspects of life, from professional to personal and everything in between. 

A professor of organizational communication and qualitative research methods, Sarah J. Tracy says the importance of clear, empathic and strategic communication in our day-to-day life cannot be understated.

“From landing a job to creating strong relationships, communication fundamentally impacts all aspects of life,” Tracy said.

In her new role, Tracy will direct one of the largest communication schools in the world and administer five degree programs — which include approximately 2,000 undergraduate majors, 250 online master’s students and 50 doctoral students. Total student enrollment typically exceeds 9,000 per semester.

“With communication being the No. 1 skill sought by employers, our school provides the knowledge needed for students to excel in a variety of career trajectories,” she said.

Tracy has several key goals as she moves into the director role.

“Given the disruptions created by the pandemic, I hope to provide a platform for meaningful connection, creation and growth among faculty and students while also building on the school’s historic record of innovative research, dedication to justice and equity, and excellence in incisive and inclusive pedagogy,” she said.

Tracy, who received her PhD at the University of Colorado, began her academic career at Arizona State University in 2000. At ASU, Tracy has served as assistant professor, associate professor, Herberger Endowed Professor and full professor, as well as in a variety of administrative positions, including director of doctoral studies, director of the Transformation Project and interim director.

“I have known Sarah as a professor and leader at ASU for more than 20 years, and have been consistently impressed with her strong work ethic, research record and unwavering commitment to the field of human communication,” said Patrick Kenney, dean of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU. “I feel confident that her visionary leadership will take the Hugh Downs School to new levels of success.”

As a scholar, Tracy has an internationally recognized program of research in organizational communication and qualitative methodology. Her scholarship focuses specifically on organizational flourishing, leadership, compassion, interpretive-critical inquiry and emotional well-being at work.

Her research record includes authoring or co-authoring two books and more than 100 articles and book chapters. This research has garnered a number of top articles, papers and disciplinary awards, including the prestigious Charles Woolbert Award from the National Communication Association.

In 2020, the NCA named Tracy a Distinguished Scholar — the communication discipline’s highest national accolade, honoring a lifetime of scholarly achievement in the study of human communication.

Tracy is ready to shift attention to supporting the rest of the school in their human communication research and teaching activities in the areas of relationships, workplaces, communities, culture, health, science, performance and society.

“Our faculty are thought leaders engaging in meaningful and innovative research," Tracy said. "They are examining new frontiers of communication and technology, examining human interactions with robots and the use of virtual reality in dating. Our faculty are at the forefront of exposing and disrupting disinformation campaigns that threaten civil societies and examining how organizational communication practices may promote gender and racial equality in sports and health care. Research in our school will impact a range of lives for generations to come." 

Incoming Associate Director Bradley Adame, who studies crisis and risk communication and public health, says he is looking forward to supporting the spirit of innovation and growth that has been a hallmark of the Hugh Downs School in general and Tracy’s research in particular.

“For many years Sarah’s research has been focused on organizational flourishing and what we can do in the workplace to move from spaces of burnout and stress to places of compassion, generosity and connection. Her leadership will ensure a great future for our faculty, staff and students,” he said.

Tracy has a long history of leading through teaching and mentoring. She has taught a mix of over 20 courses, advised more than 50 graduate students and regularly provides workshops on leadership, happiness and well-being at work.

She employs participant-centered approaches, including arts-based and playful activities, such as using Lego Serious Play, an approach that supports participants in a process of creative thinking and problem-solving.

Sarah J. Tracy using Lego Serious Play

Sarah J. Tracy using Lego Serious Play with Hugh Downs School staff, an approach that supports participants in a process of creative thinking and problem-solving.

In recognition of her excellent teaching, Tracy was honored with the Western States Communication Association’s Distinguished Teacher Award in 2019. 

“Dr. Tracy is deeply committed to helping people flourish through both her teaching and her research,” said Rebecca Leach, a recent graduate of the communication doctoral program and one of Tracy’s advisees. “Dr. Tracy embodies compassionate leadership. No matter what hat she wears — mentor, teacher or colleague — she sees and treats people as whole humans. The Hugh Downs School of Human Communication is extremely fortunate to have her as our new director.”

When asked about a life philosophy, Tracy said that she lives and plays with this adage in mind: “Anything worth doing well is worth doing badly in the beginning.” She is currently keeping busy outside of her work at ASU by “doing badly” as she learns to row on Tempe Town Lake. Additionally, she occasionally contributes to her “Possibility Detective” blog and hosts a YouTube channel called “Get Your Qual On.”

Top photo: Sarah J. Tracy in front of Stauffer Hall, home of the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication.

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