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The new dean of the Penn’s School of Nursing will be Antonia Villarruel, currently the associate dean for research and global affairs at the University of Michigan School of Nursing.

Villarruel’s appointment will go into effect July 1, 2014, Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price announced in a press release on Thursday. She will replace current Nursing Dean Afaf Meleis, who was appointed in 2002.

“Well I’m not always sure that being a dean was in my career trajectory, but when the opportunity came up it just seemed like I needed to check it out,” Villarruel, a 1982 Nursing graduate, said in an interview.

Villarruel taught at the Nursing School between 1995 and 2000 and has written books with several other Penn faculty members.

“I have fond memories of Penn both as a student and I had such an incredible experience there as a faculty, so I know what a great school Penn is,” she said.

Villarruel has spent years building and maintaining a research program around interventions for Latino, Mexican and Puerto Rican populations, with a particular focus on reducing sexual risk among Latino adolescents.

Villarruel is Mexican American herself. Her father was born in Mexico, and her mother was born in the United States. Her mother’s parents were also born in Mexico.

Many administrators, faculty members and students have been looking to the current dean searches to include and promote diversity in the University administration.

The administration came under fire in January 2013 following the selection of former Vice Provost for Research Steven Fluharty as the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. A group of Africana Studies faculty members criticized Gutmann in a strongly worded Daily Pennsylvanian guest column , arguing that “her commitment to diversity does not include her own administration,” citing that up to that point Gutmann had never appointed a person of color as a dean at Penn.

Much of Villarruel’s past work has dealt with minorities and diversity. She served on an advisory council to the Secretary of Health and Human Services for minority health and was president of the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations.

Villarruel hopes to continue her efforts in Latino communities as the new Nursing dean. “I still have an active grant that’s taking place in Puerto Rico right now. I’d like to be able to build on that,” she said.

“I started those initial interventions when I was here at Penn as faculty, so it’s almost like full circle,” she added.

Beyond her extensive work with diversity and minority communities, Villarruel’s efforts to support nursing faculty research at the University of Michigan have led to a steady increase in funding from the National Institutes of Health, the press release said.

“I would say probably the first challenge is looking at research funding and seeing what we can do to increase our success of the faculty,” Villarruel said.

In March 2013, a federal government sequester cut the budget of the NIH by 5 percent, or $1.55 billion, in its fiscal year - though the NIH has recently received another billion-dollar grant.

“One of the things that happened as a result of this is that people started saying, ‘We’re not going to be able to get any money - it’s not useful writing grants,’ and that’s just not true,” Villarruel said. “So we have to make sure that we continue to write good grants and that they’re competitive, in addition to looking to other funding strains.”

Villarruel said that it’s “too soon to tell” what initiatives would be best to implement during her time at Penn. She said her strategy for her first year would begin with “really understand[ing] where Penn Nursing is with input from ... students, our board of overseers [and] faculty.”

Provost Price described Villarruel as someone who “knows how to identify strategic priorities and then marshal the vision and resources to achieve them.”

“The [Consultative] Committee was looking for people with a strong background in research, a passionate commitment to education, significant administrative experience and talent and an investment in work related to access and diversity,” Rebecca Bushnell, former School of Arts and Sciences dean and chair of the consultative committee for the selection of the new dean, said in an email. “Dr. Villarruel excels on all counts, and her deep experience with Penn is also a plus.”

The announcement of the Nursing School’s new dean concludes the first of four dean searches at Penn this year. Consultative committees are also helping Gutmann and Price to conduct searches for new deans of the Graduate School of Education, the Wharton School and the School of Social Policy & Practice.

The University will also need to replace Penn Law School Dean Michael Fitts, who will officially become president of Tulane University on July 1.

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