Transitions on Washington University’s global team

Wertsch transitioning from role as vice chancellor for international relations, McDonnell Academy director; Dirks selected as successor

James Wertsch, 2012
James Wertsch, on campus in 2012. (Photo: Mark Katzmann/ Washington University)

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton announced today that James Wertsch, vice chancellor for international relations, director of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy and the David R. Francis Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, will conclude his tenure as vice chancellor July 1, 2018, and his director role at the end of the calendar year.

Kurt Dirks, the Bank of America Professor of Managerial Leadership and co-director of the Bauer Leadership Center at Olin Business School, will succeed Wertsch.

“Jim’s legacy is one of unparalleled service to Washington University,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. “His vision, leadership and innovation have helped raise the university’s profile globally, and the deep, lasting collaborations he has forged with partners around the world are invaluable. Jim has built a strong foundation for our globalization efforts, one that positions Washington University and its partners extremely well now and into the future.”

“Helping to create McDonnell Academy is a top accomplishment for me and something I’m very proud to have been part of at Washington University,” Wertsch said. “Washington University is one of the premier universities in the world, and we’ve come up with a premier globalization program. Every university in the world talks about their internationalization effort. We’re one of the few that has a real strategy for it.”

Wertsch began his career at Washington University in 1995 as the chair of the Department of Education in Arts & Sciences, a post he held until 2005. In the same year, Wertsch was chosen to lead the newly formed McDonnell International Scholars Academy, which was founded as a hub of international activity.

Under Wertsch’s leadership, the academy has grown in size and scope to include 34 partner universities around the world, all sharing expertise and research to help solve the world’s greatest challenges together. The program leverages partnerships instead of satellite campuses to engage the world’s premier research faculty.

Wertsch also expanded the McDonnell Scholars program, which brings promising students from academy partner universities to study at Washington University, pairing them with faculty mentors. In 2007, a single alumnus was the first to graduate the program; in 2017, 13 scholars completed their studies. To date, there are 98 McDonnell alums.

After earning his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1975, Wertsch spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow in Moscow, where he studied linguistics and neuropsychology. He went on to hold faculty positions at Northwestern University, the University of California San Diego and Clark University, before joining Washington University.

Wertsch’s international connections, collaborations and honors are numerous. He holds honorary doctorate degrees in philosophy from Linkoping University in Sweden and Oslo University in Norway, and is an honorary member of the Russian Federation of Education.

He has also had visiting positions at Moscow State University (Fulbright Senior Scholar, 1984); the University of Utrecht (the Belle van Zuylen Chair, 1987-88); the University of Seville (visiting professor, 1992-93); the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in Social Sciences (visiting scholar, 1998); Bristol University (the Benjamin J. Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor, 2000); and Oslo University (professor II, 2005-08). The American Academy of Arts and Sciences elected Wertsch a fellow in 2009.

Future plans

A professor of socio-cultural anthropology, Wertsch’s areas of study include collective memory and identity, especially in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, as well as in the United States. He will remain at the university in a teaching capacity in the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences.

“Jim is an exceptional scholar, colleague and friend,” said Barbara Schaal, dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences and the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor. “I am fortunate enough to have been able to experience firsthand the tremendous work he has done in the McDonnell Scholars Academy and the strong global connections he has built. I am looking forward to his return to Arts & Sciences and the new contributions he will make through his teaching and ongoing research.”

Wertsch, together with Henry Roediger, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences, plans to lead a freshman seminar on collective memory in the fall. Wertsch also will teach a course about national security, with an international travel component included for students so they can interact with peers from academy partner institutions at Fudan University in China and Jawaharlal Nehru University in India.

Wertsch will continue grant research in anthropology, and stay connected with the McDonnell Scholars he has met and mentored during his tenure.

“My wife Mary and I have really enjoyed the time we’ve been able to devote to getting to know these scholars, watching them go on to become emerging personalities,” Wertsch said. “We have nearly 100 alums and we’ve watched every one of them come through this academy. That’s been a core part of our life, so we look forward to staying in touch with a lot of them.”

New leadership

Dirks, who served as Olin’s interim dean in 2016 and senior associate dean for programs there from 2012-16, brings a wide range of expertise to his new role at the university.

“Kurt is a perfect successor to Jim. He brings energy to continue to build on our progress and vision to find new opportunities to expand our international engagement,” Wrighton said. “Kurt’s wealth of knowledge and experience will serve him and the university well. I am looking forward to this next chapter in our international programming. There is so much potential and I know that Kurt will help us achieve it.”


Dirks has served on the McDonnell Academy’s steering committee since 2015. He helped to launch the university’s Executive MBA (EMBA) program in partnership with IIT-Bombay in Mumbai, the first U.S.-based EMBA degree program in India, and currently serves as academic director. Dirks also previously helped manage Olin’s EMBA partner program with Fudan University in Shanghai.

“I am excited that Kurt is taking on this significant role at the university, and I am thrilled that he will remain connected to Olin as we grow our school’s global presence and offerings,” said Mark Taylor, dean of Olin Business School. “It is as important as ever to continue to emphasize around the world the academics, research, intellectual capacity, student experience, innovation and values that make Olin and Washington University so special.

As we did with Jim Wertsch, we look forward to working with Kurt, the McDonnell Scholars and the entire global team,” Taylor said.

Dirks joined Washington University in 2001, having previously served on the faculty at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research expertise includes organizational behavior, trust in workplace relationships, and leadership and teams, all topics he views as highly relevant for his new role.

“The opportunity to contribute to one of the university’s key strategic initiatives will be exciting and rewarding,” Dirks said. “Global engagement, as I see it, is such a central part of our mission as a university. Our faculty want to help solve problems that matter, not just in St. Louis and in the United States, but across the globe.”

“Thinking in terms of the unique international approach we’ve had, it’s certainly one of collaboration,” Dirks said. “It’s about figuring out how to establish mutually beneficial, trusting relationships to make a global difference. When we consider our McDonnell Scholars, we can help them think about being leaders in their disciplines. Thus, my area of research on trust and leadership, as well as my prior experience, nicely complement this strategy.”

Joining Dirks to assist with Washington University’s global outreach is Benjamin Akande, who was named on March 30 as senior adviser to the chancellor and head of the university’s newly formed Africa Initiative.

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