Growing up as a third-generation Japanese American in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial California community, Daryl Maeda began questioning early on how he fit into the larger picture of society in the U.S.
We want to equip [students] with the capability to spend decades of their lives and careers exploring new avenues. Picking up and using new tools. Being open to asking unasked questions. That’s the value of an undergraduate education.”
He was interested in questions of identity, power, privilege and belonging. He wondered about why society values some people over others based solely on the color of their skin. This quest for understanding led to a decades-long search that eventually brought him to CU Boulder where he is dean and vice provost of undergraduate education.
“I always had these questions because I saw how differently people are treated based on who they are,” he said. “As I explored these topics in my own thinking and reading throughout college, I really became very interested in understanding what draws people together to work for social change.”
Maeda’s scholarly work has delved deeply into questions of equity and justice, and how people can come together to demand social justice and attain equality. This has led directly to his work at CU, where issues in society as a whole are reflected in the student experience.
Student success is a bottom-line measure at CU Boulder. When Maeda looks at retention and graduation numbers, he is concerned that students from various racial and ethnic backgrounds and first-generation college students are more liable to suffer from attrition and less likely to graduate from CU. That result is tightly associated with their feelings of belonging on campus.
“When I say success for all students, I really do mean all students,” Maeda continued. “I’m committed to improving retention and graduation rates for students across the board. An effective way we do that is to ensure our most vulnerable students are being provided the resources they need. One of the programs I’m proudest of developing was a peer mentoring program for first-generation and/or BIPOC students,” he said (using the acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color).
Maeda champions building a supportive environment where incoming students can be paired with students with similar backgrounds and experiences at CU. This paves the way for students to feel comfortable asking questions about the university experience, so that before they have even stepped on campus, they feel like they know someone who could help them on their educational journey. This comes back to that feeling of belonging and community.
As a member of the Buff Undergraduate Success Leadership Implementation Team, Maeda’s responsibility is looking out for unevenness in cross-college interactions, as well as discerning opportunities to smooth the way for students to take full advantage of CU Boulder as a seamless institution. The office of undergraduate education takes a campuswide view of how students experience the institution of CU Boulder.
“To foster full engagement, we need to address the campus climate as a whole,” he said. “Some students come here with challenges that not all students face. Student success means closing achievement gaps, particularly for first-gen students, BIPOC, rural or LGBTQ students. We must create an institution where students can have positive educational experiences and feel truly valued as Buffs.”
Maeda believes one of the benefits of college education is the unique opportunity to be immersed among people of widely-varying backgrounds, a society students might never encounter otherwise. He feels if all students at CU Boulder are able to make valuable connections, to encounter new ideas and ways of thinking, then the synthesis of creativity will enable them to become more successful, well-rounded human beings.
“We are training students in habits of mind,” he said. “As educators, we’re interested in helping them to hone and develop curiosity, resilience and an ability to effectively solve problems––not just for a year or two years after they graduate from CU Boulder. We want to equip them with the capability to spend decades of their lives and careers exploring new avenues. Picking up and using new tools. Being open to asking unasked questions. That’s the value of an undergraduate education.”
Maeda has published two books on Asian American social movements seeking racial justice in the late 1960s and early ‘70s––primarily about how Asian Americans have responded to a history of racism, exploitation, discrimination and harassment, and how they came to grips with building a pan-ethnic identity, as well as ultimately helping all groups affected by similar factors.
His next book, which will be published in 2022, is a cultural history of the actor, director and martial arts master Bruce Lee. It explores how Lee’s life and career demonstrate the emergence of a trans-Pacific zone of cultural contact and the power of cultural intermixing.
“Thinking about Bruce Lee nearly 50 years after his death,” Maeda said, “We see somebody who refused to be put in a box, who refused to see the world as just black and white, who constantly crossed boundaries to find new and useful ideas and concepts around him and forge important relationships. That was the secret of his success.”
Maeda joined the CU Boulder faculty as an assistant professor in 2005. He served as chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies and associate dean for student success in the College of Arts and Sciences before becoming dean and vice provost of undergraduate education. He holds a doctorate in American culture from the University of Michigan, a master’s in ethnic studies from San Francisco State University, and a bachelor of science in mathematics from Harvey Mudd College.
“CU is an ideal institution for me because I’ve been able to pursue my passion for researching justice and equity and put my scholarship into practice to serve students,” he said. “It’s important that CU fosters a rich and inclusive learning experience for all students. One that not only provides students with a meaningful education but also equips them with the tools they will need to make a difference in the world.”