Patterns of a Professor


Robert Franks is really a farmer at heart, though he has never grown any crops. Instead, his harvest is the students he has been teaching and advising for 25 years at Central.

“Teaching is a lot like planting seeds,” Franks says. “You do the best you can and then nature takes over. With the things I have done in my classroom and office, it might be five years down the road before it pops up for students.”

In the same vein, Franks loves to see his students blossom under his tutelage, although he denies much of the credit. “All of a sudden they know so much, and it’s exciting because you know you’re at least a part of it.”

For a computer science professor, the metaphor may seem a bit poetic, but Franks has always valued the personal side of relationships with students, keeping in touch with them long after graduation. After 25 years, he has even been in situations with former students meeting with students of their own—a sign that his legacy is growing.

None of that seemed likely when Franks first came to Central in 1988, following his wife to central Iowa in her career with the federal courts. After earning degrees from Northwest Missouri State and Iowa State Universities, Franks took a temporary role as a sabbatical replacement in the department. The next year, a tenure-track position opened up, and he got it.

“I thought maybe I would be here a couple years, and all of a sudden this turned into 25,” he says.

It’s a good thing for his colleagues that he stayed. Over the years, Franks has been on all the major faculty committees, chairing policy, personnel and curriculum. While he was chair of the last, Central instituted the new core and switched from trimesters to semesters. Franks was also recently awarded the Kenneth J. Weller Distinguished Professorship of the Liberal Arts.

additionalimageThose committee roles set him up for a major next step: serving as interim dean of faculty from 2009-11 as President Roe left and President Putnam began. He was surprised by the offer to take on the responsibility. “Maybe it was that everyone else took a step backward and I wasn’t paying attention,” Franks jokes. “No, it has been a really humbling experience that my colleagues had enough confidence in me that I could do the job during a transition.”

As dean, Franks helped keep track of the previous administration’s policies, made sure nothing was falling through the cracks and prepared for his successor, Mary Strey, so she could be as successful as possible. He was also able to hire new faculty, a meaningful experience.

His favorite part of the job was helping faculty do things they might otherwise have missed out on, like focus on research, go abroad and attend professional meetings. He also enjoyed recognizing faculty for the amazing work they were already doing.

Still, Franks is happy to be back teaching, where “the rubber meets the road,” as he puts it. As a teacher and advisor, he is able to build relationships with students much more easily than when he was an administrator.

Kelly Schafbuch Blythe ’11, now the online communications specialist at Central, appreciated her advisor’s interest in her success. “It’s clear that his goal both in and out of the classroom is to watch his students succeed,” she says of Franks. “Because of his interest in getting to know me, he not only told me what computer science classes I needed to take but had great suggestions about other classes, study abroad experiences and internships that could turn into careers.”

Intellectually, Franks describes himself as a lover of puzzles and problem-solving with a passion for computer science and a top-down approach to teaching. “I like to have people think about the big picture,” he explains. “So you have an idea of what you want to accomplish and then figure out how you want to get there.”

Tej Dhawan ’91, founder of Start-Up City Des Moines and a former advisee of Franks, appreciated his professor’s teaching style.  “Instead of measuring how accurately we responded to a question, Dr. Franks took the time to evaluate our understanding of the nuances of the topic. He encouraged our continuous exploration of the science, helped us test and validate our hair-brained ideas and promoted a level of discussion rarely seen in math and computer science. A true rock-star member of the Central faculty!”

Consumed with puzzles and patterns in his work life, Franks indulges his creative side during his free time with digital photography. He photographs both nature and people and is currently working on a series exploring the hidden spots on campus. One of his favorites is taken from the fire escape of the Geisler Library.

Luckily for his students and colleagues, Franks doesn’t hide out in these spaces for long. Soon he is back at it, sowing seeds in the next generation.


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