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Growing the Education Profession by Telling the Right Story

Julian Vasquez Heilig (AB ’97, AM ’99) reflects on his journey, inspired by SOE faculty, from U-M undergraduate to Dean of the University of Kentucky College of Education.


Julian Vasquez Heilig was not quite sure what career prospects a master’s degree in higher education would afford him, but he knew he wanted to continue the research he began through the University of Michigan’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). Established in 1988, UROP matches undergraduate students interested in research with U-M researchers and community partners. For Vasquez Heilig, an undergraduate studying Psychology and History, UROP introduced him to higher education research by way of his program mentor, then U-M School of Education professor Sylvia Hurtado. “I developed a passion for researching institutions of higher education, but I didn't know that that's what I was getting into, I was just inspired by Sylvia.”

Portrait of Julian Vasquez Heilig
Julian Vasquez Heilig

Vasquez Heilig, a master’s graduate from the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education (CSHPE), is now an award-winning leader, teacher, researcher, and blogger. He currently leads nearly 3,000 students, staff, and faculty as the Dean of the University of Kentucky (UK) College of Education. He also serves on the Executive Committee and as Education Co-Chair for the Kentucky NAACP.

After graduation, Vasquez Heilig took an institutional research position with the school district in Houston, working under future Secretary of Education Rod Paige. “What I didn't know is that I had landed in a hotbed of what was to become education policy for K-12 for the next decade,” he said. Texas was where the “No Child Left Behind” policy was modeled and tested prior to becoming federal law under the Bush administration. “There was a lot that confounded me about what was happening with high stakes testing and accountability,” he said.

The questions that sprung up for Vasquez Heilig while in Texas fueled his pursuit of a doctoral education and ultimately his research agenda. He received his PhD in educational administration and policy analysis and a master’s degree in sociology from Stanford University. His research agenda includes high-stakes testing, charter schools, the K-12 to higher education transition, and, more specifically, how policies in these arenas affect students of color. Having gained tenure at the University of Texas at Austin, he then served as the Director of the Educational Leadership program at California State University in Sacramento. In that role, he served as a member of the college’s Executive Committee. It was there that he was contacted by a search firm wondering if he was interested in heading a college of education in Kentucky.

Vasquez Heilig is from Michigan, and is the son and brother of U-M School of Nursing graduates, but grew up visiting his uncle and cousins who lived in Lexington, where the college is located. “I actually bought my first Kentucky hat when I was a freshman in high school. Little did I know I would be an academic leader at Kentucky in the future.”

During his three-year tenure at the UK College of Education, the college reached record-high rankings and saw almost 18% enrollment growth even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. He attributes this to their ability to “tell the story of education and link it to the most recent generation of students and their passion to make a difference.”

As a leader at a public land-grant institution, what Vasquez Heilig is most proud of is that the growth mirrors the state’s demographics, with nearly a quarter of the faculty and students identifying as people of color. “It's a real tribute to the faculty that they've been able to take action and do it immediately to paint the bigger picture. We've grown, but we've done it with inclusiveness, and we've done it with academic excellence. I think that's really the desire of every academic leader to deliver on the mission and vision of the faculty, staff, students and alumni.”