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Our new Dean

Topics/tags: Grinnell, Academia

Today marked the first Faculty Meeting of the 2019-2020 academic year. If I count correctly, it’s my twenty-third first Faculty Meeting of the year. I still recall Grant Gale standing up at my first first Faculty Meeting and saying something like This is my 50th first Faculty Meeting. Doug Caulkins wasn’t there today, but I think he could have said the same this year.

The meeting was filled with the normal highlights: The new faculty were announced [1] and applauded [2]. The President discussed some large strategic goals for the year (the Capital Campaign and the building program are the ones I recall). The Centers announced their programs [3].

One thing was different this year: We have a new Dean, Anne Harris, who introduced herself and gave her vision for liberal arts education and for Grinnell. I’ve only had a few interactions with Dean Harris so far [4], so I appreciated the opportunity to hear more from her. Her speech suggested to me that we are lucky to have found her. She’s clearly thoughtful, articulate, funny, and collaborative [5].

She chose two interesting quotations to open her vision statement and provided commentary and interpretation of each. The first was from John Dewey, approximately, Democracy is reborn with each generation and education is its midwife. The second was much more recent and took the form Education is the new civil rights movement [6]. I appreciated even more that she found ways to incorporate critical thinking, inclusion, and policy change in her discussions of those quotations.

Dean Harris is an art historian and a medievalist; she found a variety of ways to bring those aspects of her worldview into the presentation. I particularly enjoyed her careful use of a painting of the Tower of Babel by Peter Bruegel the Elder [7] and the careful ways she brought different parts of the piece into her talk.

I also found it useful to hear her discuss of the books she’d been reading with faculty and staff since coming to Grinnell. I’m not sure that I was able to record the whole list, but they include Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking, Cristina Henriquez’ The Book of Unknown Americans [8], John Palfrey’s Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces, and the second edition of Terrell L. Strayhorn’s College Students’ Sense of Belonging. She also mentioned two followups to the last two books; I think she’s either started or planning on reading both. Those are Michael Roth’s Safe Enough Spaces and David Kirp’s The College Dropout Scandal. I’ve added a few of these to my reading list.

It’s useful to hear what books are currently shaping the Dean’s thinking about higher education and to hear her takes on these books. I wonder if she’ll also be reading other books that faculty and staff are discussing, including Anthony Abraham Jack’s The Privileged Poor and Kate Mann’s Down Girl.

I’m not going to attempt to replicate her whole speech [10]. The quotations, the painting, and the book discussion were highlights for me. However, I think my favorite part was a comment she made in discussing her background, which I recall as being something like the following:

Seventeen years in a non-self-evident field made me an advocate for knowledge and process that are not easily explained but are nonetheless transformative.

I hope that perspective will be incorporated into whatever we end up doing for assessment at the College. I continue to worry about our attempts to measure important things that are not naturally measurable.

In any case, it was a wonderful opening statement. As I said, I appreciate many parts of it, and I particularly appreciate her enthusiasm for being a part of this wonderful institution. I look forward to seeing how Grinnell evolves under Dean Harris’ watch.

Postscript: This musing contains more reporting and less reflection than normal. Or at least I think it does. Oh well, that’s how it goes sometimes.

Postscript: I went to campus ready to rant about a variety of things (not to the Dean; just here). I’m frustrated about the Faculty Handbook, about our new computer use policies, and about So it was nice to have a faculty meeting that put me in a good mood.

[1] For some reason, we did not get a list. I always find it easier to follow along when there’s a list.

[2] We generally hold our applause until the end. However, there were a few folks who had completed their Ph.D. (or equivalent) and the Dean’s office records were not up to date, so after the Dean read Ph.D. in progress, the new colleague would say completed and we’d all applaud. I love that part of these meetings. We’ve all been through it, so the applause is sincere.

[3] This year, the announcements were only in the distributed materials.

[4] All positive.

[5] This last characteristic is harder to measure from a speech. Still, her attitude was clearly one of collaboration.

[6] I’ve now received a transcript of the speech. The quotation is from Dolores Huerta and comes from a speech at NCORE (the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education).

[7] For the art historians among you, it’s the version normally referred to as The Great Tower of Babel. Bruegel also painted two other versions, one of which appears to be lost.

[8] The Book of Unknown Americans is also Grinnell’s common reading for this year [9].

[9] Have I mused about the common reading yet? I should.

[10] Although I have asked her for a copy.

Version 1.0 released 2019-08-28.

Version 1.1 of 2019-09-01.