Though men were scarce at Wellesley College, Michele Moody-Adams found love in a titan of philosophy.
“I made the clear decision to pursue academia in my sophomore year of college. People laugh at that. It was because of a Plato course that I took in college,” she said over the phone from her Cornell office on Thursday. “I took Plato from someone who didn’t think that it was her specialty, but she loved Plato, and she just made Plato come alive. It was unbelievable. I just love Plato.”
Drawing upon Plato’s thoughtful scrutiny of the unexamined, Moody-Adams answers questions by balancing nuanced facets of issues. Her colleagues and the committee that chose her to become Columbia College’s next dean stressed that she bridges the worlds of academia and student affairs administration. Moody-Adams’ appointment comes at a time when Columbia needs leaders who merge intellectual curiosity with real-world financial prudence. When she arrives in Morningside Heights on July 1 this year, she will inherit the reins of a College known for a traditional prescriptive curriculum, and she will be challenged to maintain that as the school weathers the economic crisis.
Moody-Adams was born and raised near the University of Chicago, a detail that she cites as a factor that influenced her career choice. Her parents taught elementary school, and “always expected me to do well,” she said. She earned bachelor’s degrees from both Wellesley College and the University of Oxford, and received her Ph.D. from Harvard on a dissertation supervised by philosopher John Rawls.
She began her academic ascent in Plato’s field of philosophy, focusing on ethical theory, political philosophy, judicial philosophy, and moral relativism. She worked as an administrator in the College of Arts and Sciences of Indiana University, Bloomington, and in 1997, published a book, Fieldwork in Familiar Places: Morality, Culture, and Philosophy.
“Maybe that’s why I naturally fit at Columbia, because of the Core and the cultures and critical thinking it involves,” she said, citing her background in philosophy as a perfect match for alma mater and its Core Curriculum. She was drawn to Columbia because of its “ability to blend respect for tradition with respect for intellectual innovation.”
According to Scott MacDonald, chair of Cornell’s philosophy department, Moody-Adams was recruited to Cornell to direct the Program on Ethics and Public Life, a program that aimed to draw philosophy out of the ivory tower. MacDonald said she taught a popular course on law, society, and morality that attracted students from across disciplines.
Four years ago, the provost at Cornell asked Moody-Adams to serve as the vice provost for undergraduate education—a position that married the academic with the administrative. Although becoming vice provost would lessen her teaching load, she said, “I couldn’t turn it down.”
In her administrative post, Moody-Adams oversaw the centralization of several offices—a feat some call overdue at Columbia—and worked to “connect the living and learning environments,” she said. For example, Cornell arranged for residence halls to have apartments that would house faculty and guest scholars.
Nicholas Dirks, vice president for arts and sciences, who led the search, said that Moody-Adams was “embraced unanimously by the search committee” because of her “extensive experience in both academics and administration.” He noted that at Columbia, most academics do not have an opportunity to bring those two spheres together.
Likewise, MacDonald said that Cornell will remember Moody-Adams for her hand in initiating the summer reading program. Moody-Adams likened the program to the Core, in terms of “giving students some common ground.” MacDonald said that Moody-Adams distinguished this program by choosing “lots of very interesting literature, in terms of some diverse books, in addition to the classics.”
For example, she once assigned Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a book MaDonald called aberration from the canon in Cornell. “That was Moody-Adams doing what she does best,” MacDonald said. “We stretched a bit and did some things that wouldn’t be on the normal list of classics.”
That Moody-Adams shook things up at Cornell may speak to her openness with regard to the Core. “Even though I think it does many great things, I am really looking forward to helping shape the continuing evolution of the Core,” she said.
In her new post, Moody-Adams will have to blend the duties of fundraising—her predecessor, Dean Austin Quigley, is known for his skills in this area—and interacting with students. On her next visit, Moody-Adams hopes to dine with students. “A dean also has to emphasize intellectual academic leadership, in that there is important responsibility for the health of the Core Curriculum,” she said. “I don’t know how I will strike the balance. I only know that I will do it.”
Moody-Adams said she oversaw “living and learning initiatives” and “academic support programs aimed at all kinds of students, aimed expressly at first-generation college students, or some underrepresented minority groups.”
She is also shaking things up at Columbia as the first woman and the first African American to hold the post. “It’s not the reason why she was selected, but it is a great thing in itself,” University President Lee Bollinger said in an interview. “Columbia is a place that has a deep respect for and commitment to diversity of all different kinds. Clearly the fact that she’s a woman and that she’s African American is just right in the core of that principle.”
“It’s just an exciting opportunity to show the world that a person like myself can do a good job and bring good things to Columbia,” Moody-Adams said. “Change is good, and saying that doesn’t mean that the thing that you’re changing from is bad. What it says about Columbia is that they are willing to give the person who has the appropriate credentials and experience an opportunity. I will be a role model of sorts—I don’t have a problem of being such, and talking about issues of race and gender when it seems appropriate.”
Colleagues and the search committee described her as eloquent and humble, academic and practical. “She’s been a very well liked leader, people find her very easy to work with,” MacDonald said. “She’s open and receptive to conversation. That’s her intellectual background. She will be sorely missed at Cornell.”
Joy Resmovits can be reached at email@example.com