As the search committee for a permanent Columbia College dean gets to work, its members are starting by asking a basic question: What is the role of the Columbia College dean?
The college’s place within the larger University and the role of the college’s dean have been hot topics since philosophy professor Michele Moody-Adams resigned as dean in August. In a resignation letter to alumni, Moody-Adams cited impending structural changes to the University that would “have the effect of diminishing and in some important instances eliminating the authority of the Dean of the College over crucial policy, fund-raising and budgetary matters.”
Slavic languages professor Cathy Popkin, a member of the search committee, said that much of the committee’s first meeting on Friday was devoted to discussing the role of the dean, including the relationship between the dean and senior University administrators.
“There have just been lots and lots of conversations about this all year, about how to make this a really good working relationship,” Popkin said.
The committee is currently reviewing the description of the dean’s role that was used during the 2008 search that resulted in the hiring of Moody-Adams. Search committee member Mary Kircher, CC ’13, said that between now and the committee’s next meeting, which is scheduled for April 20, its members will solicit feedback from their constituencies about how that description—which will be used to judge candidates—could be changed.
“We were not wasting any time getting down to the key qualities and skills that we are going to be looking for while interviewing and selecting candidates,” Kircher said.
Kircher and the two other students on the committee are planning to organize a town hall early next week to get student feedback on the role of the dean. Although reviewing the job description is a normal part of a search process, Kircher said that examining the description is especially important for this job.
“There are some shifts, changes that have happened that have made the role of the dean a bit more challenging … That’s being taken into account,” Kircher said. “Part of this process is taking into consideration what has gone well and what hasn’t gone well.”
Popkin believes that the language currently used to define the dean’s role doesn’t do the job justice. Administrative documents enumerate specific responsibilities related to students, faculty, and alumni, but this is not enough, Popkin said.
“We don’t just want to sequester the dean into these silos,” she said. “The dean shouldn’t just be in charge of the Core [Curriculum], but should be involved in majors and courses … the whole nine yards.”
Popkin added that although there are no specific plans to revise the administrative documents, she thinks that such a process might occur within the next year.
At the Friday committee meeting, Popkin added, University President Lee Bollinger discussed “all the conversations that had been going on over this academic year” about the role of the dean and emphasized the “shared goals” of the college and the University.
Members of the Columbia College Student Council have also gotten involved in discussions about the role of the dean. On Sunday, CCSC passed a preliminary version of a resolution with a list of expectations for the permanent dean, including regular meetings with the CCSC president and students and an emphasis on student input in “key decisions that affect Columbia College.”
“These things are very important to us,” said Vice President of Campus Life Jasmine Senior, CC ’12, who wrote the resolution along with Vice President of Policy Ryan Cho, CC ’13. “We need our dean to be engaged. We need our dean to be transparent.”
Cho and Senior presented the resolution—which they will revise before the council votes on a final version—to CCSC president-elect Karishma Habbu, CC ’13, on Sunday. Habbu was appointed to the search committee on Friday.
Cho said that transparency and student interaction are central to the list of expectations.
“We wanted to make sure that the student representative that went into that discussion understood what the student body wanted,” Cho said.
The search committee is only considering internal candidates for the job, and it will accept nominations through April 15. Interim Dean James Valentini, who is widely considered to be a frontrunner for the job, said in a recent interview that there will be a permanent dean by the end of the semester.
“Understanding what the job is and what the role is—obviously that’s an important piece for anyone who is considering the position,” said search committee member Kyra Barry, CC ’87 and president of the Columbia College Alumni Association.
Both Popkin and Barry cited Moody-Adams’ resignation as part of the committee’s motivation for thoroughly discussing the role of the dean.
“I think we have all learned a lot from what has happened over the past eight months,” Barry said. “There has been a concerted effort to open up the lines of communication … thinking about how all the different constituencies come together.”
“The dean of the college steps down, and that says that something is amiss,” Popkin said.
Popkin added that having as many students as possible involved in the process will help diminish the “mistrust and suspicion” that often characterize the relationship between the administration and students. Habbu, who is currently CCSC’s student services representative, said that there is an ongoing email chain among council members to brainstorm what they would like to see the permanent dean accomplish.
“I just really want to hear what people come up with,” she said. “It’s important, in the time we’re given, to make this a campus dialogue.”
Jeremy Budd and Ben Gittelson contributed reporting.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Cathy Popkin as an English professor. Spectator regrets the error.