Updated 7:45 p.m. after interviews with Valentini and a search committee member.
University President Lee Bollinger named chemistry professor James Valentini permanent dean of Columbia College on Monday, nine months after Valentini became interim dean.
Bollinger appointed Valentini interim dean following the abrupt resignation of philosophy professor Michele Moody-Adams in August. Valentini, who joined the faculty in 1990, had previously served as chair of the chemistry department and director of undergraduate studies for chemistry, and as a member of the Committee on the Core Curriculum and the Committee on Instruction.
Bollinger said in an email announcing the appointment that Valentini's "many notable strengths as a scholar, teacher, administrator, and recognized leader of the College community made him the unanimous selection of an advisory committee that considered several very impressive internal candidates."
A committee of professors, students, and alumni, which was established in March, interviewed four internal candidates before recommending Valentini. Its recommendation, which it sent to Bollinger on May 30, was "unanimous and enthusiastically endorsed" by all of its members, the committee said in a statement.
"Jim impressed the committee with the depth of his understanding of Columbia College and the clarity of his thinking about the future of undergraduate education here," the statement read, adding that, "In his nine months as Interim Dean, Jim Valentini has set the highest standards for transparency and integrity in the governance of the College and the Arts and Sciences."
As interim dean, Valentini also developed a reputation for student-friendliness and tried to improve communication between the administration and the student body.
He started a blog, sent students an introductory video message, pushed for student membership on the Educational Policy and Planning Committee, and personally matched some gifts to the Columbia College Senior Fund. He also embraced the nickname “Deantini,” which was chosen in a Bwog competition.
“His open-door policy creating regular opportunities for students to express their views already has endeared 'Deantini' to the undergraduate student body and has energized this central part of the University community," Bollinger said in the email.
Bollinger told Valentini about his decision on Tuesday, although Valentini did not officially become permanent dean until the board of trustees approved his selection on Saturday.
"This is the ideal job for me. I love this job," Valentini told Spectator. "I love the students. I love the faculty. I’m going to try to live up to the expectations people have for me."
Valentini said in an April interview that he had not talked to his predecessor, Moody-Adams, since she resigned. He couldn’t explain why, but he noted that “legal is the operative word.”
“If you wanted to pursue that, whether people have spoken to one another, why or why not, I’d have to send you to the president’s office,” Valentini said. “These things are decided, as they say, at a level above my pay-grade … On things like that, I’m told what I’m expected to do, and rightly so.”
There has been much speculation that Moody-Adams stepped down because of a report from the consulting firm McKinsey and Company that recommended administrative restructuring in the Arts and Sciences. But most of the report’s suggestions for structural changes ultimately were not implemented, and Valentini is a member of the new three-member executive committee for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
The search committee said in its statement that Valentini's "grasp of budgetary process and his familiarity with the institution’s new administrative structures position him well to provide effective leadership at this pivotal moment in the life of the College within the University."
Although some students had expressed concern that the committee’s recommendation of Valentini was a foregone conclusion, committee member Mary Kircher, CC ’13, said that the group "really did seriously consider a lot of other candidates."
“I was incredibly impressed throughout the whole process with everyone’s commitment to see the process through and be absolutely as thorough as possible,” she said. “The process was incredibly fair."
Kircher added that Valentini stood out not only because of his administrative experience, but also because of his desire to engage students and professors. When asked about the future of Columbia College during his interview with committee members, Valentini focused on the need to get input from faculty members and students more than the other candidates did, Kircher said.
"He more than anyone was willing to say that whatever the faculty want, whatever the students want, that’s what I’ll make happen,” she said. “That sort of commitment to engaging others—that really impressed me, and that’s something we really need for the college.”
Valentini grew up in Lafferty, Ohio, a small town near the West Virginia border, and was the first member of his family to attend college. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, he received graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley.
Before coming to Columbia, he was a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a chemistry professor at the University of California, Irvine. His research focus was chemical reaction dynamics.
"For quite a while, before I became dean, people would say to me, 'You would be good as dean of something' … I didn’t really think much about that. Even when I was asked to be dean … I wasn’t sure whether I’d really like it or whether I’d be good at it," Valentini said. "Now, the only position I would want at Columbia is dean of the college."
Valentini is married to Italian professor Teodolinda Barolini, a member of the Policy and Planning Committee for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.