CCAS dean candidates disclosed

by Mary Ellen Mcintire

Suzanne Austin
Media Credit: Photo Courtesy of University of Alabama at Birmingham
Suzanne Austin

Correction appended

Two candidates vying to take on the deanship of the University’s largest college stressed their roots in the humanities during closed-door meetings over the past week.

Ben Vinson, a vice dean at Johns Hopkins University, and Suzanne Austin, a vice provost at University of Alabama at Birmingham, are two of the final six candidates to lead the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, according to professors and staffers who attended search meetings.

Both are scholars in Latin American history.

The search, now in its final leg, will bring the final candidate to campus Friday. The committee will recommend its top three candidates next week, and University President Steven Knapp and Provost Steven Lerman will select the dean this month.

The faculty search committee and Lerman have ordered the professors, students and staff who have met with potential deans in small groups to keep candidates’ identities confidential.

A professor – who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the search committee has directed professors to keep candidates’ identities secret – said Vinson and Austin spoke with knowledge about important higher education issues like science funding, but that both also emphasized the importance of maintaining strong programs in the humanities.

The professor said Austin in particular made “an impassioned plea for not throwing out the humanities,” a concern for some GW departments as the University heightens its investments in science and engineering.

But the professor said neither candidate pitched many valuable ideas.

“So far, it’s been a dog-and-pony show. None of the candidates I’ve seen has been able to stake out controversial positions and say ‘Here is my agenda,’ ” the professor said. “If you want the job, that’s the best thing to do.”

Several other professors have declined to comment on the committee meetings, citing confidentiality agreements. Austin and Vinson did not return requests to comment.

Both candidates would bring diversity to the administration. If Vinson was selected, he would be one of the highest-ranking black administrators and only dean at the University. If Austin earns the deanship, the number of female deans would remain at three.

Between 10 and 20 professors attended the invitation-only question-and-answer sessions. The candidates also held similar meetings with Columbian College staffers.

The search committee, helmed by philosophy department chair Gail Weiss, said in November that the final part of the search would be public, but the committee reversed course before the first candidates came to campus.

Paul Poppen, chair of the psychology department, who declined to name the candidates, said he liked the two he saw. But he added that it was difficult to get to know them in such a short time and that many gave stock answers, touting GW's D.C. location.

“They tend to talk about the same things,” Poppen said.

In addition to his position as vice dean for centers, interdepartmental programs and graduate programs, Vinson remains part of the history department faculty at Johns Hopkins. He also served as the director of the school’s Center for Africana Studies from 2006 to 2010.

Vinson received his doctorate from Columbia University and has taught at Barnard College and Penn State University. He has never held a deanship.

Knapp was Johns Hopkins’ provost when Vinson started as a history professor there in 2006.

Austin has worked at the No. 151-ranked UAB since January 2011 and is the first to fill her current position of vice provost for student and faculty success. She leads the Office of Student Life, two university libraries and several faculty and student support units and is a professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health.

Andy Marsch, who works under Austin as UAB's assistant vice president of student life, praised her work in raising student retention rates and improving faculty training. He said while she did not perform any fundraising tasks in her current job – a big role for a GW dean – she exhibited a hard-nosed leadership style.

"I like her management style. She’s tough, but in an empowering way," Marsch said. "Department chairs will understand what they have to do. Not everyone will like her but the ones who are top notch will flourish under that kind of leadership."

Before moving to Alabama, Austin served as the interim dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Delaware, where she previously held other administrative positions. She received her doctorate from Duke University.

The next dean will take over Columbian College as it infuses millions of dollars into academic initiatives aligned with the near-final strategic plan, which prioritizes interdisciplinary research and growing the international student base.

But some of GW’s academic leaders have hit a wall of faculty oppositions recently. Professors criticized Peg Barratt, who will step down from the Columbian College deanship this summer, in a school-wide survey last spring. She announced her pending resignation a month later.

Lerman said last month that he would look to hire a dean with a “proven record of being able to make change when necessary and lead faculty in that change process in a productive way.”

"This is a period for higher education...where business as usual will not always be the right answer," Lerman said.

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

This article was updated April 10, 2013 to reflect the following:

The Hatchet misquoted Provost Steven Lerman as saying, “This is a period for higher education...where business as usual will always be the right answer." He actually said, "This is a period for higher education...where business as usual will not always be the right answer." We regret this error.

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