A new era for Columbian College

GW picked an administrator from a top research university Monday to head the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, who will become the University’s youngest academic leader and only black dean.

Ben Vinson, a 42-year-old vice dean at Johns Hopkins University and a Latin American history scholar, will assume the deanship of GW’s largest college in August.

As a vice dean, Vinson directs Johns Hopkins’ liberal arts graduate programs and cross-disciplinary work – two areas the University wants to accelerate. He is also young, and colleagues pointed to his energy as a promising sign that he will be a prolific fundraiser.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Vinson highlighted his work managing cross-disciplinary departments and doing his own research across fields at Johns Hopkins.

“There comes a moment in many administrators’ lives where you really transcend your own discipline and start looking broader at conversations across a school or university,” he said. “At this particular moment, I sense GW is really a place where interdisciplinary work is really important.”

After a six-month search to replace Dean Peg Barratt, faculty and administrators are hopeful Vinson will juggle the more than 40 departments in the Columbian College, along with fundraising responsibilities.

“He was one of the youngest of the people we considered in the final stages, but he accomplished so much in his career as a scholar,” philosophy professor and search committee chair Gail Weiss said. “He’s someone faculty can look up to.”

Weiss added that Vinson had the unanimous support of the faculty search committee, which forwarded his name along with two other final picks to Provost Steven Lerman and University President Steven Knapp last month.

The selection ends a search process kept mostly under wraps, despite an early statement from faculty and administrators saying the final leg would be transparent.

In an interview with The Hatchet this week, Vinson would not outline specific steps he will propose as the college’s chief administrative officer, who is responsible for recommending tenure, controlling expenditures and attracting outside funds.

Vinson said he will first take up meetings with professors and students to get “a sense of the everyday culture and what practices are working now before coming in with something.”

Prior to arriving at Johns Hopkins, Vinson was an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University and taught at Barnard College. He received a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in 1992 and a doctorate from Columbia University in 1998.

Barratt’s departure leaves just one dean who was not appointed by Knapp, who took the University’s reins in 2007. Michael Brown, dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs, started in 2005.

Vinson is the second dean hired from Johns Hopkins under Knapp, who also served as the Baltimore university’s provost before coming to GW. Lynn Goldman, dean of the School of Public Health and Health Services, was hired from Johns Hopkins in 2010.

Shaping Columbian College’s future

When Vinson starts Aug. 1, it will begin a new chapter for a school trying to move forward on campus and internationally. He will have strong input over how to use the nearly $400 million expected to go into the University’s decade-long strategic plan, which includes calls for new faculty positions, research centers and admissions strategies.

He will also steer a college with an operating budget that is expected to swell to $105 million from its current $94 million over the next two years, likely including increases in graduate aid and faculty startup packages for research. That growth will accompany the college’s natural science departments’ move into the $275 million Science and Engineering Hall, opening in 2015.

The college will also add 17 faculty positions over the next two years, using tuition money from expanding graduate programs to fund a full-time faculty core that will increase to about 500 members overall.

Vinson said the alumni he spoke with on the college’s advisory council, the National Council for Arts and Sciences, drove home the point that the college is moving forward quickly.

“The main thing that I recall from this process that leaps out at me is the excitement that the alumni had for GW, and for a job candidate, sensing the excitement of the alumni body is something that speaks volume for the future,” he said. “You could pretty much see the gleam in their eyes about where the school is headed, and for a candidate, that’s gold.”

He will also face challenges prevalent across higher education, like online education, the growth of international campuses and a decline in federal research dollars.

Lerman said in a February interview that he expected the next Columbian College dean to have 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 in which there is some evidence that some of the existing ways of doing things need to be reexamined,” he added. “It’s not a period where ‘business as usual’ will always be the right answer.”

Knapp said he was “deeply impressed” by Vinson. When asked if he knew Vinson during his time at Johns Hopkins, Knapp said he “did not have a direct role in his recruitment but was very pleased by the appointment.”

Vinson will also need to earn the trust of professors who were widely critical of his predecessor. More than two-thirds of the college’s 465 full-time faculty said in a survey last spring that she lacked vision and failed to seek their input, build an atmosphere of trust or work well across disciplines. She announced she would step down a month later.

“What’s in the past is in the past,” Vinson said when asked how he would win faculty approval, after three GW deans faced flak in the last year. “Of course any job candidate reads the headlines, but in our minds we’re looking at where the institution can go, and how to get there in the most effective, in the best ways for the institution.”

Making a name in Baltimore

Vinson originally joined the Johns Hopkins faculty as a history professor in 2006 and became the founding director of the Center for Africana Studies shortly thereafter. He was named vice dean for centers, interdepartmental research and graduate programs in 2010.

The Baltimore university is one of the most prestigious in the country, with liberal arts graduate programs like English, history, economics, biology, physics, statistics and math all ranked in U.S. News & World Report’s top 25 graduate programs. It has also pulled in more outside research funds than any other university in recent decades.

The Africana studies center’s current director, Franklin Knight, praised Vinson’s efforts to “make the center work.”

“He gave it a lot of dynamism, a lot of energy and he gave it visibility on the campus,” Knight said.

He credited Vinson with establishing relationships with several Baltimore-based organizations, raising money for the center through a series of summer institutes and digitizing the archives of the Baltimore Afro-American Newspaper morgue.

Fellow administrators also praised Vinson’s interdisciplinary leadership and were confident he would be able to manage the 42 departments in the Columbian College, which range from English to physics.

Steven David, vice dean for undergraduate education at Johns Hopkins, said he thought Vinson had experience working with every department at its arts and sciences school.

“The issues he’s dealt with have come from the social sciences, the humanities and the natural sciences. So I think he’ll be very comfortable dealing with people who come from different traditions,” he said.

Welcoming a new leader

Columbian College faculty said they were impressed by Vinson’s credentials, although many said they did not meet him while he was on campus last month due to classes and other commitments.

“His credentials seem quite impressive,” said Leslie Jacobson, a theater professor who led the Columbian College dean search committee in 2007.

One professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the search committee directed professors to keep candidates’ identities secret, said after meeting with Vinson in March that the conversation was more of a “dog-and-pony show” because Vinson did not reveal specific plans.

Bernard Wood, a University professor of human origins, said he was “delighted” Vinson was picked. Wood saw him speak in an on-campus meeting with faculty last month.

He said although Vinson is a humanities scholar, not a natural scientist, professors in the natural sciences were pleased with the pick because of his poise fielding questions about research funding and startup costs in that meeting.

Weiss said the search committee was impressed with Vinson because of his sensitivity to the needs of different departments, as well as his experience with interdisciplinary scholarship and programs.

“He also understands how each field has its own criteria for success and a one-size-fits-all model won’t work. You have to look at each department and what each brings to the table and what it can achieve,” Weiss said.

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