After a six-month search, the University announced Monday that Ben Vinson, a vice dean at Johns Hopkins University, will be the new dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. He will become one of the highest-ranking black administrators and the only black dean at GW.
On paper, Vinson checks off all the boxes. When he arrives in August, he will bring diversity, experience in leading interdisciplinary and graduate programs and a passion for the humanities to the University’s largest college.
As a university which has prioritized science and engineering over other programs in the past few years, it’s encouraging that GW chose a candidate with a humanities background. And at the same time, as the University strives to make a name for itself as a growing research institution, Vinson’s experience as the head of interdepartmental programs and graduate studies at Johns Hopkins coincides well with GW’s growing emphasis on cross-disciplinary programs and research. His background as a Latin American scholar means he will also bring a unique expertise in the liberal arts to Columbian College, which houses GW’s humanities programs.
Vinson, at 42, could bring energy and enthusiasm as GW’s youngest dean, providing a fresh and innovative perspective from which the Columbian College could benefit.
But he faces many challenges. Though he seems like the ideal candidate on paper, he must prove that he can gain the trust of professors, who harshly criticized dean Peg Barratt last spring in a faculty survey. They said she failed to create an atmosphere of trust, and also lacked a vision for the school. Vinson must prove to faculty that he can communicate as a leader and understand the nuances of each department while crafting long-term plans for the college.
A GW dean’s role has changed in recent years. In 2010, University President Steven Knapp mandated that the academic leaders spend 40 percent of their time fundraising.
Even so, that means 60 percent of a dean’s time is dedicated to the departments, faculty, staff and students who make up his or her school.
There’s a great deal that Vinson can learn from the faculty survey that skewered Barratt last year. A new dean will not find success at the Columbian College – or within any college or university for that matter – without an open dialogue with faculty members. From day one, Vinson must work to cultivate a conversation with both junior and senior faculty.
Open communication is essential for the Columbian College leadership. But it is also important for upper-level University administrators.
After promising that the final round of the Columbian College dean search would be open and transparent, the University backtracked and declined to release the names of the six final candidates during the last stages of the process.
When asked why the search was being veiled, search committee officials said they wanted to protect candidates’ job security at their respective institutions.
In the early stages of a search, this approach is understandable. But in the final stages, the candidates have been vetted, their backgrounds have been scrutinized and they’ve survived several rounds of interviews.
At that point, the search is no longer a private affair.
Students and members of the community have a stake in the Columbian College’s future and deserved a chance to hear from potential leaders. It is a disservice to keep critical information from the community at a time of great change within GW’s largest college. We’ll never know who Vinson’s top competitors were, but we eagerly anticipate the start of his tenure.