Updated: May 14, 2018 at 1:01 p.m.
As Ben Vinson, the dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, prepares to step down from his post after five years at GW, he leaves behind a legacy of integrating career services with liberal arts degrees and boosting staff morale.
Vinson announced last month that he will leave GW June 1 to serve as the provost and executive vice president of Case Western University. CCAS department chairs and professors said Vinson served as an admirable leader during his tenure with an ability to engage staff and establish interdisciplinary programs connecting the outside community with CCAS.
Serving as the dean since 2013, Vinson oversaw more than 40 departments and the college’s three schools – the School of Media and Public Affairs, the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, and the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design.
Before coming to GW, Vinson served as the vice dean for centers, interdepartmental programs and graduate programs at Johns Hopkins University. Vinson was hired under former University President Steven Knapp in 2013, when he became the University’s youngest academic leader and only black dean at the time.
“It’s been an incredible five years,” Vinson said in an interview earlier this month. “In these positions, you never really know how it’s going to go. In this position, I have met incredible people including students, alumni and faculty. It’s more than I could have ever expected.”
Shaping liberal arts academics
From creating new programs to developing research opportunities, Vinson said he has had his hands in every aspect of academics in CCAS.
Vinson piloted a new vision for CCAS this academic year, which he coined “the engaged liberal arts” – a concept involving working with career services, alumni and officials in D.C. to provide students with opportunities in their fields outside the classroom.
Officials created six new CCAS courses in the fall focused on both course material and career development in subjects ranging from music to geography to biology, which give students a leg up as they pursue careers with a liberal arts degree, he added.
“Engaged liberal arts is so much more than the classes,” he said. “I think it’s part of the secret in the sauce in why so many people want to come here. It’s how we utilize the world around us as an educational laboratory. That’s the secret to the engaged liberal arts.”
Paul Wahlbeck, a political science professor who will serve as the interim dean of CCAS, said Vinson has provided “stellar” leadership to CCAS over the past five years, leaving the college “stronger” than when he arrived.
“He brought focus to the student experience with the engaged liberal arts and emphasized faculty scholarship through several initiatives to support research across the disciplines,” Wahlbeck said in an email.
Research was also a priority during Vinson’s time as dean. He worked to expand the Luther Rice Fellowships, which provide students with funds to conduct research overseen by a professor. Vinson added that CCAS faculty have been producing more than 50 books each academic year, which demonstrates increasing research efforts.
“One of the things I particularly like is that the research that we have been working on has not only been huddled only among the faculty – it’s something that we have seen dramatic increases in interest of students delving into a variety of research areas,” Vinson said.
But Vinson said his years were not met without challenges. Creating a sense of community in the University’s largest school was one of the biggest obstacles he faced during his tenure, Vinson said.
“We are so diverse and encompass so many different fields and disciplines,” he said. “That feeling of connectedness is what I have tried to work on and the engaged liberal arts is one pathway to that.”
During his tenure, Vinson worked to lift the University’s reputation in the arts field by overseeing the merger of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design and CCAS in 2014. But the school experienced tumultuous times because of a lack of funding to finish renovations this spring, and students have complained about construction disruptions, health hazards and costly assignments over the course of this academic year – leading at least 16 students to consider transferring.
“The difficulty of the merger was that all of this was happening simultaneously,” he said. “Renovation projects and being under the heat of the spotlight in our community because the Corcoran was such a revered institution in D.C. – that requires a different type of scrutiny.”
CCAS also encountered major budget and funding challenges for the school over the last five years. The school cut faculty searches across departments amid a budget crunch and later put a hold on hiring in 2014. The University announced another round of budget cuts in 2016 – stemming from a $20 million deficit two years before.
“It’s no secret that these were some turbulent financial times,” Vinson said. “I have worked to make sure the college remained healthy and has exited out of some of those times.”
Supporting faculty and staff
As Vinson prepares to move up the ranks as provost at Case Western, faculty said they will remember him as a champion for staff members and their departmental projects.
“I hope people say that I helped moved the needle, and I did it in a way that was humane, empathetic and that was fair, honest and transparent,” Vinson said. “Those things mattered to me in my time as dean.”
Vinson’s predecessor, Peg Barratt, announced she would resign from her post in 2012 after hundreds of staff members criticized her, saying she lacked a clear vision for the college and didn’t seek input before implementing new measures.
Katrin Schultheiss, the history department chair, said Vinson has been supportive of individual departments’ actions, like the history department’s acquisition of the History News Network, a website that puts news into historical context, last spring. She said the new project made the history department more visible and engaged with the outside community, part of Vinson’s vision for CCAS.
“All of my encounters with him have been very positive,” Schultheiss said. “I am appreciative of his eagerness to make things happen if they are possible. He is very encouraging, which is very helpful for a department chair.”
Marshall Alcorn, the English department chair, said Vinson was inspiring because of his tireless commitment to faculty and students, charisma and realistic understanding of the problems CCAS faces.
“I would, in times of desperation, sometimes write him at near midnight with a need for urgent action the next morning,” Alcorn said. “He would write me back after midnight, and by 8 a.m. the next morning, his staff would be moving to secure the forms and approvals I needed.”