On March 22 and April 4-5, the final three candidates for the dean of Arts and Sciences position at the College of William and Mary each gave presentations and answered questions from faculty members during hour-long town halls. The candidates are acting Dean of Arts and Sciences of the College Suzanne Raitt, Divisional Dean for Social Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati Sarah Jackson and Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln William Thomas. The three candidates met with student leaders and other campus representatives during their visit to the College.
The dean of Arts and Sciences position has been vacant since August 2022, when Maria Donoghue Velleca stepped down two years after taking the role. Raitt, who has served in the position since Jan. 1, 2023, held the first town hall on March 22. Approximately 30 faculty, staff and administration members attended the event in-person and over 70 joined via Zoom.
“We’re funny, we’re smart, we’re erudite, we’re eclectic. But we don’t have a structure right now that articulates and dramatizes all our strengths and all our differences,” Raitt said.
Raitt, a co-chair of the Steering Committee for Computing, Data Science and Applied Science Initiative, proposed an umbrella structure in which five schools – computing, data and applied sciences; creative and performing arts; humanities; social sciences and natural and lab sciences – would all fit under Arts and Sciences.
Raitt emphasized her deep institutional knowledge during the town hall. Since arriving at the College in 2000, she has served in a number of positions, including chair of the English department, faculty representative to the Board of Visitors and vice dean for Arts, Humanities and Interdisciplinary Studies.
“I’ve been here for a really long time,” Raitt said. “I really like working here, and I know that we can transform ourselves and move forward in a way that we want to do if we can build the right kind of culture with the right kind of leader.”
Jackson held the second town hall on April 4. According to Jackson, her interest in working at the College stems from her undergraduate experience at Harvard University, where she enjoyed being challenged and stretched across disciplines.
“[William and Mary] is one of those really extraordinary places that combines a student-centered liberal arts experience, a real commitment to the transformations that happen during that experience, with the energy and vitality of a research institution,” Jackson said.
As an archeologist and anthropologist, Jackson argued that this combination of a liberal arts and a research oriented education produces empathetic students who are well-suited for analyzing data. She also said that the key strengths she would like to build upon and advance as dean include fostering an environment that promotes creative thinking and building and furthering an inclusive community.
“I am good at moving us from a space of talking consulting to starting to pull out threads, pull out big ideas, start to bring them together and say, ‘Hey, let’s start to think about what actions are going to come out of this, how we’re going to make decisions about what will come next,’” Jackson said.
Jackson also explained some of her ideas on how to build on the goals of Vision 2026, prompting a faculty member present at the town hall to point out that the plan is a sore subject for some members. The faculty member cited an open letter that over 200 members signed, which explained their concerns with the administration over being excluded from major decision making at the College.
Thomas held the final town hall on April 5. Prior to his time at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Thomas served as a professor of history at the University of Virginia. Throughout his career, he has led efforts to promote digital humanities.
“I’m here today because in my view, William and Mary is the leading public university committed to the arts and sciences, to the liberal arts in teaching and research,” Thomas said.
Thomas described his experience working on an interdisciplinary project that brought together leaders from across the University of Nebraska-Lincoln system, culminating in the creation of an animated film chronicling the largest attempted slave escape in United States history, “The Bell Affair.”
“What I’ve learned from that experience is how working together across disciplines and across colleges, bringing different expertise to the table, including working in and with communities involving graduate and undergraduate students at the heart of that project … changes everything,” Thomas said.
During each town hall, faculty asked the candidates questions about building morale, their leadership style and future plans for the College, including Vision 2026 and the potential school for computer, data and applied science. Faculty also asked Jackson and Thomas about their relevant experiences in anticipation of the potential new school of computer, data and applied sciences at the College.
Faculty and staff morale was another focal point of discussion during the town halls. Raitt discussed a time where she met with some staff members and the expressed their concerns as she was putting together a white paper on the strategic plan.
“There’s a group of housekeepers who used to always have breakfast in the lunchroom in Tucker Hall where the English department lives,” Raitt said. “I went and I had breakfast with them. I mean, you know I asked if I could, obviously. And we had a long conversation about the strategic plan. And I said to them, What do you enjoy about coming to work? And you know what they said? They said, ‘going home.'”
A faculty member at the town hall told Raitt that it felt like faculty and staff morale was at an all time low and added that it felt low in ways that may have a ripple effect across campus.
Raitt said that low morale is a difficult issue and may stem from the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant number of transitions in the Dean of Arts and Sciences office.
Another faculty member present highlighted his concern over the future of humanities programs at the College. He noted his concern for whether the administration’s decisions will benefit the College in the long run. He also pushed back on the notion that morale issues stem from the COVID-19 pandemic, and instead said that they are more linked to administrative overreach, such as hiring decisions without consultation from the faculty.
The faculty member highlighted other issues such as research funding being taken from their department and bureaucratic issues in interdisciplinary studies.
“There is a narrative out there that the humanities are dying and that nobody is signing up for the humanities majors,” Raitt responded. “I’ve looked at the numbers across the nation. It’s not true. It’s just not true. At William and Mary, we’ve seen an increasing number of STEM majors and we’ve seen a decrease in the number of arts and humanities majors. What we have not seen is a decrease in the number of students who are desperate to get into the arts and humanities courses. And to me, majors are nice and all, but what really matters is that students can take courses outside of their major, and most students who are STEM majors or econ majors, whatever it might be, are still really eager to take arts and humanities courses.”
Raitt emphasized the importance of investing in the arts and humanities.
“I would see it as my responsibility to our students, and to a concept of the liberal arts and sciences education that is really expansive, to invest in the arts and humanities,” Raitt said. “You can’t be a good scientist without believing in your own creative capacities. You can’t be a good scientist without believing in your own imagination. I think our students know that.”
Provost Peggy Agouris convened the Dean of Arts and Sciences Search Committee, chaired by Law School Dean A. Benjamin Spencer and made up of faculty, staff and students, who whittled down the initial candidates to the final round. Agouris ultimately makes the decision to extend the job offer to the selected candidate.
“I hope to be able to make an announcement by the end of April, after I receive the search committee’s report, review the community feedback and make the final decision,” Agouris wrote in an email to The Flat Hat.
An outside consulting firm, Russell Reynolds Associates, also helped facilitate the search process.
Agouris laid out which qualities she is looking for in a dean as she makes the final decision.
“In essence, I am looking for a passionate and proven leader who reflects William and Mary’s excellence and who will lead Arts and Sciences with vision as the institution evolves,” Agouris said. “This important position collaborates with me and the other deans, in addition to leading a team of capable vice and assistant deans and directors. It is an exciting time at William and Mary, and we have an opportunity with a strong leader and partner to shape a sustainable future for and celebration of Arts and Sciences.”