Lloyd Michaels The Last Word

What the Dean Did

by Lloyd Michaels, Professor of English

Sometime during the early 1980s the Campus published a series of op-ed pieces by distinguished faculty members entitled “The Last Lecture.” The premise was that these Sages on the Stage (I recall Brownie Ketcham and Jim Sheridan as early contributors) would share some ultimate wisdom in an entertaining yet oracular style. I also remember feeling rather disdainful about the project and grateful that my own callowness eliminated me as a potential columnist. Now, certainly more mature but almost as surely no wiser, I have been invited to reflect on my past four years as dean of the College and the current status of academic affairs at Allegheny—in 800 words, please. Brownie, where are you now that I need you?

When I became dean, the general education curriculum had undergone a decade of almost continual change. Following a dizzying assortment of freshman seminars, interdisciplinary concentrations, special minors, liberal studies courses, and academic planning units that resulted in the “revised new, new curriculum,” we all needed a break, an opportunity to master both the regulations and the pedagogy associated with Allegheny’s required introductory program. Although “stabilizing the curriculum” did not constitute a particularly visionary agenda, I could conceive of no more important initiative for my first year.

As a result of staying the course, today we have an academic program for the first two years that is coherent, efficiently administered, and effectively taught. At its core are three multidisciplinary seminars emphasizing writing and speaking skills that prepare students to engage effectively the material required for the major and minor and to prepare for rewarding careers. Course evaluations for the FS (first year/sophomore) seminars and observation of senior projects convince me that our general education curriculum provides students with the inspiration, knowledge, and skills they need to succeed. Just as important, it prepares them to be engaged citizens as well as lifelong learners.

My other initial goal was to revitalize summer programs, which had withered after summer school was dropped in 1993. Under the leadership of Elizabeth Andracki, director of summer programming, we have realized our dream: a carnival of educational, artistic, and recreational activities while the campus is most appealing to visitors. The Allegheny Summer Music Festival, directed by Elizabeth Etter, recently completed its second season with world-class musicians and a rapidly growing number of student and adult participants. Bookending the festival is Professor Lowell Hepler’s Band Camp for Adult Musicians, drawing nearly three hundred participants the past two years. Allegheny has recently hosted five Alumni College courses, several interdisciplinary institutes for college faculty, a theatre workshop for high school students, as well as the MS 150 bicycle tour that brings us more than eleven hundred overnight guests. Look for Larry Lee, director of athletics, to add several new sports camps and recreational activities next year.

Perhaps the most exciting and significant aspect of the dean’s job involves recruitment and retention of new faculty. Allegheny’s academic reputation, after all, rests not on the courses we offer—nearly every college, of course, teaches mathematics, English, chemistry, history, philosophy, and political science—but on the quality of instruction. During my tenure as dean, Allegheny has conducted national searches for twenty-eight tenure track positions. With the extraordinary help of Associate Dean Richard Holmgren, we have instituted a program of pedagogical workshops and orientation programs designed to assist new faculty in the transition from graduate study and postdoctoral research to a liberal arts environment. The results are encouraging: a stronger commitment to teaching, better understanding of Allegheny’s students, more productive scholarly achievement at a national level, greater involvement in college governance. I feel confident, in fact, that the current faculty of 133 is the strongest in my thirty-one (gulp!) years at Allegheny.

Despite these points of pride, challenges remain to preserving Allegheny’s academic excellence while meeting the needs of a changing student body. Faculty discourse has recently revolved around issues related to reconciling what I call a “culture of standards” with a “culture of support.” How do faculty step down from the sage’s stage to become the “guide on the side” without compromising academic rigor? How do we maintain a supportive, collegial environment for faculty while assessing professional performance? Equally urgent is the task of applying new empirical research on long-term or “deep” learning to effective classroom practice and academic advising. With support from several major foundations (and with new proposals forthcoming), Allegheny is already preparing faculty to meet these challenges.

For me, the return to full-time teaching promises to be as exhilarating as it now seems daunting. I look forward to working closely with students again and to rejoining a faculty I have come to admire so much. As I conclude this, my last lecture as dean, I anticipate the next lecture—back in the English department—with as much relish as my very first class here in 1972. Wish me luck!

This article was featured in the Summer 2003 Issue of Allegheny College Magazine.