Shimer College

June 16, 2014

A Changing of the Guard in the Dean’s Office

As Professor Harold Stone prepares to take over as Dean of the College, Professor Barbara Stone talks about her many years in the position

You have been Dean of the College for a total of ten years, 1991-1996, 2005-2007, and 2011-14. In that time, the College has gone through many changes. Give us a sense of what it has been like to hold the office over those years.

Thinking back on my years as Dean, I’m struck by two things: how much has remained the same, and how much has changed. The overall responsibilities—to oversee the academic programs and to serve students—have remained the same and must remain the same looking into the future. Education is our mission and we must not lose sight of that.

On the other hand, the technological revolution (computerization) has dramatically changed the way we do most of the support work to make the classroom experience a rich, focused, challenging, and meaningful experience. Thus, developing class schedules, registration, budgeting: all this work relies on email, software programs, spreadsheets in a way and to an extent that was inconceivable when I first stepped into this position in 1991 for my first of three stints as Dean.

One other things has remained the same: there have never seemed to be enough hours in a day to 1) get all the necessary work done, and 2) do everything I’d like to do to enrich our students’ educational experience.

One of the things I’d like to point out as an important accomplishment of the faculty as a whole is the collegiality we bring to the table. With a core curriculum, comprehensive exams, and two readers for each senior thesis, we need to work together intensively on curricular matters. Of course, we have differences of opinions—we all have our personalities, we’re a talkative group, and many have very strongly and dearly-held opinions—but we also know that it is important to be flexible, to decide which battles are worth fighting, and when to give way and let others carry the day.

Finances and enrollment have, of course, been the two greatest challenges. There are many opportunities I wish we could offer our students and faculty. This includes everything from more faculty support when it comes to attending conferences, and providing research support and sabbaticals to offering students more internship and  study abroad opportunities, and support for their creativity in the arts such as theater, dance, painting and other similar pursuits.

What is your favorite part of the job?

Talking with students! That has always topped the list.

A Shimer education is very demanding, and challenging. It can be daunting, and there are moments for many students when they begin to doubt whether they are really up for the experience. This can be a result of a more general self-doubt, concerns that they aren’t “smart enough” to be a higher achiever, or personal or family difficulties that can impinge in a student’s ability to do his or her best. Some “TLC”, a good conversation, suggestions on how to turn things around: all of these things can help a student get back on track. Seeing this happen, and being a part of this turnaround, is especially gratifying. Seeing these students walk across the stage at graduation is one of the most moving parts of serving as Dean of the College.  

What parting thoughts do you leave for your successor, Harold Stone?

About a week ago, I chaired my last faculty meeting, which was also the last faculty meeting of the year. I made a few, brief closing remarks.

First,  I expressed my sincere to the faculty for being so helpful and cooperative these last years when we had some very challenging tasks, and for continuing to show the generosity and kindness to one another that has been one of our hallmarks. My advice to Harold is to make sure to continue to foster that spirit of generosity that is Shimer.   

And, secondly, I’d say to Harold: This it the time to take a deep breath. Once the semester starts, it’s a race until the end, and you rarely have a moment to pause. So be ready for the non-stop marathon, which will inevitably present problems of all sorts that you never thought about before. It always amazes me how many new things come up each semester, even after having been Dean for so many years. It’s a tribute to the creativity of Shimer students and faculty and the vibrant every-changing community that we have created here in Chicago that the job is sometimes exhausting but always exciting.