October 27, 2006
A Q&A with Peter Lennie
Hiring faculty, increasing resources are key for College growth
special ceremony and symposium on October 27 marked the investiture of Peter Lennie as the Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering. Lennie served in both academic and administrative capacities at Rochester for 16 years before becoming dean for science at New York University in 1999. In July, he returned to Rochester to assume the post as dean. Lennie recently discussed his vision for the College, the role he will play, and why he believes Rochester is poised for significant growth in the coming years.
What approach have you taken during your first four months as dean to assess faculty concerns as well as their aspirations?
I actually began that process earlier. Between the time that my appointment was announced in January and my official arrival on campus in July, I began meeting with as many departments as I could. These meetings are continuing during the fall, and I hope I will have visited most departments by the end of the semester.
Can you offer some insight on what you have taken away from these meetings?
It is clear that faculty are very ambitious, that thereís a lot of energy in departments, released and channeled through the strategic planning they have been engaged in since before I arrived. People are eager to see how their aspirations can be translated into plans.
SYMPOSIUM: INTERDISCIPLINARY WORK
A symposium held in honor of Lennieís investiture on October 27 asked ďWhen Does Interdisciplinary Work Strengthen the Disciplines?Ē The event featured panelists representing the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and engineering divisions within the College discussing topics such as how academic divisions approach and value interdisciplinary work, the role of deans in fostering these initiatives, and balancing interdepartmental with individual departmentĖstrengthening initiatives. Richard Foley, dean of the faculty of arts and science at New York University, moderated the panel of Mark Bocko, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Elissa Newport, chair of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the George Eastman Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Linguistics; Lawrence Rothenberg, professor of political science; and Joan Saab, associate professor of art history and of visual and cultural studies.
It also is clear that we need to work harder to improve the resources available to departments and programs. Some are well resourced, but thatís not uniformly the case.
How has the College changed since you left in 1999?
The most obvious change is the strengthening of the undergraduate programsóthe things we do for the undergraduates. Thatís the most notable change. The curriculum is very powerful. Itís clear that having the freedom to chose, at the same time ensuring a liberal education, is immensely beneficial. Itís also the case that, unlike anywhere else I know, cocurricular and residential life are very effectively integrated with academic life.
What are some other ways the University fosters a unique educational experience for students and faculty?
One of the remarkable things about the University of Rochester, partly because it is small and partly because it is physically compact, is the collegial commerce among departments and across schools. That is to be viewed as a quiet successóimmensely valuable, but under-recognized.
All the important ideas for collaborations of any kind, from within and across disciplines, come from faculty deciding what they want to do. My job is to help faculty members find each other and, when they find each other, to make sure that it is easy for them to do what they aspire to do. The Humanities Project is an example of that concept in practice.
When President Seligman announced your appointment, he noted that the challenges ahead are two-fold: address fiscal issues that have persisted too long and accelerate progress toward academic excellence. How do you begin to tackle those challenges?
The major effort right now is drawing people together in the formulation of the strategic plan for the College. This is essentially a partnership between the faculty, students, and staff. My job is to make sure that the partnership succeeds so we end up with a plan that all the key stakeholders can embrace.
There are multiple components to that plan. It has to contain an ambitious agenda for academic excellence, to project what the school should look like in the next 10 to 15 years, but at the same time it has to involve elements that help us secure the resources we need to realize that vision.
What motivated you to return to Rochester and take on these challenges?
I have a hard and deeply engaging job. The range of challenges and opportunities was very clear to me when I accepted the position. There is a lot to be accomplished, and my partners in doing this are all eager to make things happen. Thatís why Iím here. Itís not without risk, but the potential upside is huge.
Can you identify those potential risks and how you plan to avoid or at least mitigate them?
The risk always is in the gap between ambitions and resources. The risk is that you release ambitions that you canít fulfill or expectations that you canít meet. I came here to help people achieve quite a lot, and I have to make sure that our resources meet our aspirations. I am centrally involved in some of the resource production, but I donít control it.
How does the short-term goal of formulating a strategic plan connect to your overarching vision for the College?
The strategic plan will lay out an agenda for the development of the College, and will be the document that articulates our shared vision for the College. This will be the single largest project that we will do, but it doesnít displace everything else that has to be done, which is hiring outstanding faculty, recruiting the strongest possible graduate students, and ensuring that we attract an outstanding class of freshmen next year. Indeed in all these areas we are pushing ahead in a way that will be coordinated with the planning.
At the moment our faculty is exceptionally small. I think everyone agrees that it would be good for the College to grow the faculty. The interesting challenge, beyond finding the resources to support that growth, which weíll work on hard, is identifying the places where itís most beneficial to grow. We have to identify those domains where we can make investments that make us truly outstanding. We have to sustain existing strengths, but we may want to strengthen a promising program or develop a completely new program that doesnít currently exist but for which there are particularly favorable circumstances here. The next step is to attract the kind of faculty we want. The key is to convince them that they can thrive here better than they can thrive elsewhere. The very best people can go almost anywhere, so itís very important to show them that they can succeed here at least as well as they could anywhere else.
Effective leadership skills will be crucial as you move forward. What approach will you take to ensure that faculty, staff, and students are on aboard and support your goals?
I like to talk things over with people before making decisions. Some of my colleagues probably think I like to talk things over too much. Weíre too inclined to think we know a great deal about how to formulate the right course of action. Given the kinds of decisions weíre faced with, thereís so much that I donít know that it is not possible or sensible for anyone in my position to make decisions without consulting with people and employing their expertise. Almost always, my thinking about what to do is shaped substantially by these conversations.
Thereís a great deal of energy right nowóno question of that. I have to help people use it most effectively. There is inevitably some uncertainty involved with planning because, by its nature, planning involves laying out a wide range of options and choosing among them. That starts as a very uncertain process, but as you begin to remove the uncertainty, it is key that you do it in a principled way, a way that people understand and endorse, even if they didnít favor the particular solution. The only way to plan effectively is to engage people in the conversation.
In a place as richly complicated as a research university, the range of stakeholders have very different perspectives on what we should do, and correctly so. We have to find a way to harmonize these perspectives. You may not satisfy everyoneís aspirations, but what you hope is that everyone recognizes the plan was wisely assembled and correctly executed, even if it wasnít their plan. With that said, it is essential to try and secure the broadest range of support for the plan. You would like to ensure universal embrace. Short of that, you try to ensure that people who donít embrace the plan understand why you are doing it. The faculty are all-important in shaping the intellectual agenda of the College. If the dean canít secure faculty support for particular course of action, itís probably unwise to take that course of action.