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Dean Donald Hall shares priorities, vision for Arts, Sciences & Engineering

July 16, 2018
portrait of Donald HallDonald Hall, the University of Rochester’s Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Sciences and Engineering. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

On July 1, Donald Hall became the University of Rochester’s Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Sciences and Engineering. Dean Hall comes to us from Lehigh University where, since 2011, he served as that institution’s dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and professor of English. Widely respected for his scholarship around academic communities, diversity and inclusion, and queer theory, Hall is also credited with increasing the size and diversity of Lehigh’s faculty.

Hall earned his PhD in English from the University of Maryland, a master’s degree in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, and a bachelor’s degree in German and political science from the University of Alabama.

What attracted you to this opportunity at Rochester?

Well, in many ways it’s a bigger version of what I did at Lehigh. What is different at Rochester is the way the unit I’ll be leading includes engineering, which is very different from Lehigh.

It’s also a different sort of setup in the sense that the dean of faculty here at Rochester has athletics, student life, financial aid, and admissions under her or his responsibility—all of those things are new. So, when I was looking at possibilities after having been at Lehigh for seven years, this was big and interesting. Of course, the University has a stellar reputation. So, it seemed like a great fit for me and what I wanted to do.

Can you share some of your priorities starting out?

My educational and scholarly backgrounds are very interdisciplinary in nature. So, internationalization and interdisciplinary education have been key to what I have worked on in my career. Another important priority of mine is diversity. I was born in rural Alabama, in an environment that was fraught with racial tensions. Growing up as a gay kid in an intolerant environment began my movement toward embracing the real value of diversity. Not just tolerating it, but really loving diversity, and respecting it, and valuing it as a core principle of a vibrant community. So, as I look forward to the work I’ll be doing here in AS&E, I know that those touchstones of interdisciplinarity, internationalization, and diversity will be things that I go back to often.

Interdisciplinary study is a big opportunity for students and faculty here. How will you encourage that?

I certainly think that the structure here really supports interdisciplinary work. The fact that we have an integrated unit of arts, sciences, and engineering itself is fairly unique. At so many universities those schools are fragmented, and the silos make interdisciplinary study difficult for students. At Rochester, that barrier to exploration beyond the boundaries of whatever major you happen to choose is much lower, which allows you to eclectically explore different areas of study.

Beyond that, when I think about the broad challenges that we are faced with as a globe—whether they are environmental challenges, challenges around economic injustice, or around the spread of disease—they have a whole host of components, and if you only approach them from one perspective, you are not seeing the big picture and are not dealing with the complexity of a problem.

Why is a global perspective in higher education important?

I don’t want to reduce everything to vocational appropriateness, however I do think the job market for our graduates has changed in recent years. Careers are taking graduates across the globe. Students need a global perspective; they need to be comfortable working with people from different cultures. I think the best thing we can do is train students and equip them to be productive citizens of the world, not just citizens of their local community or state, or region.

Donald Hall in the recording studio
“And it’s also a matter of critical mass, because it is very, very difficult to be the first.”

How will your scholarship around building academic communities inform your work as dean?

I think it’s critical for a higher education community to model the type of civic behavior that it wishes to instill in students. A place like the University of Rochester should be a model for what we want American society to live up to. That is why the work I’ve done around community building on campus goes back to that valuing of diverse perspectives, finding ways to coexist with those with whom you disagree, sometimes very deeply, but nevertheless respectfully, and come together around the common good. At Rochester, that common good is around advancing research and advancing the education of students.

You’re credited with increasing the size and diversity of the faculty at Lehigh. What did you do to make that happen?

Some of it has to do with group efforts and working with other faculty who are very likeminded and are committed to diversity. They then become the trainers of their peers. Because, it’s very rare in higher education that you would find someone who is overtly opposed to the value of a diverse faculty. But that doesn’t mean they necessarily have the skills to go out and make sure that faculty search pools are diverse as they should be or that the outreach efforts are as successful as they could be. So, what you want are individuals who are well placed in units and departments to be trainers of others.

And it’s also a matter of critical mass, because it is very, very difficult to be the first. As the first out gay person in several units that I’ve joined over the years, I’ve learned how difficult it is to be the first. That’s why at times in the past I’ve been a big proponent of cluster hiring, which allows you to bring in cohorts of individuals—at least groups of two, three, or more—so that people have a community where they really can share strategies and where they’re not as likely to feel tokenized. If someone comes in and feels like she or he really is the first and perhaps only person who will represent that group and becomes the stand-in for all members of that group, the spokesperson for a race, a sexual orientation, a particular subset of our culture, I think that’s a recipe for disaster.

Critics say the cost of higher education has diminished its worth. How should we consider its value?

You have to look at what students get out of it and the lives they lead after graduating. There are very cheap educations at institutions in which students have no employability after they graduate. Then you look at the very high-quality institutions like Rochester, where students almost uniformly succeed after graduating. They enter successful careers and the investment up front is well worth it in terms of its return.

There was a piece in a national publication a few weeks ago that talked about the winners and the losers in higher education. Rochester is very much on the side of the winners in the sense that we have proof in terms of the employability and success of our graduates. Yes, the sticker price is probably going to be high. But for that investment, you really have a path forward that is remarkable. I don’t think many less expensive institutions can say that.

What about the near future? What would you like to accomplish?

Summer is a wonderful time to start because it’s relatively slower. I’m in learning and unpacking mode right now, but once we get to August and the students and faculty are coming back, I will be visiting the departments, programs, and units. I’ll be talking with the communities within those units, talking to students, faculty, and staff, and hearing about their real aspirations for the University and for the College.

This Q&A was drawn from a recent interview with Dean Donald Hall. It has been for edited for format and length. Listen to the full interview on Quadcast, the official podcast of the University of Rochester.

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Category: University News