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Meet the dean: Jeffrey Runner begins tenure as dean of the College

July 31, 2017
Linguistics professor Jeffrey Runner begins his tenure as dean of the College. University photo / J. Adam Fenster

Who is Jeffrey Runner?

Beginnings: Grew up in Rhode Island. Grandfather was a chemistry professor whose students included Richard Eisenberg—now the Tracy H. Harris Professor Emeritus in the Department of Chemistry.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Received a PhD in linguistics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Rochester: Was a student in the Class of 1985 before transferring to UC Santa Cruz. Returned as a faculty member in the Department of Linguistics, becoming a professor in 1994 and chair in 2014. Also served as faculty development and diversity officer for Arts, Sciences & Engineering. Received the Goergen Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2006.

Research: Studies syntax—the study of sentence structure in languages. Uses eye-tracking and other experimental methodologies to examine how the structure of sentences affect their meaning. Research has been supported by National Science Foundation since 2002 and published in some of the top journals in the field.

Hobbies: Does genetics genealogy, a branch of genealogy that uses DNA to track how people are related to other people. Manages the surname group for Runner—which includes Laufer, the surname’s original German, and English transliterations like Renner—for the Family Tree DNA online community. Is distantly related to Lizzy Borden, a Massachusetts woman who was accused, but acquitted, in 1892 of using an axe to murder her family.

A linguistics professor who has helped lead efforts to increase faculty diversity has been named dean of the College. Jeffrey Runner, who joined the faculty in 1994 and who has chaired the Department of Linguistics since 2014, was introduced this spring.

As dean, Runner oversees academic and cocurricular programs for undergraduates in Arts, Sciences & Engineering. He succeeds Richard Feldman, who stepped down this summer after leading the College for 11 years.

“I’m interested in enriching students’ classroom experience by increasing opportunities for independent research, community-based learning, and international experience. Diversity and inclusion are a centerpiece in my vision for the College. We have a growing multicultural campus community—a kind of microcosm of the world outside the College—which can help both domestic and international students to learn to adapt to a multicultural world. I hope to continue to create opportunities for students from all different backgrounds to succeed in the College, to have opportunities to learn—from each other, from our faculty, from the Rochester community, and from the world—and to grow into critical thinkers who can contribute to the larger community in many ways.

“One of the main draws for becoming a dean is the opportunity, hopefully, to be able to make a difference for people, to make their experience with the College and with the University in general better. That’s one of the drivers for me.

“My first real administrative role came through the Susan B. Anthony Institute. I started out as curriculum director and eventually was asked to be director. It sounded very scary, but it turned out to be a really great experience. I had been in linguistics, and most of my world was linguistics, brain and cognitive sciences, and computer science faculty. I hadn’t really broadened out much, and being the director of the Susan B. Anthony Institute gave me the opportunity to meet a whole new group of faculty and students. I began to understand how an organization full of people with differing backgrounds and opinions and ideas can work together.

“I enrolled as a first-year student at Rochester in the Class of 1985, but I finished my degree at the University of California at Santa Cruz. As a faculty member, I have been an undergraduate advisor, a premajor advisor, and also our major advisor for linguistics. I know that some students struggle, and I know what that’s like. I thought I was going to be a math major at Rochester because I was very good at math in a small school that actually, as it turned out, didn’t have that much math. I came here because the school has a reputation for math and science. I’m from a small town in Rhode Island, kind of rural, and at Rochester I was in classes with all these kids who had already had calculus, and I hadn’t. After week one, it was all new, and I kind of ailed a bit. At the same time, I also came out. I’m gay. That was a lot to deal with. For some students, when I advise them, I let them know that I struggled early on. I hope they see that you can have struggles and still turn out quote-unquote okay.

“I’ve learned from working on issues of faculty diversity just how important it is to understand the distinctiveness of each person’s experience on campus. Based on your background, your experience can be much different from anyone else’s, and we need to recognize that. We want to create a place where everyone feels welcome, where everyone feels included. And recognize that that might mean different things to different people. at also means we need to be careful that we don’t create a sense of exclusion, either, based on what we think we know about any single group’s experience.

“I’m going to learn a lot from evaluating what we have been doing—how it’s been working, where we can make adjustments or improvements. It’s important to have the right kind of information and the right kind of data, but the real goal is to figure out the ways in which we can improve things. We all want to see all of our students do well at Rochester.”

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Category: University News