Dean Teitelbaum Reflects on CLAS Legacy

jeremy head shotJeremy Teitelbaum, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences since 2008, will become the University’s interim Provost beginning February 1.

Teitelbaum led the College to new heights during his eight-and-a-half-year tenure as Dean. The College added 100 new faculty lines, including 30 tenure-track and 70 non-tenure-track positions, and saw the addition of 10 new majors across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Research activity increased by more than 50 percent, with expenditures increasing to $40 million in fiscal year 2016. The College also engaged nearly 3,400 alumni through CLAS-sponsored events and programs, and raised more than $50 million in philanthropic gifts, including 83 new scholarships and fellowships to benefit CLAS students.

Here, Teitelbaum reflects on his time in the College.

What do you think the UConn leadership saw in you? What made you interested in UConn?

I can only guess by reverse engineering, but I think they wanted a fighter, someone who would come in and fight for both the mission of the liberal arts and sciences and for the College itself. Perhaps I convinced them that I could and would do that. I think they liked that I had a sense of humor. They liked that I was open and that I don’t sound when I speak like a typical administrator. But I also feel like I was incredibly lucky. UConn is a top-ranked university in U.S. News, and I wasn’t sure how competitive I would be. To get a job at a great flagship university that people had heard of, that was a great thing. I was very honored.

What were some of the first things you did when you arrived?

As a person whose background was in mathematics, and who had worked primarily on science issues as an administrator, I felt I needed good counsel from the humanities and social sciences. So I took the College in the direction of our divisional system, where we have associate deans representing the humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, and life sciences.

Then, I spent my first year dealing with the financial crisis. That was very stressful for everybody. One person who was really helpful in that was Skip Lowe, the head of the Department of Psychology at the time. I remember him saying to me, “Let us, the department heads, help you. We can get through this.” I learned that when you’re dealing with a budget problem, the number one principle is to be totally up-front. I didn’t just tell departments what was happening to them. I told them what was happening to everybody. I was willing to tell people anything they wanted to know about what the College was spending money on. In the end, people just want to know that you’re trying to be fair.

What prepared you best to be Dean?

Well, I was the beneficiary of a very, very good liberal arts education as an undergraduate [at Carleton College], and I sometimes think that, of all the things I’ve done in my life, that was the best preparation for the job. Carleton really expressed the values of a liberal education. You didn’t just get a liberal education, but you appreciated the fact that you were getting a broad education. That was really valuable. I took a ton of English classes, just because I’m interested in literature. And it turns out I just talk to people. I let them tell me about themselves and what they’re interested in. In some ways that’s the best part of the job: You learn a huge amount from people about what they care about and what they’re working on, and I find it all very interesting.

What accomplishments have you been most proud of?

I learned in the early days of my administrative career that interdisciplinary work is important, and also that there are challenges associated with making it happen. I saw the interdisciplinary scholars in places like the Human Rights Institute, the ethnic studies institutes, gender studies, and even the Institute of Materials Science as really central and valuable.  So I was very happy when the centers and institutes like the Africana Studies Institute, the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute, and El Instituto moved into CLAS. I feel good about that because they saw me as their advocate.

I’m also especially proud of the day-to-day working advances our staff has made that have increased the credibility of the College across the University. We constantly work to get students into the classes they need, and we developed systems that have drastically reduced course access issues. We’ve improved success rates in some important basic courses, like mathematics. We have an excellent grants management operation and financial system, and we’ve greatly increased and improved our advising system. We look after our own resources and we only ask the University for resources when we truly need them. I feel really strongly that we can’t ask other people to solve our problems unless we’ve done everything we can to try to solve them first. In the University as a whole, CLAS has an identity and a trustworthy reputation, and is seen as a strong unit.

Finally – and I really have very little to do with this, but in some ways it makes me the most proud – I am proud of the individual accomplishments of so many of our stellar researchers. This year, when four women scientists from the College earned National Science Foundation CAREER awards, I felt really good about that. When I visited the new Humanities Institute space in the Babbidge Library, I felt proud of their team and the recognition they’ve received for so much hard work. Whenever people do good work, I feel really great on their behalf. I take real pride in the accomplishments of the faculty themselves.

jeremy shaking hand of student

Dean Teitelbaum hands out diplomas at a CLAS commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 8, 2016. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

How have you approached being a public face of the College, and of the University?

This was the one thing I had no experience with, because associate deans don’t generally do outreach. I had some preparation, like I’m a good public speaker and was a strong high school debater. Standing in front of people and speaking is something I know how to do, and I think I’ve represented UConn well and advocated for the liberal arts and sciences.

But public speaking is different from one-on-one interactions, and going on the road to meet with alumni and donors is very different. When I took those personality tests, I always came out much more introverted than extroverted. My goal in life was to be a mathematician, and when you’re a mathematician you can go whole weeks without speaking to anyone! But I had great teachers, like our College’s alumni relations and development teams, who helped me learn the very real skills of establishing new and solid relationships with people.

What do you see as the College’s greatest strengths?

The College’s strengths are not in this department or that department. The College’s greatest strength is that it simply has a whole lot of people, faculty and staff alike, who are committed to all the different aspects of the mission, and who regularly extend themselves beyond their basic job description to work on behalf of students, or work incredibly hard to do research, or just do the stuff in the department that needs to get done. And they have a passion for it. That’s where the real institutional strength comes from. The University runs on volunteer effort. It’s amazing how much people do, just because they think it’s the right thing to do.

And, to me, liberal arts and sciences is the University. When you look at the University, the big important questions that are advancing human understanding of the world, that’s happening in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This I feel really strongly about. I think it’s where the most important and most interesting work is happening about what the universe is and what’s going to be important in the future. To me, it’s the best education you’re going to get.

What more would you have liked to do in the College?

I believe that higher education suffers from the same profound problems of race and gender discrimination that society suffers from as a whole. In some ways, our problems are worse, and if we cannot figure out how to recruit and retain a more diverse faculty, I see this as a threat to higher education in the long term.

In my time in CLAS I have tried to broaden the scope of faculty that we recruit. We’ve tried various different things, and some of them have worked. I worked with departments to find ways to increase faculty diversity. In terms of what I have actually done, however, I’m no revolutionary, and I don’t have the answers to this problem. We have to take seriously the criticisms that women and people of color make of higher education. The problems are real, and higher education as an institution cannot – and maybe should not – survive if it cannot work for everyone.

I do try both to speak about why this is important and to take steps that make a difference. Frankly, I wish I had done more.

What do you hope the faculty would say about you?

I would hope they would say that I trusted them to do their work and to do it well. When the head of the history department tells me that for historians, it’s really important to have access to original sources that are kept in archives all around the world, and that’s the reason they need to travel so much, you just have to believe them. So I absolutely trust people. I do.

What would you like your legacy in CLAS to be?

When I think about things in my life that I’m most proud of, I count my leadership of the College, and I also count my accomplishments as a mathematician. Every so often in my mathematics career I had some insight, and I think a few of those ideas will live on past my lifetime, and people will remember them.

This is what all faculty are trying to do: create some understanding of the world that will live on past their lifetimes. So, I would feel good about this job if people think I helped in that respect. I hope that I helped to make it possible for faculty and students to accomplish something that will live on. That’s what this is all about.

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