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Q&A with New A&S Dean Robert Stacey

Story by
Nancy Joseph
January 2013

It's official! After serving as interim dean of the UW College of Arts and Sciences for the past year, Robert Stacey has been selected as the College’s next dean, effective February 15, 2013.

Stacey comes to the job with an exceptional grasp of the issues facing the College, thanks to the many leadership roles he has held at the UW since joining the Department of History as an assistant professor in 1988. He has chaired the Jewish Studies Program and the Department of History, served as divisional dean for three of the College’s four divisions, chaired numerous University-wide committees, and served on the Faculty Senate. In addition, his teaching excellence was recognized with a UW Distinguished Teaching Award in 1997.

Bob Stacey, Dean of Arts and Sciences

Bob Stacey has excelled at everything he has been asked to do at the University, and I am confident he will also do so as dean of our largest and in many ways most complex college,” said UW President Michael K. Young, announcing Stacey’s appointment. “The College has a history of growing its own leadership. We conducted a broad national search for the dean, and happily Bob emerged as the best candidate. I’m pleased for him and delighted for students and faculty in the college.”

Stacey took time out from his busy schedule to answer questions about the College and his plans for its future.

The value of a liberal arts education has come into question in recent years with concerns about the competitive job market. What is your response to liberal arts naysayers?

I think that a liberal arts education remains a tremendously powerful instrument for social and economic mobility. A study a few years back showed that the majority of Fortune 500 CEOs majored in liberal arts subjects, with history as the most popular major. I don’t think that is accidental. A liberal arts education gives students the capacity to think in a variety of ways and to adapt to a world that is changing very quickly.

Our alumni bear this out. They include Nobel Prize scientists, best-selling authors, astronauts, environmental leaders, technology entrepreneurs, founders of local theatre companies, and elected officials--including Washington’s governor, King County executive, and many state senators. Just days ago, a recent alumna wrote to the School of Drama to offer thanks for the well-rounded education she received, explaining that the skills developed as an undergraduate have led to steady work since graduation. 

Yet a liberal arts education is not only about jobs, but fundamentally about preparing people to become informed, effective citizens. We are in the business of producing students with the capacity to understand both sides of an issue and the ability to put themselves in the shoes of others who see the world very differently. Those are the qualities that our students will need to be effective citizens, whatever their career. With 70 percent of our alumni remaining in Washington, this role is vitally important to our state.

What do you see as the College’s most significant strengths?

This College has an extraordinary combination of breadth and depth. Very few comparable colleges in the country span the arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. When you combine that with the depth we offer—about half of our 38 departments are in the top 25 nationally—as well as the research experiences we can offer our students and the fact that we are part of a university with tremendously strong professional schools, it’s a remarkable situation.

Does the College work closely with those professional schools?

Strengthening those connections is one of my priorities. It will be a very important direction for us over the next five years. I’d like to find ways for our students to move seamlessly into professional programs while earning their undergraduate degrees, through combined bachelors/masters degree offerings. I think there are a lot of opportunities for us to partner with the UW’s professional schools.

We are in the business of producing students with the capacity to understand both sides of an issue and the ability to put themselves in the shoes of others who see the world very differently.

 

What do you see as the College’s most pressing challenge right now?

For the past four years, we have not been able to raise salaries for most of our faculty and staff. That has led talented faculty to leave. Some have gone to other institutions; some have left academia altogether. Those are losses that we have to try to minimize.

Until the legislature lifts the pay freeze, we cannot offer pay raises. But when the freeze is lifted, fixing the salary system is my highest short-term priority as dean. Starting salaries for new faculty continue to rise faster than pay increases for existing faculty, leading some junior faculty to have significantly higher salaries than their more senior colleagues. We need to create a salary system that moves people in a predictable way through the course of their career, moves them up the salary scale, creates incentives for high performance, and is sustainable within the limits of our resources.

What other initiatives are you hoping to launch right away?

I think the College needs to strengthen its connections with the Puget Sound business community. I’m planning a series of conversations with corporate leaders in this region about the kinds of skills and education they are looking for in the liberal arts graduates that they hire. I want the College to do all that it can to ensure that our students who wish to do so can acquire those skills.

 

What are your thoughts on balancing innovation with traditional liberal arts values?

Innovation is a constant in our lives. It is not going to slow up. We do things very differently now than even ten years ago thanks to advances in technology, many of which benefit our students. With PowerPoint, class materials have a visual richness that we already take for granted. A lecture-capture system allows faculty to record lectures and put them online immediately for students who missed class or would like to review points they didn’t fully grasp. Some faculty are going further, videotaping lectures before class, putting those online, and using class time instead for discussion and group work.

These advances are a good thing. But we must be careful that, in the excitement of the new, we don’t lose our sense of perspective and our capacity to judge what is truly important long term--the principles and bodies of knowledge that have been developed over centuries, that have guided America and Western culture more generally for hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years. One doesn’t toss those over lightly.

 

What do you see as essential traits for a successful dean?

I think you have to believe passionately in the importance of what this college does. I think you have to have a good sense of humor, because some of the things that are going to happen are just nutty. And I think you have to really like students.

I don’t think it’s accidental that so many of the people who have served in this office over the years have won the UW Distinguished Teaching Award. I think that people who are really passionate and committed to education, the way Distinguished Teaching Award recipients tend to be, are likely to be good administrators because they understand why we do what we do. We’re a service organization. My job as dean is to do everything I can to help the faculty, staff, and students of this college do their best work--because I think the work they do is really important.