NYU named Gene Jarrett the Seryl Kushner Dean of the College of Arts and Science over the summer. Jarrett previously worked at Boston University as a Professor of English and African American Studies, Associate Dean of the Faculty and co-chaired a diversity task force.
WSN sat down with Jarrett on Sept. 15, during just his second week on the job to discuss what deans do on a day-to-day basis, diversity at NYU and what it was like growing up in New York City. You can listen to the full interview here. What follows is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Washington Square News: What do deans do? What does your weekly schedule look like?
Gene Jarrett: Specifically, to be a dean of a college at NYU that means that there are a variety of students you pay attention to and make sure they have the best education and experience possible, but you’re also paying attention to the quality of experience of the faculty as they teach students and as they mentor them. You’re also thinking about the staff who constitute the administration and make sure that everything is running smoothly. The students are branching out in a lot of ways — they’re in the classroom, they’re doing a lot of things on campus, as well as off campus, and in a way a dean serves as a point person for holding conversations about these experiences that students are going through and making sure that concerns are being addressed. So when I say I’m a dean of CAS, all the various ways that issues concern students who are taking classes in CAS, who associate or affiliate with CAS [or] who are leading the faculty here, I’m thinking a lot about their lives and ensuring that this is a wonderful place to be.
WSN: What’s your daily schedule like? How do you spend your time each day?
GJ: It’s important to remember that I started just last week, and the ink is barely dry on my arrival. One thing that I’ve been doing is laying out my calendar and working with my assistants to orient myself to a variety of students as well as to various faculty and fellow deans. I have a full schedule of meetings. I get here first thing in the morning — as long as there are no delays on the train — and I see what my agenda is. I’ve already prepared for the range of meetings I have in the day. There are also moments during the day when I’m on email, as you know everyone gets tons of emails. So I have to stay on top of that.
WSN: What kind of powers does a dean have? What do you do?
GJ: That word power is a provocative word because that implies that you’re wielding something to a certain effect, and I suppose you could say deans have important influence. I would say that you are in a very important position to lead in certain conversations. The goal is to be a leader and colleagues who are deans, and the [university] president and provost talk about deans as part of the senior leadership. You’re helping to steer the ship. It’s a very big ship. It doesn’t move very quickly, but you are kind of at the helm holding certain conversations about what is in the best interest of the university, the best interest in particular with the students and how could they go on to have an impact in the world. In that role being a leader, you are representing a lot of people. My role is to think about what is in the interest of the College of Arts and Sciences in the broader context of the university and serving as a leader, as a representative of students, the staff and the faculty who are committed to this college.
WSN: What are some of the interests of the College of Arts and Sciences?
GJ: A key idea is a liberal arts education. Students who come to NYU and taking classes through the core curriculum are having a very wide education. One of the things I constantly think about: how do we put students in the best position to succeed? Given that I am a professor of English and that I came from BU, where I was not only chair of the English Department but also Associate Dean for the Humanities, I was always thinking about broad education, how the humanities interact with the social sciences and also with the natural sciences. I think that when students have a wide base of education and then go onto specialize with their major, they’re in the best position to succeed.
Assuring not only a diverse education but a diverse set of experiences as you interact with students with a host of perspectives, not only here in the Square, but in the global network. One of the things that we stress here is you’re in a prime position to travel the world and enjoy different kinds of curricula and interact with different kinds of faculty and students. There’s a way that CAS in my view can be central to that mission of NYU.
WSN: You co-chaired a diversity task force at BU in 2015, and I wanted to ask you what that was like. Was it successful? What makes a diversity task force successful?
GJ: I think what distinguishes a task force is the rigor of the process — how methodical is a task force in implementing its mission. I think a successful task force is one that engages many corners of a university. Important for a task force is one that proceeds very carefully in looking over the information. There’s quantitative information that can be received through institutional research, but there’s also qualitative information, having conversations with people or focus groups. Successful task forces are able to bring those things together and tell a story of where a university has come from, how are things today and what the pathway is moving forward. It is important to look at various outcomes so you can move the needle, but the jury is still out in a number of places as to whether [diversity task forces] can move the needle. But I think it’s true that when these task forces provide recommendations, those recommendations tell a story suggesting in an ideal world. If you have the resources and the buy in of a range of people, these are the kinds of things we’d like to achieve. At the very least, being able to produce those recommendations is important. To be in a position to allocate resources is important. It’s also true to secure a certain degree of confidence among the faculty and students that the process was well done and thorough.
Email Sayer Devlin at [email protected]