Stay, Root and Invest
The College of Arts and Science’s new dean embraces opportunities and relationships.
Dean Carolyn Dever says that when she talks to alumni of the College of Arts and Science, she’s always inspired by how many have found success by being open to opportunities and the unexpected.
The new dean has done that herself.
Dever planned her career as an educator, author and scholar of Victorian literature. But her passion, abilities, vision and talent for building relationships put her into leadership positions, first as associate dean, then executive dean, and now as dean of the College of Arts and Science, the largest school within Vanderbilt University.
When former dean Richard McCarty became provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs, a committee of faculty and Board of Trust members conducted a national search for a new dean. The committee decided that Dever, professor of English and then interim dean, was the best person for the job.
“The search committee interviewed eight finalists from a strong pool of applicants. Carolyn Dever stood out from this impressive group based upon her record of scholarly accomplishments and her leadership skills, breadth of experience and vision for Arts and Science,” says Stevenson Professor of Chemistry Ned Porter, who chaired the search committee. “Her deep concern for student welfare and her passion for learning were clearly evident.”
Dever’s concern and passion are also for the school and its people. “I care about the institution, and I love to work with other people to put ideas and opportunities in place,” Dever says. “Our faculty and staff are working to invest our very best in the institution on a day-to-day basis, and my job is a variation on a theme. I have a different set of responsibilities and a different point of view now, but nonetheless the same basic toolbox is in front of me.”
The tools in that toolbox are impressive. Dever is a leading scholar in the field of 19th century Victorian literature and gender studies. The Boston native earned her undergraduate degree at Boston College and her master’s and doctorate at Harvard. She began teaching at New York University, where she earned tenure and directed graduate placement and graduate studies. She joined Vanderbilt in 2000.
“I loved my previous job at NYU, but I was ready for a move,” she says. She soon found that Vanderbilt was, in her words, a remarkable place, warm and collegial. “The quality of scholarly discourse and human interaction is first-rate.” She values that the institution can be cutting-edge and yet prize its heritage of process, civility and good living.
“Vanderbilt is the place where I have very much decided to stay, root and invest. It has to do with the fact the university has historically valued the humanities and the social sciences and the natural sciences,” she continues. “I have the chance now to take leadership of the College of Arts and Science in a very high point in the institution’s history.”
Diversity in Disciplines
The diversity of the college’s academics fascinates Dever. As associate dean, she was charged with improving graduate education. To do so, she observed the workings of each department and forged relationships with colleagues from disciplines she might not have otherwise known.
“Those relationships are vital,” she says. “I had to get to know a lot of people, had to learn the different business models, the different approaches. How scientists fund their graduate students is different from how humanists fund their graduate students. But within that diversity, there’s a common thread.” That common thread is a deep commitment to quality and to doing their best, she says.
“Carolyn really appreciates her colleagues in all their unique capacities—she has a capacious enthusiasm for the many different ways people develop their professional careers and how their own personality flavors that pursuit.”
– Dana Nelson, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English
Interaction with other faculty expanded with her work as executive dean. “That was a great opportunity for me to understand the inner workings of this process by which we advance faculty careers,” she says. “The associate dean position is very programmatically oriented, while the executive dean position is very focused on faculty, their appointments, their research and their work.”
Dana Nelson, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English and founding director of the school’s mentoring program in career development, says that Dever has rock-solid support for faculty. “Carolyn really appreciates her colleagues in all their unique capacities—she has a capacious enthusiasm for the many different ways people develop their professional careers and how their own personality flavors that pursuit,” Nelson says. “That receptivity and attunement to faculty across the divisions, as both professionals and as people, is a wonderful foundation for her leadership of the college. She also brings that same quality of attention and care to each individual student and project.”
New Relationships, New Goals
Along with the administrative and leadership tasks she handles as dean, Dever now has new relationships to explore.
“The part of the job that I thought that I would like, but in fact I love, is the part that’s pretty much new to me, and that’s development and alumni relations,” the dean says. “We have approximately 45,000 alumni in the world out there, and I’m beginning to get to know a number of them. I’m beginning to form relationships with these people who know this place, who care about it, who are insightful, interesting, engaged people who care about education in the world—which is incredibly interesting to me—and I love doing that work.”
In addition to meeting with alumni on campus, Dever travels across the country to meet them. A Red Sox fan, she’s looking forward to a trip that might coincide with a certain baseball series, she says. A recent visit to Dallas introduced her to area alumni and allowed her to explain Vanderbilt’s new no-need-based undergraduate loan initiative to them. “I want educational opportunity for every student,” she says. “Hence the commitment to the university’s expanded aid program, which will mean that when students graduate from Vanderbilt, they won’t have the [need-based] personal student loan debt that might limit them to particular career choices.”
The new dean has additional goals. “I want us to continue to improve in the education that we offer our students. I want us to create circumstances that allow each student to get educated and go out in the world with a full array of options,” she says. “I want to do everything that I can to put opportunities in the way of our faculty to ensure that they can continue to progress in their research. I think that Vanderbilt faculty have opportunities to contribute to this world, to make it a better place. I feel humbled and honored that I have a chance to help in that effort.
“I’ve found that if you know this place, and when you have that committed community of alumni out there who really can work with our students and contribute in thousands of different ways, that is what makes us unique as a university,” she says.
photo credit: Daniel Dubois, Steve Green