The April Blue and White is now on campus. Budgeting meant that the printed interview with Dean James Valentini was truncated. Enjoy it here in its full glory.
James Valentini has been Dean of Columbia College for four years. Before then, he taught in the Chemistry Department, most notably Gen Chem. His tenure began inauspiciously amidst the resignation of Professor Michele Moody-Adams over questions of the university’s commitment to undergraduate education. Since then, Dean Valentini has had a minimal and inoffensive presence on campus. On a sunny day in March, Daniel Stone and Hallie Nell Swanson trudged up the Hamilton steps to join him in his office. Also present was Sydney Gross, Columbia College’s Director of Communications.
Daniel Stone: Do you remember your college’s Dean?
James J. Valentini: No, I don’t know who the dean was. It’s interesting, I remember who the president was, though I never met the president—well I saw the president, but I never talked to him. But for whatever reason, I don’t remember who it was.
DS: How, then, do you come to have an impression of what a dean looks like or does?
JJV: So that’s interesting. When I was teaching Gen. Chem, I got to know a lot of students, and they had certain attitudes about what a professor looks like, what a professor’s background is, and I realized my background wasn’t what they expected. So I started class by giving a two or three minute bio. Then I’d say to the class, “now would you send me your bios by email.” And about two thirds of the class (people like to talk about themselves) would send me their bios, and I learned a lot about the class that way because people would sometimes write two or three pages about their lives. But they didn’t know how you came to be a professor. I didn’t really know how you got to be a dean. I’ve known lots of deans because I’ve been at a university for 25 years now, but I never really thought about it in terms of having a life plan: someday I want to be dean.
I became dean under unusual circumstances. My predecessor resigned suddenly, just before the beginning of the academic year, and the resignation was problematic in that it was the beginning of the year. President Bollinger asked me to be the dean Friday September 2nd at 1 o’clock 2011, and I became dean Friday September 2nd at 4 o’clock 2011. So I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it.
And I sort of knew what a dean did, but not really in detail. And I did it because the president asked, and they needed a dean, and I love Columbia. But I really wasn’t sure what I was getting into. I had been on every committee the college has that a faculty member can be on—some of them twice—so I had some sense. But not really.
DS: So how do you learn how to be a dean?
JJV: You learn by doing it. There was a good preparation, I just didn’t know it was a good preparation. I had been chair of the chemistry department. It’s not the same as being dean, but it does have responsibility, and I had also been director of undergraduate studies. And the combination of those two has in it really the essential elements of being dean. One because you’re being an administrator, guide, leader, of an academic enterprise, but at the same time that academics enterprise focuses on students, so that your interaction with students is really important. So I found that being dean is just a combination of being department chair and director of undergraduate studies. It’s just that the scale is bigger.
I know lots more students now than I ever did in chemistry. But I don’t know any individual student as well as I did the fifty or sixty chemistry majors who I knew practically everything about. I don’t know that about 4,500 students. So the scale of the department and of the college is very different, but it’s similar.
Hallie Nell Swanson: Do you also feel there is a relationship between the academic discipline you’ve come from and the way you approach being dean?
JJV: I have no doubt there is, because the academic discipline you’re in develops in you a certain way of approaching the world, a certain way of thinking, a certain way of processing. I think it’s most evident if I try to step out of myself and look at myself as dean. It’s very quantitative, very analytical. When we discuss what to do, I always want to ask what’s the reason why, what’s the evidence we have to support wanting to do this. It’s very outcome oriented. Experiments have outcomes—you’re aiming for an outcome. It’s quantitative and analytical in that sense.
That’s the part that chemistry really contributes to, but the part that chemistry doesn’t contribute to is the biggest part, which is dealing with people. That is more based on everyday common experience I have had, maybe as director undergraduate studies chair. I’ve worked a lot of places in my life, and have a lot of experience. But dealing with people, chemistry doesn’t specifically prepare you for that. Maybe if you had a phd in psychology that would be better.
What are your majors?
Prepared to be shocked! Read on…