Meet Our New Dean
Tell us a little bit about your background...
I am a native of Bethesda, Maryland, which is a suburb of Washington, so I grew up going to all those cool museums—just doing a lot of DC stuff. I went to college at Columbia University, and I loved it there. What I thought I was going to do when I was the age of our students is be a reporter. My major was history—but I would be more honest if I said that my major was the student newspaper, where I was everything on the paper. I was a reporter, I was an editor, and I ended up being managing editor. It’s a daily, so every night we were putting that paper to bed until about three or four in the morning. It was a good paper. Every summer I would work at a newspaper or magazine, and one summer I got this great opportunity to work at any newspaper that a big chain called Dow Jones Newspapers owned. I could have done the Wall Street Journal, I could have done the LA Times. Instead I chose a paper that was the kind of paper I’d get my first job out of school at—the Cape Cod Times. It was awful, and I realized—“This is the way my career is going to start if I’m a reporter.”
So I talked to my teachers, and they said, “You’re good at history, why don’t you consider graduate school?” I was lucky enough to get accepted to a lot of places, and I ended up at Princeton. I was in graduate school in New Jersey for six or seven years. My field of study is antebellum American history, specifically political history, so I do elections, the anti-slavery movement. My current book is on the election of 1860, as an example.
I got a job teaching American History at the University of Kansas. While I was at Kansas, writing books and teaching history, I got to do a couple of other really cool things. One was to help found our Institute of Politics there, which is called the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics. I also taught for and worked for the Honors Program. I taught Honors courses, I advised Honors students, I chaired Honors committees, and then eventually I got named Director of the Honors Program at Kansas.
What led you to apply for the Dean position at the LSU Honors College?
I really liked, when I was recruited to apply for the LSU job, that it’s a college. I liked the size of the Honors College at LSU. It’s a perfect size. The staff is incredible. These are fantastic professionals. And then meeting students— I was excited to come and hang out for a while. Also, I had been at Kansas for 17 years, and I never moved, so my wife and I decided this would be a really exciting place to try the next chapter.
Do you have any plans for undergraduate programming in the Honors College?
What you want to have are co-curricular programs—you want there to be a wider, broader-based appeal. That means listening to students, that means finding out what they want to do with their free time, but also how that free time can be used effectively to help them decide what they want to do when they get out, to maybe network to get a job, and to meet people who have been very successful. Someone who’s really successful but also will tell you they didn’t know what they were doing when they were twenty, either. They had to go out there and fail a little bit and succeed a little bit, and redo and rethink. Those are my favorite kind of programs, when there’s real interactions between undergraduates and someone who’s been out there and done stuff. I would love more of them to have the opportunity to have an experience—it doesn’t have to be life-changing. What we can offer is the opportunity to really figure out how people in your undergraduate field think and work. It’s important to have this intellectual experience but also having a more practical experience available to more Honors College students, too.
So I’ll be listening to students, to what they want. We really are going to be relying on our programs for seeing students, for interacting.
Are there any areas you hope to focus on specifically in your first year?
We want to focus some needed attention on sophomores. We are a great Honors College for freshmen. People are really invested in the Honors College that freshman year, they’re taking Honors classes. And I think we’re becoming a great Honors College for thesis-writing seniors, and for connected juniors and seniors. Sophomore year is the forgotten year of college. That’s where we lose people.
At Kansas we had two seminars aimed at sophomores that were competitive. One was called the Global Scholars seminar. I’d love to have something like that, for people who are interested in international studies. Then we had one that came with a scholarship called the University Scholars, that we really tried to get the students who were academically the most rigorous, the most interested in writing theses, and the most interested in applying for international and national scholarships. So it was a way to test that out. I think there are ways to reach those sophomores beyond ways of saying, “This is how you choose a major.” I think it’s one of those things that’s a real challenge for every Honors College or program I’ve seen.
Anything you're looking forward to, in terms of moving to Louisiana?
It’s a completely different part of the country from any place I’ve ever lived. Some people say Maryland is the South because it’s south of the Mason-Dixon line—but I’ve never lived in the South. I’m kind of a Yankee. As someone who works on and studies antebellum history, this is a glorious place to do that. There’s history everywhere you look. I’m smiling as I’m driving down the road. Both my wife and I were excited for a new part of the country, a change. We were at Kansas together for 17 years—we call it a life unit. It’s how long you’re at home with your parents before you go off to college. So it’s time for another life unit.
How do you hope to meet students and familiarize them with the College?
My door is going to be open. If students want to come by my office, they are very invited. I’m going to be meeting people over meals, and Dean’s lunches, and Dean’s dinners. I hope people are interested. I’m looking forward to meeting all sorts of students, getting to know what their concerns are, what we’re doing right, what are we doing wrong.
What drew you to antebellum history?
Undergraduates tend to not be interested in politics. It’s changed at little bit. 2008 was a big change. As someone who was working at our Institute of Politics then, I was really heartened that there was such interest. People really cared about politics in the time I study. Voter turnout was in the nineties [percent] for several presidential elections. I love that there’s such passion for things political in that period. It’s my favorite part of American history.
What I work on is actually pretty depressing. I work on the United States falling apart, and how our politicians failed us, our leaders failed us. I really think that these were interesting times for our country. It’s when our country had to own up to its original sins, and I think that’s fascinating. I love it when people are into history. Then they’re playing on my terrain.
Any hobbies or interests?
I’m a dog person! I have a new puppy who is very much enjoying University Lake. I play the ukulele, and I’m always looking for people to play music with. I’m a movie person, a cinephile. I’m always interested in movies, and movies as ways to teach but also as ways to be entertained, so hopefully we can screen a lot of movies this year. My idea of a really fun evening—I like to watch a movie and then I like to talk about the movie afterwards. I’m looking forward to finding movie friends.
Also, having a place where there’s water is kind of important to me. I grew up near the Chesapeake Bay, so the lakes here, and the Gulf, are fantastic. I like seafood, I like boating. Louisiana has always been a place I’ve enjoyed visiting, and I always thought it would be a fun place to live.
Story by Jacqueline DeRobertis, LSU Honors College
For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-0083.