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You're Not in Kansas Anymore
I’ve heard these words often since coming to UF in July from the University of Kansas to be Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Sometimes the humorous remark has an ominous undertone, referring to the budget problems facing the state and UF. Implied are two questions: What do UF and CLAS look like to someone coming in from the outside? How worried are you about the budget? Having answered the questions many times in person, I thought I should answer them for readers of Alumni CLASnotes.
The qualities of UF and of CLAS are real and enduring, and they have made a deeper impression on me than the budget issues. As I get to know the College and the University two things strike me: quality and passion. Both of these things refer primarily to people. CLAS has immensely talented students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends—much more talented than is often recognized on campus or beyond. These talents are converted into accomplishments through passion—passion for inquiry, for discovery, for changing the world.
The student body at UF is among the most talented in the nation. We know this from measures such as SAT scores. The 2008 freshman class has an average combined SAT score of 1293. This puts UF on the heels of the very top public universities, such as Virginia and Berkeley, and not far behind some of the elite private schools. Beyond the numbers, however, I am repeatedly bowled over by the students I meet at various events I go to around campus. At a reception for the Florida Opportunity Scholars, I met first-generation college students from disadvantaged backgrounds who spoke with great clarity and vision about what they hoped to do with their college education. Talking with students outside University Auditorium following the Convocation ceremony, I met a young student going into nursing who is also taking advanced Chinese—and carrying a 4.0 grade point average—who talked about how a visit to Mongolia had spurred her desire to improve health care in East Asia. Meeting with the Political Science undergraduate student organization, I was put on my heels by incisive questions about the links between academic political science and policy making. Visiting UF’s innovative Undergraduate Core Lab for freshman science students, I had a freshman explain to me in detail how she was preparing a sample of her own DNA for a set of procedures that would compare her genetic composition to that of the overall population distribution. Students in CLAS are “scary smart,” but they’re not only smart. They are passionate about what they are doing, and they are committed to making a difference.
I am trying to meet with every department, and therefore every faculty member, this year. While I am only part way through, I again am amazed by what I see. The impression I have halfway through my first semester is that when the reputation of CLAS catches up with reality, we will be seen as one of the very best public research universities in the world. We are, in many respects, already there. Shortly after arriving, I toured the lab in the Space Sciences Building where Steve Eikenberry and his colleagues were building an infrared detector for a gigantic new telescope being built in Chile. I was amazed not only by the complexity of the task and the fact that UF’s instrumentation program had been asked to build it, but by the fact that Steve and his colleagues could explain the science behind the project in a way that a layman such as myself could easily understand. Later, I met David Leavitt from our highly ranked Creative Writing Program, whose recent novel The Indian Clerk was featured on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. CLAS continues to attract top-notch new talent as well. Among new faculty in CLAS this fall is Alyson Young, a medical anthropologist who studies preventive medicine among pastoral populations in East Africa—work that will have profound impact on people’s lives, as well as being of scholarly value.
Beyond the scholarly accomplishments of these faculty members is their commitment to their students. Stop a faculty member walking across campus, and ask “what are you teaching this semester,” and they are likely not only to tell you the names of the courses, but how they are trying a new approach this semester, about the innovative projects they are requiring of students, and about the issues they’re grappling with. This brings us back to the students: when I sat down to dinner recently with a group of students at a Graham Center event, several of them talked with great excitement about a policy analysis course they were taking. Their professor had them developing policy proposals for an issue facing the city of Gainesville. Clearly the passion of the professor had engaged that of the students. This was work they were eager to throw themselves into.
Among the most rewarding parts of my new job is meeting with alumni, to hear about their experiences at UF, sometimes recently, and sometimes many years ago. My favorite question to ask alumni is what class at UF had the most impact on their lives. Almost everyone can answer that question immediately. Some point to a professor who set off a spark in them—UF legends like Manning Dauer, Bob Ryan, and Julian Pleasants seem to come up often. Others talk about a class that provided a skill that has been essential in their success, and writing courses are mentioned often. Alumni tell me over and over again that “this is a special place.” They are right, and they continue to make it so.
I have not had space to discuss everything that has impressed me in my first months at UF—the beautiful campus, the staff (who are as committed to UF as anyone), the academic programs, and the progress on the Florida Tomorrow campaign. All these things merit attention and will get it in future issues of Alumni CLASnotes.
For all these reasons, it is a great time to be at CLAS, despite the budget problems. The budget occupies a great deal of my time, and it should. The more frugally we spend our money, the more we will have to invest in our students and faculty. But the budget does not define us. We are defined by our people, and by our passion for what we do and our commitment to UF.