Just after Thanksgiving weekend—when she managed to fit in six faculty tenure reviews among the festivities at her farm in New Hampshire—Dean Virginia Sapiro sat down with arts&sciences to talk about her nearly four years as the Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Joining Boston University in July '07, she has made her BU journey alongside the current class of graduating seniors. With them, over nearly four years, she has found her way at BU and grown in her role as dean. A political psychologist, women's studies scholar, and member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Sapiro spent more than three decades at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in teaching, research, and high-level administrative positions, most recently as Interim Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, prior to joining BU.
- What are some of the things you most like about Arts & Sciences and how would you characterize its strengths?
- I think the biggest strengths are its intellectual and academic diversity, and I don't just mean the many different departments and fields but the diversity within those. We're large and complex enough that it creates immense potential to bring people together with interests that converge. One of the things I can offer as a leader is a bird's-eye view of everything and bring people together in, for example, the life sciences, the languages, geosciences, neuroscience—very different disciplines and centers—and create even better education and research.
Something else I like most about BU is that we now have a refreshed generation of deans across the University who are not particularly territorial and really enjoy working with one another. Lots of us run in and out of each other's offices, metaphorically, seeing how our work can help one another.
- What are some of the skills/traits you draw on that have been most helpful in making you an effective dean?
- Energy and curiosity. The ability and desire to be fair with and respect the people I work with. I listen to them and treat people well, even when I have to say no. And an ability to learn. In any given day, I have to be smart about art history and physics and sociology and remote sensing. If you're going to try to be smart in all those things in one day, you have to learn and learn quickly. I put in a new team of associate deans that gives me many, many more ears. I have three associates now where there was one before—one in the humanities, one in the social sciences, and one in the natural sciences.
- What did you set out most wanting to do, and what have you been able to accomplish? What would you say are some of the milestones of your tenure as Dean of Arts & Sciences so far?
- I wanted to cultivate the excellence of undergrad and grad education and research and support a great faculty. We've been able to move forward in these areas. When I came here, there weren't enough procedures and policies, so people dealt with problems as they came up. I spent the first couple of years on policies and procedures and built a new form of leadership here. Almost all of the chairs and directors are now appointed to a three-year term, which is renewable once. We are changing leadership practices to get more faculty involved.
With the CAS First-Year Experience, we are really paying attention to the experience students are having within the first year here, how they get a strong footing in order to be more successful throughout their undergraduate career. Faculty and first-year undergraduates meet informally outside the context of the classroom—talk together, eat together—just so they can get to know one another. We also pay more attention to the faculty's first years here, and have put in a formal mentoring program.
- How has the economic downturn in recent years impacted the College?
- The economic hardship affected us most through the worries of our students whose families were hurting and through our experiences worrying about our students. The University's first effort was to ensure that no one left BU because their family didn't have the money.
Secondly, when the financial crunch came, even though gifts dropped off and it affected us, the University wasn't living off the endowment. The endowment wasn't running the core program, so I didn't have to hustle to figure out how I was going to pay my faculty. Because it was healthy, the University has been able to continue to expand the size of the faculty every year. Because we were building better relationships with alumni, they have been stepping forward and increasing donations. If you want a strong return on your philanthropic dollars, boy, can we offer you a good investment!
- There seems to be a revival of the humanities among colleges. What is your view of this?
- We don't have to "revive" the humanities; we have fabulous humanities programs in both CAS and CFA—great literature, great arts. It is one of the strong specialties of BU, and CAS in particular. Some universities are cutting languages because they're too expensive, but we are expanding them. I think we have a unique role to play in supporting the languages and global studies. BU students across the University are wonderfully interested in the world. When you see 40 percent of your students doing study abroad, you know you have an interest in global studies.
- There are so many fields to study at CAS. How do students find guidance on how to choose?
- We have advisors and are building our advisor force even further. A large number of our students haven't chosen a major by the time they arrive—maybe 30 percent of them—but that is typical of an arts and sciences college. They're really smart, with great backgrounds. They don't come in lost; they come in curious. They've chosen a large, urban institution because when they looked around, their hearts told them that this is where they belong. Our students grow to the music of the T.
- How much time do you spend traveling and visiting with alumni around the country and the world? What are you learning from them?
- I talk to a lot of alumni who just loved their experience here and understand the impact it had on their lives. I talk to alumni who did not enjoy their experience here but know the education had a great impact on their lives. And I talk to alumni who have a lot of issues they want to deal with and tell me about. But if they meet with me, they're open to engaging and we've developed some very close relationships with those alumni. What I say to people is, "We're great now. Get on this train because it's going to great places."
- What's been the most gratifying about your time here at BU?
- I get to be surrounded all the time by faculty and students who are doing amazing things. I feel that energy and want to see what we can do together. So even though this is my fourth year, my "graduation" year, I've still got more work to do and I think it will take me more than four years!
Photos by Vernon Doucette