Dr. William (Bill) Lenz, Pontious Professor of English, has been at Chatham for 34 years. Bill has served as the Chair of the Humanities and the director of the Chatham Scholars program; traveled with students to Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, Belize, Guatemala and Haiti; founded and grown the Masters in Professional Writing program from eight students to 100 students and moved it completely online; and written three books and numerous papers and articles on American literature and culture. In September, Pittsburgh Magazine nominated him as one of Pittsburgh’s “Best Professors.”
This June, President Esther Barazzone appointed him to the newly-created position and nation’s first Dean of Undergraduate Innovation. In this role, Dr. Lenz will work with all University constituencies to review institutional practices and curriculum at the undergraduate level to determine ways in which Chatham can best serve students and society in a world in which “disruptive change” has become the norm in higher education.
Can you tell us what will you be doing as Dean of Undergraduate Innovation?
I will do my best (laughs). Over the summer, Esther and I discussed the fact that she’d like me to think with faculty, staff, and others in the administration about what would be the most meaningful, intellectual and engaging undergrad experience. In an ideal world, students coming into the undergrad model of the School of Arts, Science, and Business, Falk School of Sustainability, or the School of Health Sciences would have comparable experiences. Part of my job is to figure out what is that connecting thread across all the different schools that makes the Chatham undergraduate experience special. Ultimately for us the challenge is how to preserve what is exceptional about our undergraduate education and spread it across our new schools. It may be through shared courses, or experiences, co-curricular as well as curricular. It may be a set of competencies we require everyone to have, or workshops that everyone is required to complete.
Chatham University is at a crossroads. We have an opportunity to really think about undergrad education is in a meaningful way, not just because coeducation is coming but because we are growing – developing new programs, new schools, a new organizational structure. How do we make Chatham a growing, thriving, evolving institution that’s a destination for students from across the country?
This is the first Dean of Undergraduate Education position in the nation. Can you tell us how the role came to be?
Esther called me in June and said I’d really like you do to this new job, and I said no. It’s too nebulous, I’m well into my career, and I didn’t want to do full-time administration. She said, at least think about it. So I talked to my wife, who said, you know, you’ll kick yourself if you don’t do this. You’ve always been someone who takes on new challenges. So why don’t you think about doing it, because I’ll tell you the truth, you’re probably going to do it anyway.
So, Esther and I met for a couple meetings over next few weeks, and talked about what could be done. And I said okay, I’ll do it. We have a number of deans who have staffs, budgets, and constituencies. As I said to the School of Arts, Science, and Business yesterday, I’m like the secret agent dean who has none of that. What I have is faculty. They are my team and my resource. I value their expertise, intelligence and insight.
What does “innovate” mean to you?
I’d say “innovate” really means three things. On one hand, it’s looking at what we have done. On the other hand, it means scanning the environment. One of the things we don’t want to do is reinvent the wheel. If the wheel fits, I want it on the vehicle. Third is that instead of trying to imitate something out there, that we do what we want to do. And from my point of view that’s what’s exciting. Taking what’s good, asking what do we want to preserve. Is it pedagogy? Is it value? Is it attitude? Everyone recognizes that change is coming, but we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Some of the change will be disruptive, and some will be preservative. We have to figure out how to invent and be creative about what we want for the future. Innovate without rejecting. I think that’s really important.
When do you think the new element or elements will be in place?
We’re thinking of this plan in two stages. The first stage is that we’d like to have a series of recommendations by the end of December. They may be concrete, or they may be philosophical, but if they’re both, we can work on implementing them in the spring so that they can be ready to go for fall 2015. It depends on how the pieces fit together, but that’s the hope I have, and I think I share that with Esther.
Are there particular practices or curricula that you’re especially looking forward to revisiting?
We currently have a Gen Ed model that is thorough and thoughtful and cumbersome. But I wonder if there isn’t there a more streamlined way to deliver what we think is important in general education. It might be courses, but it might also be modules or experiences or competencies we want all students to gain. I’ve spent the past few weeks thinking and reading about all the different models out there – some include a major and three minors, some include no major and you have to form your education from the ground up, or you have two majors – there are so many models out there. What I’d like to not have is a checklist model. I think it has to be more organic than that.
But the devil is in the details. We might say that we require every student to be tech savvy, but what does that mean? That they have to be able to program in HTML? Do they have to be able to use Microsoft Excel? Be on Twitter? How do we really show that our students have developed these competencies? That’s a big part of what our community will figure out.
In the press release about your promotion, you mention addressing, among other things, the cost of higher education. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, we want to do two things. First, we want to make sure students go through their sequence of years in a timely fashion, and not be penalized for changing their major. If we can think of these commonalities that undergraduates might have across schools and majors, we can make it easier for students to change majors with a minimum of additional time and money. And we also need to have value-added experiences here, such as meeting the authors at our all-campus author series, doing lab work right away alongside other students and faculty, taking advantage of work experience and internships that connect you to real-world opportunities…all of that adds value to the Chatham experience.
How do you feel about the decision to go co-ed?
I have been a longtime advocate for women’s education. Because I’m a pragmatist, I also think that we have come to a place in our culture where we need to think about the future of Chatham, and that Chatham is co-educational. Am I fine with that? Absolutely. Part of the exciting opportunity we now have is how do we take the values we share as not only a liberal arts institution but as Chatham College for Women, and not lose sight of them, but infuse them in the Chatham of the future.
Part of what we do as we bring men into Chatham at the undergrad level is to help them understand what it means to be an institution with a long history of a commitment to women’s education. All of this will help male students understand a new world where women are more and more in the majority and positions of authority.
What would you say to someone who asserted that a liberal arts education has no value in today’s economy?
I would say that a liberal arts education has tremendous value. I just saw a graph in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education that tracks the salaries of graduates of liberal arts majors and professional majors across five, 10, 15 and 20 years. Although right out of college, a professional major might have a higher earning salary, the gap closes and shifts. By the time you get 20 years out, those trained in the liberal arts are earning a significant amount more than the professional degree recipients.
The value of studying in the liberal arts is that it gives you the opportunity to not only earn more but to be more satisfied with your career choices in the long term. The literature says that everyone graduating is going through about six career changes in their lives. What we want to do is educate them for those changes, to take advantage of those opportunities.
How do you feel about working at Chatham?
Oh, I love it. The students are bright, engaged, caring, and what I really like is that they want everyone in the class to succeed. I think that’s a hallmark of the Chatham experience that I don’t want to lose. Second, the faculty. My colleagues are exceptional. I’ve team-taught with them, worked with them, traveled abroad with them, and I would stack them up against any faculty in the country. I think we also have a very innovative administrative team always looking to improve, and to make the institution exceptional. Everyone’s voice is important. And I love that. I love that about Chatham.