Humanities Dean Candidate Appointment Causes Debate

David Conley | New University

Some faculty members of the School of Humanities express their concerns over the appointment of the new dean.


Faculty members of the UC Irvine School of Humanities were invited to an informational meeting with Chancellor Michael V. Drake and Provost Susan V. Bryant to discuss the appointment of the new dean of Humanities last Tuesday, Sept. 25.

The former Dean, Vicki L. Ruiz of the Department of History, stepped down at the end of her term in August of this year after announcing in October 2011 that she would not return for another term. Professor James A. Steintrager, the Department of English Chair, stepped in as interim dean to allow the university to find a permanent candidate.

The selection committee was put together in January following Ruiz’s announcement. It included faculty members from departments within the School of Humanities, the School of Social Ecology and Physical Sciences, among others to make the committee as diverse as possible in representing the university.

At the meeting, Chancellor Drake informed those present of the candidate for Dean, Georges Van Den Abbeele, and presented his academic background and credentials to the faculty.

Chancellor Drake then opened up the meeting to comments and questions regarding the candidate, where several members of the faculty voiced their concerns over the candidate selection process.

Humanities faculty members who were not part of the search committee were concerned that the administration appointed a candidate without their input.

In previous searches, candidates for the dean position were introduced to the faculty in an open forum. The faculty members were allowed to interview the candidate and give a recommendation based on their findings to the administration, who would then take the comments into consideration.

“In an ideal scenario, faculty usually prefer the option of having an open forum, where they can meet the finalists for a dean position and hear the vision this leader has for the school, which also allows the faculty to provide feedback on the candidates to the search committee,” Professor Linda Vo from the Department of Asian American Studies said after the meeting.

Chancellor Drake responded to this concern by saying that it is now more common and routine to keep the candidate confidential. He said that most candidates that apply are already in a prestigious, comfortable position at another university, and do not want to alert their home community that they could leave unless it is absolutely certain.

Drake also noted that if the process is made public, many qualified candidates will withdraw because they don’t want it to be publically known that they are applying for the position.

“I think the Chancellor was correct in that the nature of this kind of search at this high a level of appointment really requires a high degree of confidentiality,” Associate Dean of Graduate Study and Associate Professor Glen Mimura said after the meeting. Mimura was also a member of the dean selection committee.

Even though Professor Mimura and others understood the reasoning behind the confidential search, he still empathized with the concerns of others.

“I think this was deemed unusual within the school because the last dean search did include a public town hall meeting,” Mimura said.

“I’m sympathetic to the interests to have that. I think that more transparency is better than less, certainly at a public institution … at the same time, I also do think that there are always risks involved, so certainly one thing from the standpoint of the committee was that the more people who participate in the search, the less confidentiality … there is merit to the Chancellor’s statement that qualified candidates would have withdrawn from the search had confidentiality not been maintained very far into the search.”

Associate Professor of English Rodrigo Lazo brought up another concern during the meeting, commenting that the appointment of this candidate would not bring any Asian-American or Latino members to the Dean Council.

Chancellor Drake responded that he is dedicated to creating a diverse campus and would love nothing more than to have even more of a multicultural council, but that he believes this particular candidate has been selected through a very interactive committee.

Other professors also expressed their concern regarding the diversity of the council.

“Given the demographics of UCI and of California, we need to continue to ensure we are creating a diverse pool of candidates in the hiring process for campus administrators who are responsible for academic as well as student affairs,” Professor Vo said.

“I think that we should certainly strive to have a more diverse leadership on campus,” Professor Mimura said. “However, these searches always unfold one by one, so it’s not as if 10 or 12 deans are selected in relation to one another.”

Professor Mimura also commented on why he thought some of these concerns arose.

“I think part of the context for some of the anxieties that were expressed, at least from my perspective, have to do with the perspective of faculty who have seen the School of Humanities as under assault, somehow under a particular threat under the budget crisis,” Professor Mimura said.

“Some of those types of anxieties really aren’t substantive; some of those anxieties are very substantive and very real. So I think that when there’s a process underway that’s not fully transparent, it’s seen as there’s some sort of gamesmanship going on behind the scene that in the end, may not serve the interests of the School of Humanities. I completely understand those sentiments, but the end result of this search – however messy it may have been perceived to have been – is a good one. I think that Georges Van Den Abbeele is going to be a good dean and serve the interests of the School of Humanities.”

If Georges Van Den Abbeele takes on the position, his term would begin in January 2013. He would be taking over for Interim Dean James A. Steintrager, who entered this position at the last minute for the Fall Quarter of 2012.

Van Den Abbeele was the former dean of humanities at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is currently a founding dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern University. He is a scholar of romance languages and literatures, and holds interests in French and European philosophical literature, literary theory and translation, travel narrative and more.