A Sociologist Who Found Colleges 'Adrift' Becomes an Education Dean

April 17, 2016

Acting on Optimism

Courtesy of Richard Arum
Richard Arum
As he prepares to become dean of the School of Education at the University of California at Irvine, Richard Arum is far more optimistic about the promise of higher education than might be expected from his and Josipa Roksa’s 2011 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, and its 2014 sequel, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates.

The former, in particular, blew the mortarboard off academe with national survey results that showed that a large percentage of students study, read, write, and learn very little in college. By establishing that sorry reality with data, both books had more impact than had decades of jeremiads against American higher education.

His own findings do not make him despondent. "I have such high hopes for what education can deliver to young people," says Mr. Arum, who is chair of sociology at New York University, and a professor of sociology and education. He expects to assume the deanship at Irvine on June 30.

One great strength of American higher education, he says, "is that it’s open to criticism and willing to confront problems" particularly through "rigorous evaluation and assessment where you take an honest look at what’s going on, to be able to move forward."

Since he started out teaching and being a technology consultant for six years in public schools in Oakland, Calif., Mr. Arum has worked in many education-school teaching and research roles. Some of his future Irvine colleagues encouraged him to apply for the deanship, he says.

His goal at Irvine, he says, will be to help shape "a 21st-century education school" in a stronghold of "the education sciences" that already boasts high citation counts and external financial support per faculty member.

"I am optimistic," he says. "And my move to UC Irvine is a sign of my optimism."

The most deflated he sounds, during an interview, is when he recounts that some faculty members around the country wrote to him to ask — in regard to Academically Adrift’s revelation that students reported that few courses asked them to write even 20-page papers — the question that they often get from students: "Are those pages single-spaced, or double-spaced?" — Peter Monaghan

Change-Oriented Dean

Christian Fleury
Isabelle G. Bajeux-Besnainou
After 21 years at the George Washington University School of Business, Isabelle G. Bajeux-­Besnainou last year became the first female dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, in Montreal. She says she was lured by the university’s "impeccable reputation" and its location in a bilingual city with European and North American roots.

"It’s great to be in this position to try and get the best of two worlds," says Ms. Bajeux-­Besnainou, a native of France. "It’s a great fit; I understand both cultures."

Lili de Grandpré, a member of the advisory committee for the dean search and a former vice chair of McGill’s governing board, says Ms. Bajeux-Besnainou was chosen because she is a listener who is committed to a student-focused curriculum.

"She has a very clear vision of what she wants to do and had a proven track record of introducing programs and changes where she was before," Ms. de Grandpré says. "That for us was an indication we were getting somebody who could tackle change and who had a vision."

A professor of finance, Ms. Bajeux-Besnainou spent her final three years at George Washington’s business school as associate dean of undergraduate programs, adding new curricula with a strong interdisciplinary flavor.

Adapting a charity’s successful project, she added a mandatory course for all business-­school freshmen to learn about social entrepreneurship by teaching middle-schoolers in underserved areas of Washington, D.C., how to run a lemonade stand. She introduced a bachelor of science in finance that required students to complete a second major outside of the business school. In 2014 she revamped the undergraduate curriculum so all students had to complete a non-business-school minor to earn their degree.

"That will absolutely be one of her large legacies," says David Ruda, assistant director of undergraduate programs, of his former boss. "She was the champion behind that, and it was what employers were calling for."

At Desautels, Ms. Bajeux-Besnainou created panels of faculty members, alumni, and others to guide future developments that, pending approval of a strategic plan in May, could expand specialty master’s programs and executive education, add new interdisciplinary learning options, and intensify efforts to recruit more research professors.

Asked to assess differences between European and North American business education, Ms. Bajeux-Besnainou says, "I am not sure there is one model that is better than the other. What is most important is what works better for the students." — Karen Birchard and Jennifer Lewington

A Study of Forgetting

Hannah O’Malley
Aaron R. Krochmal (right), with students
For the past seven years, Aaron R. Krochmal, an associate professor of biology at Washington College, has been trying to pinpoint how a population of turtles near the Maryland campus manages to navigate migration routes.

"The turtles learn in what appears to be their first years of life, but they live 30 to 50 years," he says.

A study he did on turtle navigation with Timothy C. Roth, an assistant professor of psychology at Franklin & Marshall College, was featured on the cover of the February 10 issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The professors’ journal article provides evidence that Eastern painted turtles use aspects of spatial memory to navigate, much as human beings do.

Students were involved in every aspect of the project, says Mr. Krochmal. "The students worked with us, not for us."

During the field season, when the turtles begin migrating from a drained pond to another habitat near Washington’s campus, Mr. Kroch­mal says, the students take data points and work alongside their professors, as equals.

"Instead of saying, ‘Here is what we are going to do,’ we would say, ‘How should we do this?’" he says. "Our goal is to put them in a situation where they are doing science that is real and science that matters."

The professors’ past research found that turtles over the age of 4 are unable to learn how to navigate new paths. To test whether navigational skills the turtles learn as juveniles are fundamental to their ability to navigate as adults, the professors gave a group of migrating turtles a memory-blocking drug, scopolamine.

Without the use of their memory, older turtles "roamed in circles for hours, until the drug wore off," while the younger turtles were unaffected by the drug.

The research confirmed the idea that turtles rely on what they learned from experiences in their first years of life and recall as adults, he says.

Mr. Krochmal says that his and Mr. Roth’s future research will focus on understanding what changes occur in the turtle’s brain after the critical learning period and whether that work can be applied across species, possibly even to age-related memory loss in people.

He says one of the biggest eureka moments the research offered him was that it chipped away at the notion that "humans are special because of our cognitive ability, and animals just follow their gut." — Mary Bowerman

An Exit After 3 Years

Nancy A. Roseman will step down as president of Dickinson College on June 30, after three years leading the liberal-arts institution in Pennsylvania.

Neil B. Weissman, Dickinson’s provost and dean, will serve as interim president starting on July 1, the college announced on its website.

A former dean at Williams College and a professor of biology, Ms. Roseman is Dickinson’s first female president.

She said in an interview last week that she had decided to leave Dickinson because she realizes she may have only one career move left and she wants an opportunity to work more closely with young people. That could be through another presidency, work with a foundation, or a job at a secondary school. — Jack Stripling and Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz

Obituary: Economic Forecaster

Esmael Adibi, a professor of economics and director of the A. Gary Anderson Center for Economic Research at Chapman University, died of complications from a stroke on April 8. He was 63.

A native of Iran, Mr. Adibi joined Chapman’s faculty in 1978 and began leading the Anderson center in 1985. He was known for presenting the annual Chapman University Economic Forecasts on various stages in Orange County, Calif., over the past 38 years, along with James L. Doti, his fellow economist and the university’s president.

The two men wrote the textbook Econometric Analysis. Mr. Adibi also published numerous articles in newspapers and journals. — Ruth Hammond

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