New Academic Officer Is Hired to Make 'Semester at Sea' Ship Shape

Michael Mariant, Semester at Sea

Rosalyn W. Berne says her new job as a vice president of Semester at Sea combines her academic training with her love of travel.
July 20, 2009

Rosalyn W. Berne knows that in her new job, she will gather a faculty of about 30 people only to watch it float away. She knows that if she is going to keep track of her employees, she will have to fly to exotic ports in Morocco, Turkey, and Vietnam.

The Semester at Sea, which celebrates its 100th voyage this fall, brings together more than 700 students and puts them on a 590-foot-long passenger ship, where they take courses as they travel to four continents. They stop for three to five days in several ports, where they do fieldwork related to their studies on board.

The University of Virginia took over as the program's academic sponsor in 2006 from the University of Pittsburgh, which had played host to it since 1981.

For Ms. Berne, 52, an associate professor of science, technology, and society at the University of Virginia, the newly created job of vice president and senior academic officer at Semester at Sea seemed like a good fit.

She had a long commitment to learning through travel. In 1979, when she was still an undergraduate student, she helped start a study-abroad program to India at the University of Virginia. She didn't get a chance to go that time but she visited India two years later as a graduate student in rhetoric and communication studies.

Her travels have taken her all over the world, including to West Africa to visit friends before she got married.

She has also traveled to the Galápagos Islands and Costa Rica with her husband and two children, and she served as a guest lecturer in Japan.

The new position allows her to combine her academic training with her "personal commitment and convictions about us growing in our awareness of others," she says.

Loren W. Crabtree, a senior fellow and chief executive for global education at Semester at Sea, says he hopes Ms. Berne's experiences as an educator and administrator will enhance the academic quality of the program. For instance, he would like her to ensure that students can apply what they learn on board to their activities in port.

"Also, she will be out recruiting faculty across the country and internationally," he says.

Ms. Berne says she began working on that before she even had the position. At an event at Ohio State University in March, she looked around the table, and "I thought, 'You would be very good on the ship.' It's very natural for me to do that."

She is also cultivating relationships with people she knows in Costa Rica, Ghana, and Japan in hope of enriching the curriculum on board.

She draws on the 20 years of administrative experience she gained before finishing her doctorate in religious studies in 1999.

One of her jobs involved leading the Tandem Friends School, a private middle and high school in Charlottesville, Va., through a financial crisis that threatened its existence in the mid-1990s.

The school survived, but she paid a personal price for her devotion to it: At the time, she had an infant and a toddler at home, and she was working on her dissertation.

"It took a tremendous amount of time, energy, and emotional effort," she says.

Joining the faculty at the University of Virginia full time in 1999, she believes, helped her get back the balance she felt she needed for her family. As a faculty member, she could work more-flexible hours and do some research from home to be near her children.

Before her five years at Tandem, she worked at the university in several administrative positions. including executive director of the Olsson Center of Applied Ethics, assistant vice president for administration at the university, and director of admissions at the Darden School of Business.

Ms. Berne had been looking to go back into an administrative role now that her children are grown. "I like the planning, the execution, the supporting, and motivating and developing staff members," she says.

She thought it was unlikely she could stay in academe to do so.

She was a finalist for the directorship of a private school in Washington, D.C., when a staff member in the human-resources department at Virginia approached her about the job with Semester at Sea.

"It was intriguing because I realized that I could keep my feet in both worlds," she says.

Indeed, Ms. Berne has made a career out of venturing into different fields. Most recently, her academic focus has been on the ethics of nanoscience. She has applied her knowledge as an ethicist to business, medical, and engineering settings.

Her interdisciplinary experience will help her improve the curriculum on board, which already covers a variety of subjects like art history and engineering. Although she initially needs to work from the home office, in Charlottesville, she is eager to join a cross-ocean voyage soon and be exposed, along with the students and faculty, to other cultures.

"I think that's very important for world citizenship, for a consciousness of who we are as human beings," she says.