Sociologist and Dean Tries Her Hand at Being Top Academic Leader

Johns Hopkins U.

Katherine Newman
July 28, 2014

"I feel like I’m joining a team with a halo on it," says Katherine Newman, who becomes provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst this week.

Ms. Newman, a sociologist, has stepped down as dean of arts and sciences at the Johns Hopkins University, a post she began in September 2010. At Amherst she will work under Kumble R. Subbaswamy, who has been Amherst’s chancellor since July 2012.

Ms. Newman, who is 61, had been seeking a new challenge, and she was also a finalist for the provost’s job at the University of Wisconsin at Madison this year. The idea of moving to Amherst sounded better and better as she heard glowing reports about Mr. Subbaswamy’s open, collaborative style of leadership.

"I’ve found that there’s a feeling at Amherst that he’s opened up a whole lot of black boxes," she says. That approach echoes her own priorities at Johns Hopkins, where she brought faculty members into the budget process through regular briefings and the establishment of faculty committees to offer advice on spending priorities.

"She arrives at a propitious time," says Mr. Subbaswamy. He and his colleagues are making a $1-billion investment in such new facilities as an honors-college residential community, life-sciences laboratories, and a state-of-the-art classroom and academic building.

Says the chancellor: "In many states there has been a long winter of reduced budgets," but in Massachusetts under Gov. Deval L. Patrick, a Democrat, "there is a real recognition that higher education is a very good investment for the state and that Western Massachusetts," where Amherst is located, "is a good place to create that impact."

Before joining Johns Hopkins, Ms. Newman held positions at Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia Universities. This is her first administrative job at a public institution. Because the vast majority of American postsecondary students attend state institutions, the country must depend on them to deal with its pressing issues, she says, "and that’s what I want to work on."

Ms. Newman has written or edited more than a dozen books on such topics as the working poor, middle-class economic insecurity, and school violence. She and Ariane De Lannoy, a researcher in South Africa, have just published After Freedom, which explores how the post-apartheid generation in South Africa has fared. In her 2012 book, The Accordion Family, Ms. Newman wrote about the global phenomenon of the rising number of young adults who live with their parents.

Her new job "brings the two halves of my life together," she says. "Part of me is a scholar in these questions, part an academic leader who can address them." The Amherst campus has long emphasized social justice and involved itself in neighboring communities, reflecting concerns that fit the cultural and political values she saw around her in the 1970s as she earned a doctorate in anthropology in the University of California at Berkeley.

At Johns Hopkins, Ms. Newman has worked on the creation of a new arts center in a low-income Baltimore neighborhood. She also set up a new sabbatical system as well as an academy for still-active retired professors, and increased support for graduate students.

Her emphases as provost at Amherst will include creating streamlined avenues for students from well-supported freshman years to solid liberal-arts degrees and "labor-­market-friendly master's degrees," all within five years. During her four years at Johns Hopkins, that practice became so established, "almost without guidance from administrators, that we realized we needed to be more intentional about it."

She knows college administrators must work to curtail the cost of earning a degree, but just as important, she suggests, is to be "capacious and supportive of students coming from all strains of society." To that end, she says, colleges need to adopt practices they have learned through a wealth of social-science research on college adjustment.