By SHANNON O. WELLS
With views and priorities regarding higher education’s true value in a period of flux, the liberal arts curriculum makes a convenient target for skeptics who believe a diploma should lead directly to a lucrative as well as fulfilling career path.
Adam Leibovich, the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences newly selected dean, doesn’t buy into such a strictly pragmatic outlook.
“A liberal arts education is more relevant now than possibly ever before,” he says. “Because we don’t just prepare our students for one job. We prepare them for a successful and productive life, whether they’re entering the workforce, applying to graduate or professional school, joining the military or something else.
“No matter what they major in — and increasingly, our undergraduates have multiple majors, minors and certificates — our students graduate able to think critically, write effectively, argue persuasively and solve problems creatively,” Leibovich adds. “These are skills that are valued and valuable.”
Leibovich, the Dietrich School’s associate dean for research and faculty development, was recently chosen to replace Kathleen Blee as dean of the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences and the College of General Studies, effective July 1. Blee, who’s served as dean since 2017, announced last June her intention to return to the faculty.
Joe McCarthy, vice provost for undergraduate studies, led a national search to find a new leader for Pitt’s largest school.
Of the four finalists for the job, Leibovich was the only internal candidate from Pitt. Provost Ann Cudd said Leibovich, “brings to this role a great deal of ingrained institutional knowledge. He also has shared with me and the search committee his commitment to collaboration and fostering connections, in addition to his dedication to University service, and focus on innovation.”
With 12,921 students last fall, 1,127 faculty and 432 staff members, Dietrich has more than 40 departments and programs. Almost all undergraduates participate in Dietrich School classes to complete their general education requirements.
Leibovich received his Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology and his bachelor’s from Cornell University. From 1997-2000 he was a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, and from 2000-02 a postdoctoral research fellow at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. In 2003, he joined the faculty of Pitt’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, where he became the department chair in 2015, and associate dean in 2017.
Leibovich took time from his increasingly busy schedule to consider questions from University Times regarding his upcoming role and how he would like the Dietrich School to adapt and evolve as a lynchpin of Pitt’s mission.
University Times: As a long-running Pitt faculty member, how does it feel to be chosen as dean among the other outside candidates? What do your experience and departmental connections bring to your new role?
Adam Leibovich: I’m excited and honored to have been chosen to lead the Dietrich School and the College of General Studies (CGS). In the 20 years I’ve been at Pitt, I’ve worked with undergraduate and graduate students, staff, faculty at all ranks and stages of their careers, alumni and University administrators. My interactions with all these people have informed my understanding of the Dietrich School and CGS — our strengths, our opportunities, the pain points that people experience. All of that certainly informed my time as a department chair and associate dean, and will continue to shape my perspective and decision making as dean.
UT: I would think this is a good time in the academic calendar to take on a new role. How is the transition going?
Leibovich: It’s going well, though there’s definitely a lot of ground to cover. Because of my past experience and working relationships, there are systems and processes I know and understand, which is definitely an advantage. But there are also things like the new budget model that we’re all still learning about. We are looking for new associate deans to complete the leadership team.
And we’re also in the process of scheduling a leadership team retreat in August and planning a listening tour of our units that will kick off this fall, both of which I’m really looking forward to. It’s important to bring a variety of voices to the table and to not make decisions in a vacuum, and we’re committed to doing that. Thankfully I’ve got a great team, and Dean Blee is still in her role until June 30, so I have the benefit of her advice and input for the next several weeks.
UT: How would you assess Dietrich’s strengths and possible shortcomings? What do you consider your most pressing priorities as dean?
Leibovich: The greatest strengths of the Dietrich School and CGS are most certainly the people — the incredible work of our staff supports the excellence of our faculty and the accomplishments of our students. Our amazing faculty enable us to attract high-achieving students. The exceptional educational experience our students have makes them loyal and engaged alumni. It’s a wonderful full circle.
Our challenges are not unlike the challenges of our peer and aspirational institutions — the demographic cliff, meaning that we’ll soon see a steep drop-off in the population of prospective first-year students; highly competitive job markets for both faculty and staff, making it tougher to recruit and retain; the political divisions in our country that have people questioning the value of higher education, particularly liberal arts education; the need for more diversity among our faculty, staff and students. These challenges are serious, but not insurmountable.
As dean, my priorities will be first and foremost related to our people: How can I remove obstacles to their success and help them do their best work. Some of that will be identifying and providing resources, some of that will be simplifying or enhancing processes, some of that will be encouraging and rewarding innovation.
UT: How would you describe your prior relationship with Kathleen Blee, and to what extent do you plan on carrying on her legacy in your role?
Leibovich: Kathy has been a great mentor — very encouraging of me throughout our working relationship and very supportive when I told her I was considering applying for the Bailey Deanship. Her leadership during COVID, her integrity, her sense of fairness, not to mention the significance and impact of her body of scholarship, have had a positive influence on everyone she’s worked with. I feel very fortunate to have been on her team for the past six years.
UT: You mentioned wanting to get the school back to full strength regarding faculty and staff hiring. What led to the school being less than full strength, and why is it important to rectify this?
Leibovich: The Dietrich School and CGS have always run very lean in terms of faculty-to-staff ratio. Then, with the University hiring freeze, the Staff Early Retirement Program and COVID — on top of having a number of senior faculty retire — it’s been challenging. Some of the immediate hiring goals are related to ensuring that our existing vacancies are filled. But some of the hiring will be creating new positions — both on the faculty and staff side — that respond to targeted evolving needs and opportunities.
One of the things I mentioned specifically in my vision talk was providing staff support to our faculty in the area of grant writing. Our faculty are conducting leading-edge research in every discipline, and bringing in experts to help them secure funding for their work is a win-win. I want our faculty and staff to have the time to innovate, think creatively and develop partnerships to push the Dietrich School and CGS forward. That leads to job satisfaction and our ability to retain talented people.
UT: Given the challenges you mentioned earlier, including the “demographic cliff” and highly competitive job markets, how is the Dietrich School adapting to changing expectations and demands?
Leibovich: I see our curriculum — particularly our general education courses — as being incredibly important and timely. That doesn’t mean we’re not continually evolving and looking for new ways to meet changing expectations and demands — we are. Whether that’s developing new majors, like the new BS in Physics and Quantum Computing or new certificates like the Disability Studies Certificate or new methods of enhancing our students’ experience, like the Collaborative Learning Groups (Co-Lab) initiative in Study Lab that aims to prepare students for success in STEM courses. Higher education is a significant investment of time, resources and effort. We owe it to our students and their families to make that investment worthwhile.
UT: With Provost Cudd entering her final weeks at Pitt, how has her office been supportive of the Dietrich School, and what would you like to see in the next provost?
Leibovich: The Dietrich School and CGS certainly work very closely with the entire team in the Office of the Provost. If anything, I’d like us to work even more closely with them. Like everyone, I suppose, when I think about what I’d like from my new boss, I would like a true partner, someone who is invested in the success of the school and the college who will work with me and our team to ensure that we have the resources we need to flourish into the future.
UT: Is there anything you would like to add about your new role, or the present and future of the Dietrich School?
Leibovich: As I mentioned, one of our challenges is increasing the diversity among our faculty, staff and students. Part of meeting that challenge is making the Dietrich School and CGS more welcoming. I want us to be destination workplaces where people can grow, thrive and be respected and appreciated for their authentic selves. One of the ways we’re addressing that is by creating a new associate dean position focused on equity, diversity and inclusiveness. This person will be specifically focused on faculty hiring; advising and mentoring our chairs, directors and other leaders; and, critically, community engagement.
I’m looking forward to what’s next for the Dietrich School and CGS, and I look forward to sharing more with you in the days, months, and years ahead.
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com.
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