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Rosalind Williams to Succeed Dean Smith

By Ramy A. Arnaout
Executive Editor

On June 12, President Charles M. Vest named Professor of Writing Rosalind H. Williams as the new joint dean for undergraduate education and student affairs. Williams replaces Arthur C. Smith, who will retire at the end of the summer after five years in the post.

The appointment follows the recommendations of an advisory committee that has been looking into the search for a new dean for several months. The dean should "clearly [be] someone who understands the undergraduate education process at MIT and the ways in which it is unique," said Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Linn M. Hobbs, who chaired the committee.

That person should also be "someone who has a very strong sense of what the Institute is trying to do as the foremost institute of technology in the world," Hobbs said. Williams "has a very good grasp of this, and as a historian understands very well what MIT's mission is."

For her part, Williams sees the appointment as "a great opportunity It really is a moment for historical change, both for the Institute and the country. The cold war paradigm is over. It's a time when there are great pressures on higher education, especially on research universities," she said. "And if it has to be changing, it would be very exciting to be part of a team that's changing it."

Williams will not be that team's only freshman member. Recent administration shifts had opened up several free posts, including dean of the graduate school and now head of the writing program, which Williams was to have taken on July 1. The position of provost was filled only last month by former Dean of the School of Engineering Joel Moses. "I won't feel alone," Williams said. "That's why it's exciting. It's not coming into a predefined slot."

Writing experience best qualifies

"Non-tenure track experience" has been Williams' most valuable preparation for her upcoming role as dean. It has "much more to do with my whole life, my scholarship is in technology," said the mother of three, one of whom is a college sophomore.

The most important "thing that qualifies me is having taught writing here for 12 years," Williams said. "You get feedback into the undergraduate experience on a daily basis. I can't tell you how many essays I've read on the time crunch, drinking policies, or classroom experience. That has been a rare opportunity to experience with students what it's like to be a student here. I always find that I'm consciously or unconsciously always drawing on that," she said. "That's been my primary window to the undergraduate experience."

Food service, housing on agenda

One focus for Williams will be to look at food service and housing with an eye toward their impacts on education. "I want to make sure that when we talk about food and housing it's with a mind to their educational and learning dimensions," Williams said. "I don't know what that means in terms of organizational charts and lines of authority." But it does mean that these features of student life - as important and ubiquitous as study - can't help but have an effect on learning. "I want to keep that in mind," she said.

Office split still likely

Although Williams will take the title of joint dean for undergraduate education and student affairs (the two offices were combined under Smith), chances are still good that the office will yet be split.

"The [committee's] recommendation was to have a dean of student life or affairs in addition to a dean for undergraduate education," Hobbs said. "My understanding is, that will likely be done, and that dean will report to Williams," Hobbs said.

There have been two basic considerations in reaching that recommendation, Hobbs said. On the one hand has been the recognition of the huge responsibilities faced by a joint dean; on the other, the need for cooperation in the two areas.

"The feeling of the committee was we should have a dean of undergraduate education, and that dean would oversee student life aspects as well, but that it was too much to chart the academic waters and the social details as well," Hobbs said. At the same time, "There had to be one person with whom the buck stopped," he said.

"The question of the structure of the office is [still] open," Williams said. However, the idea of creating a dean for student life who would report to Williams remains "one of the dominant models, and we're beginning there," she said.