University News

McLaughlin takes reins as dean of the faculty

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2011

Kevin McLaughlin P’12, the new dean of the faculty, gave his walls a fresh coat of white paint. He’s getting new furniture, including a desk designed by the architects of colonial Williamsburg.

And he’s learning to use Excel.

McLaughlin, who previously served as chair of the Department of English, views his new position as an experiment of sorts. He said he views himself as a scholar, not a senior administrator.

But, he said, “We always tell our students in the humanities that a B.A. with a concentration in a humanities field is great preparation for anything.”

“I think this is a test,” he said. “I’m a literary scholar. That’s what I do.”

Though McLaughlin has been on the University faculty for 15 years, his new position has changed things. He used to live in Massachusetts and commute to Providence, but after accepting the job, McLaughlin and his wife — who teaches French at Boston College — decided to move closer to campus.

“Even though Brown, the campus, is very familiar to me, it suddenly feels different because of where I am,” he said. “Because I live here now. Because I’m in this office and not in an English office.”

 

Moving in

Room 111 of University Hall always had a “kind of aura” for McLaughlin. His new office is bigger than his previous one in the English department. He’s still waiting on the last pieces of furniture to come in — a new table and a desk to replace the single, larger desk that Rajiv Vohra P’07, the office’s previous occupant, used. He had the walls painted this summer — because, he said, you have to show the people you’re recruiting that you can afford to paint your walls.

There are the windows, higher from the ground than McLaughlin is used to, which he said bring in sunlight and a great view.

“You almost can’t get past this office without being seen,” he said. “If you keep the shades open, you can see people walking by — on the Main Green, down to the library, anyone coming into University Hall from this side has to walk right by my window.”

He said he hasn’t succumbed to the distraction of people-watching — yet. But now that people are returning to campus, McLaughlin said the traffic outside his window has started to pick up.

Because University Hall has more security than the English department’s building at 70 Brown St., McLaughlin can decorate his office with paintings from the University collections. Four paintings currently hang in his room, one of which was painted by Wendy Edwards, professor of visual arts.

 

Challenges and changes

McLaughlin said his years as chair of the English department prepared him for parts of his new job — department chairs and the dean of the faculty frequently interact, especially when making administrative decisions about hiring, budgets and staffing. Even the work is similar — both jobs require management and coordination of faculty.

But at the same time, his new job is bigger, McLaughlin said. He will now have to adopt a “big picture perspective” and prioritize individual issues.

McLaughlin’s administrative role also leaves little time for interaction with students.

“It feels a little weird being in a University and not being a student or a professor,” he said. And though the job is worth it, contact with students is something McLaughlin still wants to maintain. He read this year’s freshman required reading — Leslie Chang’s “Factory Girls” — to keep in touch with student life. A copy sits on his desk, next to stacks of documents and Post-It notes.

Stephen Foley ’74 P’04 P’07, acting chair of the English department, said McLaughlin’s “likeable disposition” and leadership skills equip him well for his position.

“I think that Kevin is one of the best administrators I’ve seen in my life,” Foley said. He added that McLaughlin will naturally bring different perspectives than those of his predecessor, but said the same story would be true of any new dean.

McLaughlin said he doesn’t know what his biggest challenge will be yet — that’s something he will discover as the year progresses. But he did say he is worried about “living up to the position.”

 

Getting started

McLaughlin was named dean of the faculty at the end of May and assumed the position in July. But he did not start working until August because he spent July in France on a research trip he planned before taking the job.

The beginning of the job was busy, he said. Over the summer, the dean is required to go through all departmental search requests for the go-ahead to advertise and recruit new faculty. Typically, that requires meeting with department chairs to hear their explanations and rationales for recruiting new faculty. This year, there were about 60 requests to go through.

“That just means spending time here in the office meeting people and trying to find time later in the day to follow up and get things done,” he said.

McLaughlin also had to organize his own office structure — a process which involved hiring Janet Blume, formerly an associate professor of engineering, to serve as associate dean of the faculty.

Before leaving for the summer, McLaughlin worked with Vohra, his predecessor and now a professor of economics, to choose a new department chair for English. Foley will hold the position as interim chair this year, and Professor of English Philip Gould, who is on sabbatical this semester, will take the position next.

 

Looking ahead

McLaughlin’s goals for the semester include furthering several academic initiatives as well as examining hiring and tenure. He will focus on the Humanities Initiative — a project based out of an anonymous $3 million donation the University received last year to use toward hiring renowned humanities professors and hosting international symposia. He also plans to strengthen the Middle East studies program and collaborate more with the administrators of the School of Engineering.

McLaughlin said he wants to emphasize “strategic” faculty appointments to enhance existing University strengths. Currently, he plans to use existing monthly meetings with divisional chairs to determine hiring needs and interests across departments.

McLaughlin also said implementing the new tenure procedures — which faculty approved last year — is another “big topic” his office has been working on and will continue to address this year.

Ultimately, McLaughlin said he hopes to connect the faculty with real-world questions and problems they could feasibly address — a “public service” for society “defined in a global sense.”

“We can’t afford not to keep the humanities central to the education of leaders,” he said.