The Student News Site of Chatham University


The Student News Site of Chatham University


The Student News Site of Chatham University


Dr. William Lenz discusses new position as Dean of Undergraduate Innovation

Photo Credit: Indigo Baloch

The first thing anyone notices as they walk through the doors of the Lindsay House would have to be the animated office of Dr. William E. Lenz, adorned with pink walls and flamingos.

In discussing his new role as the Dean of Undergraduate Innovation, he reminds us of the importance of the undergraduate experience, the legacy of the Chatham College for Women, and that the walls of his office are not painted with any shade of pink, but rather that of ‘Blackberry Mist.’

Communique: What does your new title as Dean of Undergraduate Innovation mean?

Dr. Lenz: President Barazzone and I started talking about this in June. As we are moving forward in so many ways, this would be a good time to think about what really matters for a Chatham College student. She asked me to think what I considered meaningful change that could occur so we could take this opportunity being at a crossroads and think about the things we do well, the values we want to preserve from the CCW (Chatham College for Women) and what we want to modify. And so that has been my challenge; is to see what we do well, what we can improve, what we have never thought about.

C: What are the functions of your new position?

L: I have been working with different groups of faculty, different staff and administrators. By the end of this first of semester [my goal is to], develop at least one or maybe two conceptual models which will result in a revision of general education, which is a top to bottom concept–from my point of view; to make it [general education] simpler and to make it more meaningful. I have heard people say it is too cumbersome. As I talk to different groups of people, those are the kinds of questions I have been asking: What do we want to retain? What do we want to preserve? What is meaningful? What are the things that you think would be beneficial to our undergraduates once they graduate?

I have been meeting with a senior faculty group of about fifteen faculty members. I have met with junior faculty, also of about fifteen people. I have been meeting with the President, Vice President, and the four other deans–as well as others as needed: Students Affairs, IT, etc. You might ask, “what about students?” And I think at this point, it is a little preliminary. We are working towards a concept, rather than articulation. My second semester is going to, I hope, look at how we implement these new conceptual ideas. That’s when I would like to bring in students, alumni, and experts from outside.

C: Would students have a say or impact in these changes?

L: Absolutely.  It is very exciting. It is very challenging. I had no idea that so much planning went on at each level, and that has been a real eye-opener for me. Sometimes we think that no one knows what is going on. I speak truly to this, that is not the case. There is a lot of planning that goes on from the top all the way down. I had to opportunity to speak with the Board of Trustees. They are very engaged, exciting, and supportive.

C: A position as a Dean of Undergraduate Innovation is the first of its kind. How do you navigate this?

L: As opposed to being the Dean of a school, I report to Vice President of Academic Affairs; and as Special Assistant to the President, I report directly to President Barazzone. The downside, of course, is that I do not have a staff. It does mean that I am more independent and more flexible and adaptable. Therefore, part of what my job is is looking at the bigger picture. I see my job as mediating between, or among, the different constituencies who will implement whatever vision we finally decide upon.

There is a lot of engagement work that goes on underneath the surface of the institution. There really is an intense amount of planning going into not just coeducation, but the school reorganization, the different ways in which we are going to be better next year. That is the key. How can we be better?

C: What you looking to specifically focus on during this time of transition?

L: Making the general education model more efficient and effective, a more powerful learning tool. The mission initiatives, as I see them at the moment will remain as global awareness, sustainability and environmental understanding, and leadership and civic engagement. The new general education model will encompass those in interesting and meaningful ways for students. The danger is to create a checklist. In my thinking, and the thinking of different teams that I have set to work on this, which is my managerial model. I meet with larger groups, and then we find smaller work teams to develop position papers on each of these different threads. Part of what we have been trying to do is make it a model that will be interesting for students to connect to their own objectives. The way I often talk about the general education model is a Lego block model. There may different colors of Lego blocks, but they all fit together.

We have been looking at the tutorial. Is the tutorial something we want to maintain in exactly the form it has been for all my life at Chatham, or is it something we want to reconceptualize? If so, what are the possible iterations it might take? We are all thinking of some culminating academic experience.

We have also been talking, at the suggestion of the President, about professionalizing student experiences. A series of experiences, courses, workshops, and opportunities to help every student become more professional and able to either go directly to graduate school or the workforce and be comfortable in a very professional environment.

This is an opportunity to not lose our 145 year focus on women’s values, pedagogy, [and] women’s sense of the world, which a very important thing. The Women’s Institute gives us an opportunity to foreground women in a way that is new and different for us. How we can use this new institute to create very special set of opportunities for women and men? I do think that as we move to coeducation, men that chose Chatham will be men who will be interested in gender, women, and the larger picture of society and culture.

One of the reasons I took this job is I thought I could help ensure that we did not lose those values of the women’s college that have made Chatham so distinct.

C: What are you looking forward to in the future of Chatham, now that the coeducation decision has been made?

L: I was part of the faculty and administration reading group last year that spent all fall and a good part of the winter talking about these issues. The large question was, “Is it possible in a changing world to preserve the women’s college.” What I discovered over the course of all those conversations was that we have come to a historic moment in Chatham history. It is time to make a big change. My thirty-five years at Chatham have always been about change. When I first came, we were going through a reinvention of core curriculum. I have been here when we considered coeducation in the 80s and decided not to go that direction. I have been here in the 90s when we decided to have graduate programs. This is another opportunity. We are all saddened to see the end of Chatham College for Women as it existed. My hope is that we can preserve what is most valuable and take that forward in a reconceptualization.

C: What does your role in the classroom look like now?

L: At the moment, I am teaching one course each semester. I am passionate about teaching and I think it is important to stay connected. Students are the heart of the institution, and if you are not connected to them, then we lose touch.

C: Why Chatham?

L: I’ll start with the students. I have always been challenged and energized by my students. I learn something new every time I teach a work. Second, I have great colleagues. It gives you something completely different than you would normally get at a larger institution. The ability to walk down the hall and talk to Dr. Wister about Darwin, to go down the hall the other way to talk to Dr. MacNeil and about chemistry theory, and then figure out how it connects back to what I am researching or teaching at the moment–that collegiality and compatibility is important. Third, this is in a place of constant change. I have the great privilege to be able to design programs throughout my career. Every opportunity has given me the chance to do something that has a direct impact. I love having a stamp upon the institution and getting the feedback as someone who can create things.

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    Carol FrisNov 19, 2014 at 7:57 am

    Nice interview with Dr. Lenz.