The Fall of 2001 was a difficult one for most of the country, as we collectively got used to the strange new world that included terrorist threats and more fear than most of us had ever experienced in our lives. It was an especially difficult time for me because I was using more than the usual number of adjunct professors that semester and because my husband and I were moving in the midst of applying to adopt a child. We found the adoption process to be an especially trying one because it (rightly) leaves all aspects of one’s life open to scrutiny by the strangers who work for the agency, from our health history to our checkbook to the cleanliness of our house. I remember once talking to a professor from biology who had a young child. He asked my husband and me if we wanted children. I quickly responded "yes, and because of that, we are cleaning the walk-up attic this weekend!" The look on his face made it clear that he thought we needed to sit in on his Anatomy class as soon as possible!
That was the first semester that our current dean, “Sister Chris” held that office, and I suspect that the collective angst that we all felt at the time made her transition to that job all the more difficult. Despite that, she jumped into the job, encouraging us in our efforts and once even telling us once, to my delight, that scholars once thought of math as the central “liberal art”, from which all the other subjects grew. Indeed, I have written about her, indirectly, in previous columns.
I am sure that I was quite a challenge to her, as I had plans for my department that did not always fit into the college’s vision of where it should go. When I took over being chair, we had few students taking math who were not taking it to fulfill a core requirement. We therefore called ourselves a "service department," something I had no plans of continuing. I immediately did some research and discovered that we were sending our students to neighboring colleges to take upper division math courses, and I was not happy with this. Instead, I started offering them on campus, something that had not been done for many years. So, right from the beginning of her years as dean, she had to deal with an “uppity” math professor who wanted to change the status quo. Now that I think about it, I must have been a challenge to deal with!
I know that she taught me many things over these last few years, and I hope that I taught her a few things, too. She taught me to see beyond my small department and my own plans for it, and to consider the larger college when making my decisions. And I hope that I taught her a few things about what economists call “marginal cost pricing.” Somewhere in years past, someone had calculated the number of students needed in a class in order to pay for overhead such as mowing the lawn and fixing the roof. This number was larger than the number needed to pay for the cost of actually running a class, especially if classrooms sat empty, as they often did in the summer. I tried to teach her that one should only consider the actual cost of running a class, as the lawn will get mowed and the roof fixed, whether the class runs or not. I think she was amused at me when I marched into the VP of Finance’s office armed with my economics graphs and tried to convince him of the same. Looking back, I realize how silly I must have looked, with my graphs ready to show, safely stored in a briefcase that I never really use, part of a “business look” that included a suit I almost never wear. And to think I even wore heels to that meeting!
She has been more than a dean to us, but was also a mentor. She especially encouraged me to continue my research as an economist, despite being in a math department. She didn’t seem to care that much of my research was with faculty members from local, competing, colleges. And the fact that I let those other faculty members deal with the editors of journals, often resulting in my name appearing second on a publication, didn’t seem to bother her. I think that she, like I, realized that not dealing with editors left me with more time for my own students.
The line between dean and friend got crossed at various times in these last few years. She was very supportive and encouraging when I was waiting to adopt a child, and, with the rest of the campus, excited when a child came home with us. She came to our daughter’s baptism and has watched her grow up from a tiny infant to a little girl that I suspect will soon be as tall as I am. It is as if my daughter is a part of a large family here at Ursuline, and I can count on my dean to care about the latest news in my child’s life.
Alas, our dean will be leaving us very soon. The only reason I am at all not upset with this move is the knowledge that she will be accepting a three year position. I, and many others on campus, hope that she will return at the end of that time. Until then, Ursuline’s loss is the gain of another small, Catholic (mostly) women’s college, where she will serve as Vice President of Academic Affairs. And so, Bon Voyage, Sister Chris. Best of luck with your new position, but we all hope that your return home soon!