Meet the new Dean of Arts and Sciences Jeffrey Spencer Shoulson
The Justice sat down with Dean Shoulson to get an idea of what to expect from the School of Arts and Sciences moving forward.
The Justice: What drew you to Brandeis?
Dean Shoulson: Brandeis has always been an institution that I've admired from a distance. I don't think I fully appreciated its distinctive qualities until I started to look more closely at this position and the kind of unusual combination of a Research 1 institution with a very, very high research profile but also the size of a small liberal arts college that really focuses on undergraduate education. That combination really appealed to me. I think its history — its legacy as an institution that was founded specifically for the purpose of providing access to opportunities in higher education for people who have been shut out from other places because of their identities and backgrounds — is a very compelling aspect of Brandeis' identity that I think continues to inform its mission. The role of Dean of Arts and Sciences seemed like a really good match for my interests and where I wanted to go next.
TJ: What is your vision for the future of the College of Arts and Sciences and what steps do you plan on taking to achieve this vision?
DS: I'm especially interested in amplifying what I think is already in place for a lot of undergraduates, which is the opportunity for undergraduates to work closely in a kind of experiential and hands-on ways with our researchers to gain experience in what it means to do research across all disciplines. We currently have opportunities for students to work with our wonderful science researchers and programs like the Humanities Fellowship and the QBReC Fellows program, which are terrific. However, I'd like to see what we can do as far as making those kinds of opportunities available for all Brandeis undergraduates, beginning very early on in their careers and making that a kind of cornerstone or almost a kind of calling card of the Brandeis undergraduate experience.
TJ: What career achievement are you most proud of?
DS: Well, I guess the first thing I would say is being appointed Dean of Brandeis School of Arts and Sciences. I consider that to be a particularly important honor and achievement in my career. I think from a scholarly point of view, I'm very proud of the books that I've written and the research that I've done. My first book was awarded the American Academy of Jewish Research's Prize for first book, and that's something I'm very proud of. I've also had the opportunity to spend a couple of years at the University of Pennsylvania at the Katz Center for Advanced Jewish Studies where I've done a lot of research — those were really wonderful opportunities for me. With respect to my teaching, I think I take the greatest pleasure in reconnecting with students that I've taught years before who have gone on to do interesting things and who stay in touch. It is a wonderful thing, and I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that hearing from former students is a real delight.
TJ: How do you prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion, and what steps do you plan on taking to promote a diverse and inclusive academic environment?
DS: That's an important question, and it's a value that I hold very closely. I think that the first way to answer that is to say that that's a value and a critical priority that has to be at the forefront of every decision that one makes. Even decisions that don't seem explicitly to have any kind of facet or dimension that is explicitly related to diversity and inclusion inevitably do. There are all kinds of hidden ways in which certain kinds of structural disadvantages are built into the American academic world and higher education that we need to be sensitive to and work to dismantle or to revise so that they don't disadvantage historically disadvantaged populations. That can be in the context of hiring new faculty. It can be in the context of creating opportunities for students to participate in research experiences. That's something that I think we sometimes don't realize that there is a certain kind of cultural capital that students who come from more advantaged backgrounds bring with them that makes it easier for them to identify and take advantage of opportunities than students who may be first-generation college students and just don't really know what there is to ask for. We need to make that easier.
There are opportunity costs that we need to be aware of for students who may need to work an extra job in order to pay for some of their expenses. Many opportunities that we might want to provide which don't necessarily come as paid internships but are originally developed as volunteer internships, and those are problematic because they are not available and accessible to everyone in the same way. I think we need to be talking very carefully about the curriculum and how it reflects the world that we live in now — the demographics of the United States, the demographics of New England and of Boston. I think Brandeis needs to become — and I don't mean to suggest that this has never been done before — but Brandeis needs to be a conscientious citizen of Waltham, Massachusetts, which is itself a very diverse city, both ethnically and racially but also economically. There are some folks in Waltham who are very well-off and comfortable and there are others who are much less advantaged. Brandeis benefits from being in Waltham, so it needs to be sensitive to those disparities and those inequities. I think it informs every aspect of what we do at Brandeis. I think it has to.
TJ: How do you handle budgetary challenges and do you have any plans for the reallocation of funding throughout the departments?
DS: I don't want to suggest that Brandeis is unique or unusually disadvantaged, but Brandeis is going to have financial budgetary challenges going forward, like every institution of higher education in the country. To some extent, we're better off in some places and not as well off in other places. But I think we have to keep in the forefront of our minds — whenever we make decisions about these things — what our primary values and mission [are]. I've already mentioned the two things that I think are primary to Brandeis' identity, which is maintaining its research profile and also sustaining and enriching a broad and deep liberal arts education. Those two sets of goals need to inform lots of the decisions that we make.
With respect to the research, I think it's important for us to be diverse in the research that we do. It can't be all located in one area or one discipline or one division. So while we're very, very proud of our science faculty and the research they do — we have Nobel Prize winners and other kinds of prize winners in the science faculty that we should be very proud of and that we want to continue to support — it can't be limited to the sciences. It has to include the other divisions, has to include the humanities, the social sciences, the creative arts, and investments need to be made to make those programs and those departments not only viable and sustainable but also with the capacity to grow. But we can't do everything, and that means making some difficult decisions about things that we ought not to continue doing. We can’t continue to add programs without also subtracting somewhere else. We just don't have the capacity to do that. And so we have to make difficult decisions. They need to be transparent. They need to be consultative. I don't want to ever make a decision in isolation without speaking with the folks who might be impacted by it, and that's something that's going to guide me as well.
TJ: What is your approach to supporting student and faculty research?
DS: Well, I already mentioned the Humanities Fellowship and the QBReC program, which to me are models precisely because they identify students even before they get to Brandeis. I'd love to see us do more of that. I think that [the University can emphasize] identifying students who are interested in Brandeis, [making] connections with them, [and offering] them opportunities even before they decide to come to Brandeis. Because I think on the one hand that's going to improve our yield. The people who we accept will want to come to Brandeis. It’s also a way of beginning to introduce that culture to students even before they set foot on campus. Again, another thing that I think is appealing about those programs is the ways in which they work with cohorts of students. You have a kind of community of students that you start with who are interested in the things that you're interested in that can serve as a really powerful peer group, reinforce the work you're doing, enrich it, help you find partners that you can work with in various research possibilities.
TJ: Can you share your perspective on the role of a liberal arts education in today's society?
DS: I don't think it's ever been more important than it is today. I think the impulse to specialize quickly and to identify a career quickly is understandable. There are lots and lots of economic pressures that students are feeling. I know that especially with private institutions, students take on enormous debt in some cases that they understandably feel the need to be in a position to repay, and I'm not at all dismissive of those concerns. I worry though that the impulse to focus on a career early on and to narrow the field of study too quickly forecloses possibilities that students might otherwise consider. I think when you start college, when you're 17 or 18 or 19 years old, for very obvious and understandable reasons, you have a pretty narrow view of what the options are for you when it's out there. I would love for students to be able to give themselves the chance to explore, to think beyond the areas that they already know well, to take courses in departments that they haven't even even heard of before.
I mean, before I started college, I didn't know what anthropology was. I didn't know what sociology was because I never had a course like that when I was in high school. I imagine that many students are in similar situations. I also think that a liberal arts education prepares students well — for what seems to me to be increasingly the case for young people — as they go out into their careers. People don't stay in the same job for very long. They move from one position to another, from one career to another. Those kinds of transitions, those kinds of changes, will put a premium on the capacity to learn, to continue to be learning, to be a lifelong student, to learn new skills, to engage in new ideas, to think through new possibilities, to participate in team kinds of efforts, to think critically, analytically, across a variety of different disciplines, to be able to write and communicate well, to be able to think and analyze data and information critically and analytically. These are all absolutely essential skills that I don't think there's a better way for students to refine than in a liberal arts education.
TJ: What are the biggest challenges you believe you may face during your time at Brandeis and how do you plan on addressing them?
DS: I'll come back to the budget first. I think we have to think hard and long about what we can and can't do and how we can perhaps increase our capacity to do things through fundraising and development. I'm eager to be involved in that aspect of the Dean's position. I'm trying to work very hard on developing working relationships with the Institutional Advancement Office and with the President's office to be part of the conversation around fundraising. It seems to me that the only way that the folks who go out and raise the money can know what we need is if they talk to me and they talk to my colleagues on the faculty, if they work closely with faculty and with department chairs and with division heads. So fundraising and development in a strategic way that really targets the areas of need and the areas that we want to grow in is very high on my list. And I would say that the other thing that I've already mentioned is focusing on students, on a comprehensive approach to student experience. How can we help students take advantage not just of the work that they do in the classroom but the lives they live outside of the classroom and make those as fulfilling and as integrated as possible?
TJ: If you could give one piece of advice to your college-aged self, what would it be?
DS: I went to an institution where we had a language requirement, and I was able to pass out of the language requirement by taking a placement test in Hebrew. I have regretted that decision ever since. I should have taken another language because there's no time after college that I had more freedom and leisure to be able to do that than I did when I was in college. I wish I had taken German or classical Greek or something like that when I was in college because it was a missed opportunity. I also wish I had taken a more advanced class in say math or statistics. I come from literary studies. When I started college I didn't think I was going to be an English major. I thought I might be a history major or a political science major, but I certainly didn't think I was going to be working in the sciences or in math. I feel like I've been playing catch-up ever since. I would say, speaking to the folks out there, the undergraduates out there who, like me, think of themselves as humanities people, as creative arts people: I would never want you to lose that passion and lose that interest, but don't be so devoted to it that it keeps you from taking classes and things that will ultimately serve you very well as you go on in life.
TJ: Do you have anything else you would like to say to Brandeis students?
DS: I think one of the sacrifices that one makes when one goes into a position like a Dean is that you lose student contact or lose structured ways to meet and talk to students. So I try to seek them out when I can, but I don't teach any classes, and I sit in my office and meet with people all day. I'd love to have more opportunities to meet students and get to know them — about what's important to them, the classes they're taking, what interests them, those sorts of things. Any chance that I have to meet someone and find out about what makes them tick up, I'd be really happy to do that.