Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 3, 1994

The Way I See It: Crenson made kind of racket Hopkins needs
By Steve Libowitz

At lunch on the day after he turned over the keys to the
dean's office to Steve Knapp, Matt Crenson was upbeat.
    The former acting dean of Arts and Sciences has finally
begun to write his long-anticipated book on the
deinstitutionalization of American orphanages and has resumed
his cherished 25-mile bike rides. Although he has trouble
recalling exactly how he came to be asked to serve as acting
dean, he is very clear about why he took the position. 
    "Everyone needs a hobby," he said with a slight smile
that reveals his familiar quick, self-deprecating wit.
    I reminded him that at the end of our last on-the-record
conversation in mid-August, I had proposed the Gazette run a
special pull-out pictorial section of the Matt Crenson Year.
He laughed, and said, "Oh yeah, that's just what everyone
wants to see." 
    But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I
had been only half-kidding.
    I had worked with Matt for several years, he the chair
of the Department of Political Science and me a writer in the
Office of News and Information. And he always struck me as
most congenial, forthright and pleasantly low key. I was
pleased to hear that he was filling in at the dean's office
until a permanent replacement could be found for Lloyd
Armstrong, who took a promotion at USC. Like most people, I
suppose, I didn't expect to hear much from 225 Mergenthaler
other than that this very nice man was trying to hold onto a
tornado until his watch was complete.
    But little by little, his name and his memos began to
surface. He was spearheading an effort to create an
interdisciplinary program on American economy and society and
one for the comparative study of diasporas. In my on-campus
travels faculty commended him for his positive support of
their efforts. 
    That was Matt's year, like Cinderella having a hell of a
time until the clock struck midnight, or in this case, Sept.
1. He seemed to pick up momentum and confidence as the
academic year progressed, even though he knew it was for the
short haul. He had discussed early on the possibility of
pursuing the position full time, but his first priority was
to finish his book. In the meantime, however, he would rattle
some cages.
    "Being acting dean is a racket," he said. "First of all,
you get a standing ovation just for showing up, because no
one expects you to do anything. And second, people won't
hammer you, because if you don't give them what they want,
they'll just wait for the next guy to see if they can get a
better deal."
    It was a perfect setup to sit back and enjoy the perks.
But that is not Matt's style.
    "Actually, I really didn't have an agenda at the
beginning," he said. "But once I had time to think about
larger issues and had the authority to act on them, I thought
I could get some things done." 
    Among his achievements are the inroads made on diversity
issues--including hiring minority faculty and moving toward a
race and ethnic majors studies program--developing community
outreach initiatives, planning for the Krieger challenge and,
perhaps most important, refocusing faculty attention on
undergraduate education.
    "My only hope was not to go down in flames prematurely,"
he said.      
    He remembers moments in February when he thought that
would happen. He created sparks with his controversial plan
to rededicate faculty to undergraduate teaching. 
    "I was trying to build a case among chairs and faculty
for the importance of devoting more time to this part of
their job," he said. "I collected surveys of students and
alumni and compared undergraduate teaching at Hopkins and at
similar universities, and made the point that to remain a
high-quality institution, we'd have to change. 
    "Some faculty argued that a mandatory undergraduate
teaching load would fundamentally change the character of the
university from the graduate research model to a liberal arts
college," he said. "But in the end, I think faculty realized
something had to be done, and they really came through beyond
all my expectations. Some of it was timing, too. We are all
now surviving the five-year plan, and we were ready to tackle
other things. So, I had some good fortune in that way, too."
    The Crenson Plan, in effect this year, requires
full-time faculty to teach two courses each semester, but it
also requires a commitment by the university and its
    "Let's face it, a lot of the reluctance to teach
undergraduates is that higher-ups don't always demonstrate
that they value it," he said. "So we wanted to find a better
way to evaluate undergraduate teaching, so the ones who do it
well could get rewarded."
    Matt resists the urge for nostalgia regarding his
tenure, but he admitted he'll mostly miss the people with
whom he came in contact.
    "Another aspect of the acting dean racket is that I
could talk to faculty across the campus," he said, "and I
found out that not only were people doing interesting work,
but too often they didn't realize that others were doing
similar work in other parts of the university. So, one of my
goals was to bring some of these people together."    
    He'll also miss the staff in the dean's office.
    "These are really wonderful people," Matt said. "And I'm
convinced there was a vast and benign conspiracy among them
to ensure I didn't make a complete fool of myself. And
usually, against seemingly long odds, they succeeded."
    Inevitably, there are a few projects Matt did not get to
    "I look around and see that there is a terrible
inefficiency in the way many departments use office space,"
he said. "I hoped to integrate into academic department
planning a space charge to remind them that space is limited
and encourage them to possibly surrender some poorly used
    So as he begins a yearlong sabbatical, how does he hope
his tenure will be remembered? 
    "As Camelot," he said earnestly. Then he smiled and
added quickly, "Actually, I just hope they don't find a lot
of stuff to blame on me. My worst nightmare is that the new
dean will open a drawer or a file and scream 'What?!'"

Go back to Previous Page

Go to Gazette Homepage