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 administration. "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 finish. "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 space." 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?!'"
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