Herb Kessler has some pretty strong ideas about what he'd like to accomplish as dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. What he doesn't have are preconceived ideas on how to accomplish them.
"I want to hear what the faculty says, and hear what the students say about things before going ahead," Kessler said. "I will be a dean who talks and listens to everyone before going forward."
Kessler, a Johns Hopkins faculty member since 1976, was appointed dean of Arts and Sciences last week by the executive committee of the board of trustees, on the recommendation of President William R. Brody.
The Krieger School's Charlotte Bloomberg Professor and a student of medieval, Jewish and Byzantine art, he has been chairman or acting chairman of the Department of the History of Art for all but two of his 22 years at Hopkins. He will begin his new position July 1.
"Pound for pound, the School of Arts and Sciences at JHU has the most distinguished faculty in the world," he said. "Its ranked departments are typically a third the size of their competitors but continue to succeed by virtue of sheer excellence and energy. I shall focus, first of all, on maintaining what we have and on racheting up our faculty strength even further."
Kessler said a major issue he wants to tackle is how better to integrate a strong and growing undergraduate program with the university's traditional mission as a research and graduate institution.
"Hopkins cannot afford to and should not dilute its strong tradition of doing cutting-edge scholarship and scientific research," Kessler said. "The challenge will be to bring the undergraduates into that tradition.
"I really care about teaching," he continued, "and I expect the faculty to embrace the dual mission of teaching and research."
Kessler said he wants to look at, among other issues, advising, internships, and classroom and lab operations.
"We need to think about [the undergraduate experience] in every way, from every angle," he said. "We will pay a lot of attention to advising of students from the minute they come to Hopkins. We want to have faculty members engaged from the start in one-on-one interaction with the undergraduates."
Other priorities, Kessler said, include promoting collaboration across disciplinary lines, and in some cases rethinking disciplinary boundaries altogether. He said he also will encourage greater Arts and Sciences cooperation with the other eight academic and research divisions at Hopkins.
"I believe totally in the strength of departments and the Hopkins tradition of autonomous departments," he said. "What I'm going to do is look for commonalities, needs of individual departments that coincide, potential for synergy that maybe isn't realized. Without creating a lot of interdisciplinary programs as such, I want to see what bubbles up from the faculty."
Seeking resources for new initiatives and for student aid, both undergraduate and graduate, will also be an important part of his job in the last two years of the $1.2 billion Johns Hopkins Initiative, Kessler said.
"I am especially eager to participate in the new campaign objective of raising funds for graduate student support," Kessler said. "JHU offers unparalleled opportunities for gifted graduate students to work closely with its research faculty. It must make sure that sufficient financial support is available to sustain those opportunities."
"His is an extraordinarily distinguished career, in his scholarship, in his teaching and in the leadership of his department," Brody said. "Of all the very strong candidates for dean--and the finalists were all leaders of major departments at distinguished universities--Dr. Kessler best articulated a vision for the future of Arts and Sciences."
"Herb Kessler is a distinguished scholar who has done a superb job in leading his department to a position of national renown," said Provost Steven Knapp, who led the search committee for the position.
"He is admired by his colleagues for his dedication to academic values, and he has a clear sense of what needs to be done to advance the Krieger School to a new level of excellence," Knapp said.
Kessler will take over a school that is the university's oldest. With departments touching on the work of all the Johns Hopkins professional schools, it is considered the core of the university. It has about 260 full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty and enrolls about 2,600 undergraduates and more than 900 each of full-time and part-time graduate students.
The recruitment of a permanent dean was welcome news to Arts and Sciences faculty members, who have had three leaders since then dean Steven Knapp became provost in January 1996. Knapp served as both provost and dean for a year, and was followed in the latter position on an interim basis by professors Arthur Davidsen of Physics and Astronomy and Richard McCarty of Biology.
The school faced a financial crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s but now is in a much stronger position, thanks to costs restraints, a larger student body in both full-time and part-time programs and support from donors such as alumnus Zanvyl Krieger, who committed $50 million to the school's endowment. The university's latest financial plan projects a balanced budget for the Krieger School in each of the next five years, the first time that has happened since long-term financial planning began in 1988.
"This is a wonderful moment for me to take over," Kessler said. "I'm very grateful to [predecessor deans and interim deans] Lloyd Armstrong, Matt Crenson, Steve Knapp, Arthur Davidsen and Richard McCarty for opening the way for me."
Kessler, 56, is a 1961 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. He earned a master of fine arts degree in 1963 and a doctorate in 1965, both from Princeton University. He joined the Chicago faculty in 1965 and became chairman of the Department of Art and university director of fine arts before coming to Johns Hopkins in 1976. He was elected a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America in 1991 and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995.
He has been an NEH fellow at the American Academy in Rome and last year was Richard Krautheimer Visiting Professor at the Bibliotheca Hertziana, also in Rome.
Kessler will keep most of his current scholarly commitments, including the organization of a major Vatican exhibition for the millennium, on the Holy Face of Christ. "But otherwise," he said, "I am dean full-time and with a full heart."
Kessler's wife, Johanna Zacharias, is director of communications for the Krieger School. Their daughter, Morisa Kessler-Zacharias, is a sophomore at Barnard College.