Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 1998
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Kessler Brings New Stability
to Arts & Sciences

Interview by Dale Keiger

In June, longtime Hopkins faculty member and chair of the History of Art Department Herbert Kessler began his new appointment as Dean of the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences.

JHM: How would you assess the current state of the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences?

I'm not yet prepared to make a definitive statement on the state of the school. But in general, I think the school is healthy. I am luckier than any of my predecessors since George Owen in terms of budget and the infrastructure. All of that's in good shape from what I can see. The problems I inherit are the problems that have accrued because of the unstable deanship over the last five years. We've had a lame duck dean succeeded by an interim dean, succeeded by a dean who came in from the outside and who quickly took control but then became provost, then another interim dean and yet another interim dean.

What are those problems?

What we don't have at the moment is a good sense of the whole community. So individual departments have grown or weakened individually without enough attention to mutual interests. In some areas, I think we're not at the level of scholarly excellence that we'd like. I think we also need to spend a lot of attention on issues involving undergraduate students, in relation to the graduate research operations of the school. Over the years there has been greater attention to undergraduate education here and undergraduate student life, which I applaud and will continue to support. But the undergraduate school has grown somewhat independently of the graduate program. I want to see how we can bring the two into closer harmony.

Career Milestones

A native of Chicago, Kessler earned a bachelor of arts at the University of Chicago in 1961. He then moved on to Princeton for an MFA in 1963 and a PhD in 1965. His dissertation was a study of four Ninth-century illuminated Bibles. He came to Hopkins in 1976 from the University of Chicago, as a professor and chairman of the History of Art Department.

A student of medieval, Jewish, and Byzantine art, Kessler has written 10 books. Titles include The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art, The Holy Face and the Paradox of Representation, and the forthcoming On the Path of the Pilgrim: Rome at the Time of the First Jubilee Year. The latter was written with his wife, Johanna Zacharias, who is director of communications for the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences. He has served on the editorial boards of The Dictionary of the Middle Ages; Journal of Jewish Art, Word and Image; and Enciclopedia Italianna dell'arte mediavale.

He became a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America in 1991. Four years later, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Do you see opportunities for Arts & Sciences to grow in new areas?

One of the issues I described in the search process was my gut belief that Hopkins cannot enter the 21st century with its face turned almost exclusively to Europe. We have to think about what we might do in the study of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In all three of those areas we already have kernels of programs. But we don't have the resources--library resources, in some cases language resources, and certainly the faculty--to support research operations.
  Another issue of great interest to me and others is what's called "the globalization of knowledge," the ways in which through the Internet and international business, and the availability of easy modes of transport, the notion of the university as a single place is breaking down. How Hopkins, which already has a significant international presence in Italy, China, and now Singapore, might expand in various areas. When I was in Germany last week, I met with the chancellors of the three universities in Berlin to discuss the possibility of real exchange, the real presence of Hopkins in Berlin. They were very receptive to the idea.

Arts & Sciences has had some problems retaining tenured faculty, of late. How will you address that?

Let me say at the beginning, it's not a sign of weakness but of health when people from Hopkins are being made offers. The point to worry is when we don't hear about attempts to raid the faculty. That means no one is interested in us. The question, of course, is what is the bottom line? I think we've done awfully well. If you cite English, we came out way ahead. The battle in English was against Duke, essentially, and what we did was retain three professors and win one additional. So against Duke it's 4-0. In the case of Anthropology, we regret that we lost two senior people this year, and in the past we've lost people through retirement or counter-offers. It often happens that a department like Anthropology, which is relatively small, has a certain coherency, and once that breaks down the whole thing starts to break down. My job will be to rebuild Anthropology.
  Other schools are suffering the same problem. It's partly due to the economy. State schools like the University of California, which seemed to be a basket case only five years ago, are now making stupendous offers. Hopkins will always be a target, because we're known to be very strong but limited in our size. The job of a dean is to make the judgment calls to retain the people whom we should retain, even if it costs us something, and to make the tough decisions, because there's a limit on what we can afford.

What do you hope will be accomplished by the new Center for Research on Culture, Art, and Literature (CRCAL)?

What we hope it will accomplish is to enliven the interactions among the strong humanities departments. Enliven them intellectually by bringing in postdoc fellows. Hopkins tends to be rather heavily tenured. Some departments have few if any untenured people. That's one purpose. The other goal of the center is to identify interesting prospects for hires. It can do that in a number of ways. It will sponsor interdisciplinary conferences, and presumably if it discovers in the course of a conference someone who is really of interest to various people at this university, we can bring that person in as a visitor or a member of the faculty.

What's the advantage of such interdisciplinary centers?

I believe in autonomous departments. I believe that only peers can really judge the work of others. But the downside of that is the danger of encapsulation of departments, and the lack of coordination and synergy. What centers do in the worst-case scenario is they create places of competition. That is, in cases where departments are too encapsulated, too parochial, there's now a competitor in their same field. The best example of that is the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, which was created because Robert Maynard Hutchins thought that the humanities were too tradition bound. They weren't doing interesting stuff. So he created within the social sciences a humanities operation that gave them a run for the money. It caused a little unhappiness, but in the end was very stimulating.

Hopkins has a reputation for being less concerned with undergraduate education. Will you address that?

I have total commitment to undergraduate education, and will try to be a cheerleader among my faculty for that. But I absolutely dispute the either/or mentality [that Hopkins has to be either a graduate-research institution or an undergraduate school]. Hopkins is of such high quality in its students and in its faculty that we don't have to accept it. We can simply demand that the faculty teach undergraduates. I will push very hard for that. I also want to revolutionize the advising system here, so that when students come to this campus they will find advisors whom they respect, who will talk to them, try to listen to what their goals are--even freshmen--and help them figure out how to make best use of this terrific facility.

What else will be among your priorities?

The social sciences here are, I think, poised for a ratcheting up of quality. They're fairly lean, and in many cases not in the top tier of schools but ready to enter the top tier. I will attend to that very carefully; for instance, certain small social science departments, such as Anthropology, Cognitive Science, and Psychology, that interact with the humanities and/or natural sciences, might be strengthened by building bridges to other disciplines. I also would like to find ways in which graduate students [in general] are trained fully in their disciplines and also prepared, especially if they want academic careers, both as research scholars and as teachers. We haven't prepared them for the market, frankly.