August 27, 2010

New dean seeks open marketplace of ideas

Robin Forman

For Robin Forman, engaging with faculty and students across the University has been “the greatest perk of the job” so far.

“It’s a tremendous joy to be able to go anywhere on campus, and be welcomed, and to participate in the wide-ranging conversations taking place around the campus,” says the new dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences.

Forman, who officially became dean July 1, is settling in at Emory. The former dean of undergraduate studies at Rice University, Forman began his new role by meeting with department chairs and program directors and says he’s found himself consistently discovering something positive. He’s looking forward to talking more with students as they return to campus.

“It’s been a wonderful experience to walk down the halls of the departments and see the spectacular work that’s taking place in every building on campus,” he says. “The ambitious scholarship, the creative approaches to classroom pedagogy—the more I learn about the College and activities that are taking place across the campus, the more excited I am to be a part of it.”

Such sentiments may seem out of the ordinary for a mathematician, and Forman admits that the path from the “solitary scholarly pursuit” of mathematics to the role of administrator was a long one.

He says several influential factors came together in his life that convinced him he was on the right path. The first was serving as chair of Rice’s math department, where he learned about his own leadership style and how to bring a community together toward common goals.

Forman also was struck by conversations with students and alumni about how they ended up on the paths they ultimately pursued. “In the majority of cases, they would describe one interaction with one professor,” Forman says, which made him realize the potential impact one person can have on the education of another.

That revelation led Forman to become a faculty master at one of Rice’s residential colleges, an experience that inspired him to want to help students on their educational journeys.

Another turning point was serving as a member of Rice’s most recent presidential search committee. “I began learning more about what administrators had contributed not just to Rice, but to universities around the country.” Forman found their work appealing and ultimately, inspiring.

The capstone of all these experiences, Forman says, was the birth of his son Saul, now 13.  That event helped crystallize “the tremendous rewards in contributing to the growth of someone other than myself.”

Although still in a learning mode at Emory, Forman says he knows “in the broadest sense what I want to do. I’m devoted to making the Emory experience as rewarding as possible for both our faculty and students, and doing all I can to enhance the impact of their efforts both on and off campus.”

Specifically, Forman has been impressed by the “ambitious and creative approaches to interdisciplinary work” at Emory, and one of his first priorities is “to make sure we do all we can to make it as easy as possible for our faculty to collaborate both in terms of scholarship and in terms of teaching with faculty at the other schools.”

“What I’d like to do as much as possible is to create a sense of an open marketplace of ideas, so that faculty can pursue their interests and worry as little as possible about the administrative burdens and obstacles to these kinds of collaborations,” he says.

“I think Emory is offering a truly superlative and distinctive undergraduate experience,” says Forman. So far, he has met many here who agree.

“The number of faculty who’ve told me they simply cannot imagine being anywhere else has been simply wonderful,” he says. “Even after just a couple of months of being part of this community, I’m starting to feel that way myself.”

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