Question-and-Answer Interview with Tom Mitzel, New Dean of Faculty

Mitzel discusses his Job, Vision and the Role of a Liberal Arts College

HARTFORD, CT, July 25, 2013 – Thomas Mitzel became the dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs on July 1. He returned to Trinity after a two-year hiatus during which he was a dean at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. A former chemistry professor, Mitzel was the unanimous choice of the Faculty Search Committee. He succeeds Rena Fraden, who left in January for a job at the College of the Pacific.

What follows is an interview with Mitzel, which took place July 18. Although Mitzel’s words have not been changed, some of his answers have been edited for brevity.

Q: You left Trinity two years ago after being promoted to the rank of professor. You took a job at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. At the time, you said one of the reasons you left Trinity was to be closer to your family. Why did you choose to return?

A:  Family was a major part of that. Rhonda and I had been out here for close to 15 years. Austin was still 12 hours from my family and 16 hours from Rhonda’s. But that’s a big difference from 26 and 28 hours. While we were down there, we saw our families five or six different times. So that close distance meant a lot. But what we also discovered is during my deanship [at St. Edward’s] that my travel was less flexible. So Rhonda did more traveling by herself. Her independence in traveling swayed our decision to come back. The other thing is Trinity was our first family and our first home. So we worked out a scenario where Rhonda will go home a little bit more often.

Q: Where are your families?

A: Rhonda’s got a brother in Iowa and her mom and sister are in South Dakota. My family is in Nebraska, Minnesota and South Dakota. And I have a sister in Alabama. Most family gatherings take place in South Dakota, where I was born and raised.

Q: You were the unanimous choice of the Faculty Search Committee. Why do you think that was? What does it say about how your former colleagues view you?

A: It’s extremely flattering and very humbling, and a bit scary. The job comes with a lot of responsibility. So I’m very glad that it was a unanimous decision. I’m glad that people have trust in me. I think a lot of what I talk about is re-establishing communication, which was on the forefront of a lot of the faculty’s and administrators’ minds. I think it was important for everyone to coalesce around a candidate, whether it was me or somebody else. So far, the enthusiasm since I’ve been back on campus has been just wonderful. [Trinity] has had a difficult five years with the financial issues and some of the social issues and people want to move forward. This office should be able to lead that.

Q: You were given a three-year contract. It was understood that you would serve for two years under President [James F.] Jones and one year under a new president. President Jones is now retiring a year earlier than originally thought. Does that give you pause?

A: I have the greatest respect for President Jones. I was very surprised when he came in to tell me his decision. President Jones and I have a year to work together and I’m glad we have that time. I really admire what he’s been able to do with his career and how he’s carried himself. So the chance to work with him is really important. I’d love to have two years but one year is great, and I’ll learn as much as I can and we’ll do what we can. We’ll have 12 months instead of 24 months. So we’ll have to focus more efficiently this year.

Q: How do you view yourself in the context of the senior administration?

A:  The dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs is considered the second-in-command. But the hope is that you’ll work together with the entire presidential group and that decisions are made in collaboration. Everybody’s goal is: how do you better educate our students? When you start to think about that question then second-in-command goes out the window and you all work together.

Q: It’s been said that your predecessor changed the emphasis from teaching and writing to research and getting articles published in academic journals. Do you intend to continue that policy or change it?

A: I think there’s been a shift nationally, not just at Trinity, that undergraduate research is one of the better methods for student retention. It is also a wonderful tool for students.  Faculty who are active in scholarship tend to keep their courses more up to date; they tend to be a little more dynamic. Research means different things across the different disciplines. My argument has always been that teaching and research, especially at a liberal arts institution, are so closely related that we shouldn’t think of them as being separate.

The niche that we have over larger universities is faculty-student interaction. And if you can get students involved in a research project where they’re doing critical thinking and…they have to grapple with questions of the unknown, their learning leaps so far ahead of what other undergraduates can do. I’ve always argued that our students oftentimes leave here with close to a master’s degree based on the amount of faculty-led undergraduate research that they’ve done. So at an institution like Trinity, where you don’t have post-docs…research most often means that you have undergraduates working directly with a faculty member. And that’s among the best learning experiences students can have. It’s important to be involved with the undergraduates because those are the people where our focus should lie.

Q: What direction would you like to see the College to go in?

A: My big push is faculty interaction with students – in the classroom, in the experiential, in the social. That’s what we can offer – expertise in traditional and nontraditional areas. Research is one of those areas. Classroom teaching is one of those areas. Seminars is one of those areas. Student dinners is one of those areas. That’s one of the things I’d like to look at, how we can re-introduce faculty in a good way into the social scene.

Q: What are your priorities over the next few years? When I first interviewed you in March when you were named to this job, you said you’d like to prepare a 10-year academic vision for the College. What might that look like?

A: All my plans involve having faculty input. What we’ve been very good at doing at Trinity College is having small groups or ad hoc committees that have come up with beautiful plans that sit on a shelf. We haven’t been able to draw them together. As a consequence, it doesn’t appear that we have a good academic plan moving forward. One of my goals is to coalesce the academics around a 10-year plan so that we can have a single vision. That’s one of the things that I heard when I was interviewing – that there doesn’t seem to be a singular academic voice at this point. We need to recapture that. I think we have some really good questions that we’ll be discussing this year. My hope is that we’ll have an outline no later than the spring semester. But it will take the faculty committees working in collaboration to come up with it. It has to be a faculty vision. The dean’s office guides it, but it has to be a faculty vision.

Q: You said a few months ago that one of your goals is to strengthen the trust and communication between the faculty and the administration. Do you think it’s not what it should be right now and, if so, how are you going to improve it?

A: I think the faculty felt that there was not a good way to get information to this office and relayed to the president’s group and the trustees. And I think there was some concern that there wasn’t information going from the trustees back to the faculty. I don’t know why that happened. But I would like to re-establish that communication. This is the office to do that [and] there are several ways to do it. One is to make sure that I have an open communication with the president and the trustees and that I have open communication with the faculty and that they feel comfortable coming to me. The other is how you disseminate information. I’ve been talking about doing newsletters once a month that focus on a certain aspect of the Trinity community. I also want to be very inclusive. That means you have to be working through the faculty committees and making sure they understand that their work is important. I’m not sure how that was the last couple of years. When I was interviewing, there was some consternation about how important the committees felt and whether their voices were heard. I want them to understand – yes, their voices will be heard. I want to sit down with every faculty member and just have a quick discussion. I also want to sit down with each of the administrative groups.

A: Before you left Trinity for St. Edward’s, you had been here for 15 years. How had the College changed during the time that you were here? Or had it?

Q: Two things. One is everybody says the students have changed. Whenever I hear that, I always have to think – is it the students who have changed or is it the faculty member making the statement who has changed? I think it’s a combination of both. We come in as new faculty members never having taught a class. Most Ph.D. programs are very research oriented so you don’t really have very much teaching experience. You come in and you have your first class and oftentimes you’re only a couple of pages ahead of the students in the book and you’re really working so hard to get caught up. And then you get used to teaching the text. Hopefully, you’re making changes every year but you get used to the routine. You’re always trying to better your course, which sometimes means that you’re adding more to it and trying to get more from your students, and after a time you’re thinking the students aren’t as good when it quite possibly could mean that you’ve changed your course. I’ve kept copies of my undergraduate exams and whenever I think that students haven’t done as well as I like I go back and look at my own exams and then I think that there’s no way that I could possibly compete with these students right now.  Regardless of whether they’ve changed, we get really good students, not just in the nation but in the world. And we’re lucky to have them.

I think the really big thing is that we went through five [presidents]…in roughly five years. That’s when the communication issue became paramount. It wasn’t the fault of any one individual but of a rotating office. At this level, if you’re brand new, it takes a year just to learn what you’re doing. That’s why it was great that Jimmy was here for as long as he was because we finally had that stability. But I think that’s where the communication began to break down and people began to feel less stable in their positions. That’s what I’d say was the biggest thing. With the large turnover, it interjected some angst into the campus that wasn’t there before. But I think Jimmy went a long way to helping with that. Rena [Fraden] was here for six years and it gave some stability to this office. Now we just need to continue to broaden that communication. You want to be able to wake up in the morning happy that you’re going to work. We’re in education. This is the best job in the world. You get up every morning, you come in, you get to lecture on something that you had enough interest in that you got a Ph.D. This was your life’s love all the way through. You get to lecture to a captive audience two or three days a week and then you get to conduct research. Physically this is not a terribly demanding profession. It’s a profession that you can practice for a very long time. And the students never age. Every year when you step onto campus, you have a group of 18- to 22-year-olds…but they’re the same, they’re the constant. I just can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing than working on a campus.

Q: What do you see as the role of a small liberal arts college: teaching students to think, be independent, and learn to be citizens of the world or to prepare them for a career?

A: We have to educate the students to think critically, to act in a global manner and to have the communication skills they need. But we also have to prepare them to enter the workforce. So how does one do that? Students do have to think critically, be able to write well, be able to communicate orally. So what the liberal arts college offers is a base of critical knowledge in several areas. The average person changes jobs seven or eight times in the course of a career. What the liberal arts college has to offer is that close interaction with professors to learn how to think outside the box, to learn how to solve problems and to be able to delve very deeply in a particular area while still not forgetting what it takes to be a global citizen.

What a liberal arts college offers is that you’re not one of 350 students sitting in a class. You’re one of 15 or 20 and you get to talk to your peers during the class, you get to talk to your professor. You create a community where you do problem solving. The projects, the experiential learning are things that we can offer to our students that larger institutions cannot. Undergraduate research becomes extremely important in that endeavor. How often do students get to work on a problem that no one in the world has ever done? During the students’ time here, while they’re delving very deeply into one particular area, a major part of that goal is how to articulate it across all the different disciplines. So I think we give them all those different skills at a very high level to help them to lead in a changing world. I don’t know where we’re going to be in 20 years in terms of global warming, in terms of political stability, in terms of higher education. The students who are coming out now probably have to be more flexible than at any time in history. It’s the liberal arts institutions that are going to lead in educating those people.