The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

School of Arts and Sciences Dean Hugo Sonnenschein's departure from the University this summer will mark the end of the term for the fifth permanent dean in the 17-year history of the liberal arts college. Although faculty and administrators have praised Sonnenschein's term as dean, their underlying message is one of disappointment that the progress Sonnenschein fostered will be slowed, or even halted, as the school shifts gears and administrations yet again. And although they lauded Sonnenschein as a forward thinker and innovator, some faculty said this month his short stay at the University has prevented him from making long-term plans for the school. But Sonnenschein's short tenure at the University is not unusual. SAS deans have turned over at a rapid rate since the school was established in 1974, leaving the school in a near-constant state of flux. The school, originally called the "Faculty of Arts and Sciences," was first governed by Vartan Gregorian, who had been a popular and influential history professor at the University. Gregorian served from 1974 to 1979. Since then, the school has had a string of changes in rapid succession: Robert Dyson took over from Gregorian and stepped down in 1982; former English Professor Joel Conarroe replaced Dyson, but only served for a year-and-a-half; in 1985, Michael Aiken was appointed dean and served until 1987; finally, Sonnenschein was drawn away from his 25-year career at Princeton University to head up the school in 1988. Faculty, administrators, and past SAS deans agree that such frequent turnover at the school, although sometimes unavoidable, leads to fragmented and discontinuous long-term policy. "Rapid transition has fostered a climate of distrust in that agreements worked out with one dean are not necessarily carried out by the next administration," History and Sociology of Science Chairperson Rosemary Stevens said. Former Provost Eliot Stellar, who oversaw the creation of the School of Arts and Sciences in 1974 and now chairs the Anatomy Department in the Medical School, agreed that "in general, everything from fundraising to new educational programs run the risk of being slowed down and changed when you change from one dean to another." "It doesn't have to be disruptive and it's not a disaster," Stellar added. "But all of those things come to a near halt." Sonnenschein, a graduate of the University of Rochester, came to the University in July, 1988 to take control of Arts and Sciences after Aiken moved up the administrative ladder to become provost. Sonnenschein, an economics professor and president of Princeton's Econometrics Society, assumed control from acting dean Walter Wales, but according to faculty, Sonnenschein was naturally unfamiliar with the school. Although Sonnenschein will leave this July -- making his stay here exactly three years -- many say that his effective time as dean is much shorter. Geology Department Chairperson Hermann Pfefferkorn said last month that it can take as long as a year for a new dean who is unfamiliar with the University to settle in. "I would agree that such frequent change is not good," Pfefferkorn said. "There is often an interim dean and normally there is a year in which no decisions are made." Subtracting one year of familiarization and these five months in which Sonnenschein prepares to leave for Princeton, the dean has had an effective stay of a year-and-a-half. "Two years is the minimum amount of time [for a dean] to accomplish anything," Stevens said last month. "I think it takes at least four years . . . and I think it's a great shame that one doesn't get continuity." · The School of Arts and Sciences was created in 1974 by then-President Martin Meyerson and Provost Stellar in an effort to unite the liberal arts departments of the University. Prior to 1974, the responsibility of liberal arts education rested upon the College, the College for Women, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and four Wharton departments -- Sociology, Economics, Political Science, and Regional Science. Stellar, who oversaw the formation of the "Faculty of Arts and Sciences," as it was then called, said last month that "it was really logical for us to bring the departments together . . . it made academic sense." "It brought together 28 departments organized and led by Vartan Gregorian, who turned out to be a charismatic leader," Stellar said. "It was Gregorian's leadership which made it into a school instead of pieces patched together." Former SAS Dean Dyson, now director of the University Museum, said the "schools were combined because Arts and Sciences was [politically] weak and because it could not overcome the political power of the Medical School." And former SAS Dean Conarroe, now president of the Guggenheim Foundation, said he thinks "bringing all of the schools together brought some identity to the School of Arts and Sciences which was scattered." "It was like bringing five horses together and making them go in the same direction," Conarroe said. "It complicated the position [of dean], but it had to be done." Although the move strengthened the liberal arts, some observers suggested that the current conglomeration makes the job too difficult for a single dean, which might be one of the reasons behind the high attrition rate at the top. "I think you can suggest that it is a very hard job to maintain," English Professor Robert Lucid said last month. "It could be that it's just too heavy a burden." While SAS is looking for its sixth permanent dean in two decades, Wharton, Engineering, and Nursing have witnessed very few changes when compared with SAS. Wharton has had just three deans since 1972. Nursing has had two deans in as many decades. Engineering has had three deans since 1972. And the graduate schools have had similar stable track records. The less frequent changes at the Nursing, Engineering and Wharton Schools could be indicative of a tradition of liberal arts deans being promoted to provost or even president. For the Nursing and Wharton schools, which are considered leaders in the nation, becoming dean is often considered the pinnacle of a career. "The Wharton deanship is the end of the line," Sociology Chair Samuel Preston said last month. Arts and Sciences deans, on the other hand, still have a chance for promotions. The list of positions past SAS deans have moved on to is an impressive one: Gregorian became University provost and then left in 1980 to head the New York City Public Library System. He is now president of Brown University. Dyson changed his line of work to become director of the University Museum. Conarroe was wooed away by the Guggenheim Foundation to become its president. And Aiken was promoted to provost. In all, three deans have become provosts, one has become president of a major foundation and one moved to a major position within the University. Despite the turnover, former Dean Conarroe contends that there is nothing "structurally wrong with the position." "We are just going to have to start appointing mediocre people to the position," Conarroe joked. "In the good-old-bad-old days, it was much easier for deans to stay [longer]." Aiken insists that all "great universities," face similar dilemmas holding onto their deans. While the University is looking for its sixth dean in 17 years, schools like Harvard, Princeton and Brown universities, for example, have had four deans each in the last 20 years. "I think you have to look at each one of [the former deans] individually," Aiken said, indicating that each has moved on for his own reason. Former President Meyerson agrees such constant change is common at large universities and insists that the School of Arts and Sciences is no more complex than any other school of its type. Although there is little consensus on the cause of such rapid turnover and many insist it is normal, many students, faculty and administrators hope that the next dean will put a stop to College Hall's revolving door.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.