Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Commonwealth Honors College dean aims to improve curriculum, diversity

By Colby Sears

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Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian

(Katherine Mayo/Daily Collegian)

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, an internationally renowned scholar, author and professor was recently named the dean of the University of Massachusetts Commonwealth Honors College. She talks below about her work, her interests and her hopes for the future.

Colby Sears: Tell me a little bit about your work and what you have done before coming to UMass.

Gretchen Gerzina:  I’ve taught a lot, I’ve worked at several universities and colleges so this is my first time at a public [college] and my first time at a large place. So even though I was at Barnard, which is connected to Columbia so it was pretty big, I felt like I was in a small college connected to a big university. So the whole public thing is a big, new thing to me. So that’s been a kind of hurdle, but it really made me feel very at home here because it’s like a college within a university, so it felt like this is a manageable size … although it’s the size of a liberal arts college.

Before I came here, I was a professor but I was also a professor who did administrative work. So I always saw myself as wearing several hats. I was the professor, I was the person who was the department chair or some other kind of administrator. I did radio, which I was on for 15 years. I just came back in the spring from doing a radio series in London. It’s going to air in England next year.

CS: What is that about?

GG: It’s called “Britain’s Black Past” and it’s about black people in 18th and early 19th century Britain. I had to travel all over, because I’ve written some books on it. I had to travel all over Britain interviewing people in all weathers, mostly bad. I’ll tell you, I went to Glasgow and back in a day, it was five hours each way by train. It was a lot of moving around.

And the fourth hat was writing books. People would say, ‘What do you do?’ and I would say, ‘Well, I’m a professor who writes books and does radio…and now I dean,’ as if there wasn’t enough going on.

CS: What do you like best about UMass since coming here?

GG: I love being in a college within the University, that’s terrific. I have to say that all the places I’ve worked and taught, this is the friendliest place. Everybody notices it … people who come in to see me, people who haven’t been here before. Faculty, students, everybody is helpful, everybody is friendly. I’ve not really seen that [before]. I’m really finding everyone here to be so friendly and helpful and encouraging about this job and the direction of the Honors College, so that really is huge for me.

I haven’t met as many students as I’d like, but then I’ve only been here three months. So I was here for a couple months before students even arrived. I did do a “pizza and prof” where I got to talk to a big group of students in the Honors College and I was in a dinner last night with students, so those kinds of things.

But what I’ve seen, the students are really impressive. In fact, I was at the Faculty Convocation… and all these people got big awards and the work they are doing is so impressive too.

I really have to admit that I was one of those people that had the old view of UMass, before I really was approached and explored this, that it just wasn’t up there with Berkeley or Michigan, Virginia, all the big state universities. And then when I got here and started talking to people, started interviewing, I thought this is a really different place than I had previously thought. I think it’s because I grew up in Springfield and it had a different reputation in the old days.

CS: What was the smallest school you came from compared to the size of UMass?

GG: Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vermont. When I went, it was the smallest accredited college in America. It had 200 students and now, they’re hoping to get 300, 350. They don’t want to get any bigger than that. I’m a trustee there so I go to all the trustee meetings, sit on the board and help make big decisions about finance and admissions and stuff. And I go from that, to coming here. You can’t imagine a bigger contrast…so I was an undergraduate there, and then I’ve been on the board for a number of years.

My first real tenured job was at Vassar College, so I was there for 14 years. That has about the same number, probably fewer, smaller probably, than the Honors College. The time I was there, it was probably about 2,500 undergraduates.

CS: What do you hope to accomplish in this position here at UMass and what have you accomplished so far?

GG: Well, there’s several things. First of all, I got to spend the summer asking a lot of questions that I’m still asking. What is an honors college? What is an honors education? How does an honors course differ from another kind of course? How do we compare to other honors colleges in America and other honors programs? So those were the big picture things we’ve been trying to figure out and think about. With a fresh pair of eyes you get to see things in a different way than people who have been here for a long time, so that was sort of an advantage.

So that was a big thing…if we keep growing, we have to think about all of that and what it means. There are going to be honors colleges and programs throughout the Massachusetts state system, we’re not going to be the only honors college anymore. So we really have to think about what it means and how we are positioned as the original, the biggest, the best – and we are the best – and we want to continue to be the best.

There are some other things I want to accomplish. The Honors College was in a sort of unhappy position of flux for several years, because of the death of the previous dean and then an interim dean for two years. So the first thing was just to make everybody feel that there is now someone here who is here and is going to stay and all of that … that was a big deal.

The next thing was the curriculum needs sorting out. Its not really clear, because we have students from every department, and how do you bring them in with a first year course, what do you do with them over the next two or three years as they make their way through, how do you make them feel like they’re still part of the honors college. So I formed an ad hoc curriculum committee and you’re trying to figure out what an honors education through the four years looks like and how do you deal with students who transfer in … how do we make them feel part of the honors college, what’s the link between the residential part and the other living and learning community parts?

One of the things they wanted me to do was find an associate dean of curriculum, so she’s in place. She’s actually in SBS … so she’s now taken over the curriculum review, so that’s a big, big deal. We really want that clear and streamlined, something everyone’s on board with.

We also have a lot of students coming in from Honors to Honors. It’s a program the provost started which takes the best of the students in the community college honors programs and they get to apply here and if they make the grade, they can transfer in here to the Honors College. It’s a great program, but it does mean they miss the first two years. So how do we make them feel part of it and give them a kind of residential university experience in a small setting?

And then the third thing we really needed to do is to figure out the diversity question. People have been very concerned that we need more diversity in the fields students study, we need more diversity of background in terms of low-income, first generation, racial and ethnic diversity. As wonderful as they are, we don’t want everyone to be a STEM student who’s from the middle class … we want a mix of students who can talk to each other and learn to talk to each other in other ways.

So those were the three things. I think those are the three things that the college identified before I was even hired as things that they wanted done, so we were kind of on the same page.

CS: Do you think that can all be accomplished this year?

GG: I would like the curriculum piece to be sorted out this year. The admissions process means working with the admissions office and we’ve been doing work with them, but to try to figure out how do we bring in a wider variety of students.

There’s a lot of students out there whose families don’t even know the Honors College exists. When I would meet with the parents in the summer, several of them told me their high school guidance counselors didn’t even know there was an honors college here. So it’s a matter of making sure the word is out and people understand that there’s this wonderful opportunity and you don’t have to go to a private college to get this kind of education, you can do it right in-state.

CS: What do you like to do when you’re not here? Any hobbies?

GG: Sleep! [laughs] I would say I really would like to keep my scholarship going. I’m working on a book now about growing up in Springfield and the kind of mixed race background. My mother’s ancestral family arrived in America in 1639 … she was a genealogist. And I have my father’s side of the family and my mother was able to trace his back to slave plantations. So I want to write something about what does that say and what kind of place was it that we ended up growing up in. And I would like to read more. So that’s sort of big for me too.

Colby Sears can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter: @colbysears.

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