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February 19, 1998

Chemistry's Cooper named dean of FAS

N. John Cooper, a professor and former chemistry department chairperson, was named this week as the next dean of the Faculty and College of Arts and Sciences. He will assume his new duties July 1, replacing Peter F.M. Koehler.

Koehler has been dean since 1986. He plans to stay on as a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Before July, Cooper hopes to visit all 40 arts and sciences departments and programs. "I plan to do a lot of listening," he said. "I am not under the delusion that I know more than a tiny corner of FAS at this point." The arts and sciences represent Pitt's largest and most complex academic unit.

Out of some 22,000 Pitt full- and part-time undergraduates, 9,200 are enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). Among Pitt's approximately 9,400 graduate and professional students, 1,700 are enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

The arts and sciences units employ 535 full-time faculty. The University administration plans to reduce that number to 505 through early retirements and normal attrition.

During the last several years, Pitt arts and sciences units have undergone an often-painful planning process, setting academic priorities and making tough budgetary choices. Cooper said he is optimistic about the futures of CAS and FAS.

"One of the things I'd like to do," he said, "is take the arts and sciences beyond the rather painful introspection of the last few years and build on our strengths, which I think are very impressive." He cited the excellence of FAS faculty, the increasingly high quality and diversity of arts and sciences students, and what he called "a very fine bunch" of associate deans.

Provost James Maher chose Cooper over Charles Cnudde, dean of social sciences at Florida State University. A third finalist, Janice Madden, vice provost for graduate education at the University of Pennsylvania, dropped out of the competition to remain at Penn.

Maher said Cooper's familiarity with Pitt wasn't a major factor in his decision. "I was equally open to an insider or an outsider," the provost said. "What I really was looking for was somebody who could take on one of the toughest jobs at this University and do it very well, and I believe John will do that." While likewise praising Cooper's abilities, other colleagues said they were glad the provost picked an internal candidate.

Neuroscience department chairperson Edward Stricker, who chaired the FAS dean search, said: "I'm personally exhilarated that John is going to be the next dean. Not only did I think he was a terrific candidate, but he knows FAS and will be able to function effectively as dean right away." Only four or five other Pitt people (Stricker said he couldn't recall the exact number) applied for the job. "Considering the enormous challenges of this position, I thought John showed a lot of courage and loyalty to the University in stepping forward," Stricker said.

Current FAS Dean Koehler called Cooper "a fine appointment. He and I are already meeting to work out the details of the transition.

"John was always at the top of my list, partly because I knew him. I didn't really get to know the other candidates except for the hour I spent meeting with each of them," Koehler said.

David Brumble, FAS associate dean for undergraduate studies, said he felt relieved and delighted by Maher's decision. "John Cooper has a very good record of working with undergraduates in the chemistry department, and he's also very good at working with faculty," Brumble said.

Cooper joined the Pitt faculty as a professor of chemistry in 1986. He recently completed five years as department chairperson. Before coming here, Cooper spent 10 years on the Harvard University faculty, rising from a research fellow appointment to become Harvard's first Loeb Associate Professor of Natural Sciences. He also has been a fellow of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry's Corday-Morgan Medal.

"Dr. Cooper's primary research interests have been in the inorganic and organic chemistry of transition metals," Provost Maher wrote in a Feb. 13 letter to FAS faculty. "His creative research activities, supported by the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research, have resulted in numerous publications in peer reviewed journals. He has overseen the research of more than 20 doctoral students, and he has long demonstrated excellence in classroom teaching as well as a genuine concern for and interaction with graduate and undergraduate students.

He has served the University on the Pittsburgh Technology Transfer Committee, the University Environmental Health and Safety Committee, the Provost's Task Force of Sexual Harassment, and the Chan-cellor's Implementation Task Force on Biosafety, Chemical Hygiene, and Laser Safety.

"In recent years," Maher continued, "Dr. Cooper has undertaken two major assignments that provided unique opportunities to appreciate the complex issues impacting the Faculty and College of Arts and Sciences: He was a member of the Fact Finding Committee for the administrative review of the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a member of the FAS Faculty Planning Advisory Committee." Born and raised near Belfast, Northern Ireland, Cooper earned his bachelor's and doctoral degrees in chemistry from Oxford University. Cooper, 47, said he has worked to "North American-ize" his accent, so his students would focus on what he was saying rather than on his Irish pronunciation. This has left him with a distinctive, mid-Atlantic accent. "When I was at Oxford, everybody was convinced I was Canadian," he recalled.

Cooper and his wife, Karen, a languages teacher, live in Point Breeze with their two children.

–Bruce Steele n University Times assistant editor Bruce Steele interviewed N. John Cooper, Pitt's new FAS dean, this week.

University Times: How will you be preparing for the deanship between now and July 1? Cooper: Well, I've got an awful lot of homework to do. By far, the most important component of that will be visiting each of the departments and programs. I think you can read things about departments and programs, you can listen to people making presentations in meetings, but it's not the same thing as visiting their home territory, seeing what the scale of the program is and what their facilities are like, what the people are like, and having them tell me what they're doing. I feel that I've had a pretty good introduction to the arts and sciences in my various capacities at the University and in FAS, but I need a much better grassroots feel for what's going on in the departments and programs. So that's my first task.

You've called being an internal candidate a mixed blessing. How so? The strength of being an internal candidate is that you are already familiar with a number of the issues and you know many of the people. The disadvantage is that the people know you very well, too. They know all of your eccentricities, and they have an opinion as to what your prejudices might be. That means you're not starting off with a blank slate, which can be a disadvantage.

You come from a scientific background, as your two immediate predecessors as dean, Peter Koehler and Jerome Rosenberg, did. Do people in the humanities and social science departments have anything to fear from you, and should the science departments see you as an ally? I certainly don't think that any department should be fearful of my actions or opinions. One of the things that was really encouraging to me about the arts and sciences was the recent decision to keep FAS and CAS together as a unified arts and sciences unit. Because that's my idea of what a university should be, with a broad representation of all of the major subjects of inquiry in the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences — not least because those are all important strands of a liberal arts education, which is the sort of education I think we should be giving our students.

Does it make your job any easier reporting to a provost who is a former FAS department chair, who in turn reports to a chancellor who is a former dean of a Pitt school? There is a certain shared familiarity with the issues, but I guess I'll find out the answer to that when I start reporting to them.

You're a well-regarded professor, you've chaired the chemistry department, you probably have a good idea of the extra workload and the potential headaches you're taking on as dean. Aside from the increases in your salary and job authority, why did you want to be FAS dean? Several reasons. One is that I think the arts and sciences here are at a critical juncture, and several faculty colleagues suggested that I was the person who could help to lead FAS through that juncture. I think it's very important to the arts and sciences that we successfully make the transition, through the new early retirement program, into an era in which we can realize the benefits of that program and have a faculty with a good balance between the number of tenured and tenure-stream faculty and the available resources.

Was there a moment when you decided, "I'm going to go for this job"? What happened was that the chair of the FAS dean search committee [Edward Stricker] contacted me to say that some colleagues had nominated me, and he asked whether I wanted my name to go forward. At that point, I talked to some people across the spectrum of the arts and sciences, people whose opinions I valued. When they said it was a good idea, I let my nomination go forward.

Often, when a prospective dean is negotiating with a provost, the two work out a deal — a honeymoon package, some people call it. The prospective dean will say something like, "In order to do this job, I'll need such-and-such in terms of resources or personnel." Did you and Provost Maher have negotiations like that? And if so, is there good news for FAS as a result of those discussions? There was an extended exchange of views, talking about where we saw FAS going and the role that we saw for FAS within the University of Pittsburgh. There was a point at which those views converged, which is the point at which we decided to go forward with this. Certainly, a component of that was that I felt very comfortable we were going to get the financial support that we need to have an FAS that's in good financial shape, that has the resources to support the research and scholarship of the faculty, and has the resources to make both the new appointments that will be needed following the retirement program but also just the steady-state replacement that's important over the next five or six years. I feel very comfortable that we will get that sort of support. The precise details of the financial arrangements would, I think, be Jim's prerogative.

Did the provost give you a list of things you'll be expected to accomplish as dean? No, it was a broader exchange of views than that. I think the key points of agreement are a unity of vision that the University of Pittsburgh is a high-quality research university in which we need to make sure that the research component of the institution and the teaching responsibilities are complementary to each other. There's been a tendency to act as if these are competing goals, and they're not. I feel very strongly that there is an intrinsic complementarity to the research and teaching activities that is the key component of being a university.

University faculty are supposed to be at the forefront of their disciplines. But they are also supposed to be at the forefront of communicating knowledge to the next generation of undergraduates and graduate students. To me, there's a synergism there that I find in my own work. It comes when I teach classes and give a standard explanation of a subject, and a student says, "Yes, but professor…" And they ask me the question that I realize doesn't fit into the standard explanation. Often, that's the thing that leads me into thinking about something differently, and into a new research topic. All of my current research program on low oxidation states comes out of those sorts of questions from a first-year graduate class that I taught for many years.

Do you plan to continue teaching and doing research as dean? I would very much hope to do both, but I think realistically I'm not going to be teaching regular classes, just because the time and energy commitment to a lecture class is not going to work out with my new schedule. I will certainly be scientifically active. Once all the media interview are over [laughs], I have several papers I need to finish.

I feel like I'm holding back the course of science here…

No, no! But in answer to your question, I certainly hope to keep my research effort going. I'll be operating on a somewhat smaller scale, and I may work more with post-doctoral associates and less with graduate students, but I'll keep my labs going as well as I can.

To reach the target faculty size of 505 tenured and tenure-stream professors, FAS will need to eliminate 30 positions. How many do you expect to eliminate through Pitt's new retirement incentive plan? Nobody at this point knows what the numbers will be because people [eligible to take early retirement] haven't made those decisions yet. I've been in the unusual position recently of meeting with a broader spectrum of people within the arts and sciences than one is normally able to. Based on that, I'll be surprised if it's any fewer than 50 faculty members from the arts and sciences.

At your public hearing, you said FAS hasn't gotten stable budget parameters in its long-range planning. Every time FAS came up with a plan, the provost's office changed what you called the planning "background," such as this year, when FAS was assessed a 1 percent tax on its compensation budget. You said you wouldn't be interested in the dean's job unless you and the provost could agree that budget parameters would remain stable throughout the planning and budgeting process. Presumably, you've gotten that assurance? The budgeting and planning process [for fiscal year 1998-99] is currently underway. I think the provost is not in a position to pre-commit the University budget and planning process as to what they will or will not be doing about the practice of reallocating 1 percent every year towards raises. But I feel that the budgetary parameters for FAS will be in good shape for next year and for the year beyond that.

Pitt's re-evaluation of its undergraduate arts and sciences curriculum has been on hold since last fall, pending the hiring of a new dean. What's the status of that process, and is it going to get rolling again now that you've been appointed? To the best of my knowledge, that process is still on hold. I regard the process as an extremely high priority, but being named doesn't make me the dean. I won't become the dean until July 1. I'm not sure when the re-evaluation will get started again. We do need to think about what the process should be. Planning of the curriculum is a faculty prerogative. It's the faculty who have the best knowledge of what we can and should be offering to the students, with appropriate student input.

Pitt has taken steps recently to better integrate undergraduates into the University's research mission — by arranging for undergrads to work in laboratories side by side with faculty and graduate students, for example. Can similar things be done in the humanities and the social sciences? I would hope so, and I would be very interested in ideas that colleagues in the humanities and social sciences would have for providing equivalent experience to their students. The sciences have a sort of apprenticeship tradition, where laboratory experience has long been recognized as an important component of a good undergraduate education. This gives undergraduates a level of contact with faculty and graduate students and post-docs, which provides a different understanding of the subject than is available just through the classroom.

Throughout the search, a lot was made of the FAS dean's role as a fundraiser. What is the administration expecting you to do in terms of raising money for FAS? That's an important topic to me. I think the capital campaign is an opportunity for the University to really change the financial basis on which we're working. The University, traditionally, has not done as good a job as it might in working with alumni and potential donors to get additional funds for the undergraduate and graduate enterprise. I would very much like to be involved with that. We're still at an early stage of the campaign, but one of the things I'm going to be working on with our faculty is identifying where there are funding opportunities in the arts and sciences. It's very important to focus not just on our financial needs, but also on the activities that donors will want to support. We [FAS] need to develop that roster of potential opportunities very soon in order to be full players in the capital campaign.

How long would you like to remain as dean? Well, of course, a dean serves at the pleasure of the provost, so that decision isn't entirely in my hands. But I would say that a dean needs a five-to-seven year run to really begin to change things. Once you get beyond 10 years, it's extremely difficult to stay fresh. If you're not burned out by then, people are burned out by you.

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