For this edition of Faculty in Focus, I had the opportunity to speak with Lee Skinner, dean of Newcomb-Tulane College and professor of 19th century Latin American literature. In our discussion, Dean Skinner was kind enough to provide her reflections on her first year as Dean of NTC along with her vision for the future of Tulane and the Honors Program.
The close of the spring 2020 semester marked the end of Skinner’s first academic year as NTC’s dean. When asked how she balanced scholarship, teaching and administrative duties, she responded, “taking on any kind of new job is intense, and this would be an especially intense type of job.” Nonetheless, Dean Skinner carved out time each week for writing, research and reflection, which can be challenging given her administrative responsibilities. Not for Dean Skinner, who was excited to share: “I was able to write a book chapter in the fall semester, and finish editing another one that is coming out in a different collection of essays. So that was great.”
The same could not be said of this past semester, however, when Dean Skinner had to focus her attention on more immediate needs for the good of the students, faculty, and staff. Understandably so, given Tulane’s administrative overhaul required to address the COVID-19 epidemic. On Wednesday, March 11th, it was announced that all classes would be moved online. By Friday, March 13th, the last in-person classes were held, and by March 16th campus offices were closed as well. Although rapid change needed to take place to address student and faculty safety, Dean Skinner emphasized that no obstacle seemed too big for her and Tulane’s staff to handle: “It's never felt like an insurmountable challenge—like something that we can't work together to get done.” She went on to say, “I'm so impressed by NTC staff’s resilience, adaptability and flexibility throughout this whole time,” and she considers herself lucky to work with such a great team.
Despite the challenges faced, Dean Skinner noted that she found herself continually delighted by Tulane students’ creativity and ambition. “The range of interests and passions that Tulane students have that are seated within their academic experiences and then spiral out to the rest of their lives… it's impressive. I never get tired of that.”
Even with the challenges of the past few months, Dean Skinner continues to look to the future and has big plans for the Honors Program and NTC overall. Recently, an email was sent to current Tulane students which described a ‘phasing out’ of the Honors Program, with changes for students taking place in the 2021-2022 academic year. During our talk, Dean Skinner was able to provide some details about what students can expect from these changes.
As an entity, Tulane’s Honors Program will not exist in the future. However, Dean Skinner emphasized that the resources available through Honors will continue and be made available to Tulane’s wider undergraduate community, a necessary change given that the academic qualifications of Tulane’s entering classes continue to rise. Dean Skinner explained, “What we're doing is we're taking the Honors Program office—and weaving [it] into different parts of the college that already exist.”
When asked which areas of growth she is most excited to see implemented, Dean Skinner responded swiftly with “undergraduate research.” NTC has hired an undergraduate research program manager and plans to develop a database for connecting students with principal investigators and also workshops to help students gain basic research skills. Furthermore, there will be expanded funding for undergraduate research grants and the summer research program which is currently offered through Honors. The hope is that improvements such as these will expand research opportunities to students of all disciplines, “so more people can participate in them and see themselves in that [researcher] vein.”
Students can also expect more resources on advising for nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships. An office will be created just for fellowships advising so that more students can be educated about and advised for more scholarship and fellowship opportunities. A former fellowship advisor herself, Dean Skinner explained to me how valuable the application process is for students. “When you're applying for a fellowship or a grant, you have to do a lot of self-examination and reflection about who you are and what you're doing and where you want to go,” which she considers a worthwhile experience even if a student is not selected as a scholarship or fellowship winner.
Although Honors Colloquium classes will no longer be offered starting in fall 2021, small seminar classes will continue taking place in the form of Honors sections of TIDES. “I fully anticipate that many of the same faculty who currently teach colloquia will want to teach the Honors TIDES because it's going to be the same pool of students,” notes Dean Skinner.
Regarding her vision for Newcomb-Tulane College and Honors overall, Dean Skinner stated, “NTC is the home of the undergraduate academic experience, and we are here to make sure that every student has a challenging and rewarding academic experience on their journey through Tulane.” The aim of the upcoming changes is to “help make the best use out of our resources and make sure that there's widespread access to opportunities for all students who want them and are willing to put in the work it takes to pursue those opportunities.”
All faculty interviewed recommend a book they find compelling and important.
Dean Skinner recommends everyone go read the work of Mexican writer Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974). Castellanos wrote essays, poetry, short stories and novels and challenged her readers to interrogate commonly-held ideas about gender, race and class.