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Focus on Faculty: Dr. James M. MacLaren

Publication date

May 10, 2018 3:30 PM


Jake Ward

Dean MacLaren is a physicist by training, earning his undergraduate degree from Cambridge University and his PhD from Imperial College, London. 


James M. MacLaren, the outgoing Dean of Newcomb-Tulane College, may be moving on to new academic pastures, but he still believes in what he sees as the mission of the Honors Program: to “provide a range of deeper intellectual engagements” for students to exploit.  In his time at Tulane, Dean MacLaren has taught an Honors Colloquium, served on competitive scholarship committees, and advised Honors Thesis writers, all with the goal of encouraging deeper intellectual engagements.

Dean MacLaren is a physicist by training, earning his undergraduate degree from Cambridge University and his PhD from Imperial College, London.  His Colloquium course, “Relativity, Einstein, and the Quantum World,” which he taught for first semester Honors students, focused on the interaction between scientific concepts and society at large.  In particular, it explored the role of physics in the twentieth century, during which huge strides forward in scientists’ understanding of the universe profoundly altered the global balance of power.  Unlike a normal physics class, the Colloquium encouraged the Honors students to make creative connections and think about the broader implications of science.

Outside of the classroom, many students seek to pursue a broader intellectual experience with the aid of a nationally competitive scholarship.  In support of their applications, the Honors Program organises faculty committees to hold mock interviews and give advice, and Dean MacLaren has served on many committees over the years.

To serve on a competitive scholarship committee means the opportunity to work with some of the most talented and motivated students at Tulane, says Dean MacLaren.  The central goal is to give them the guidance they need to be competitive and to get the recognition they deserve.  This requires asking tough questions and encouraging the applicants to think on their feet, which can be intimidating, but ultimately very rewarding, for students.

Dean MacLaren has also served on many committees of another kind, guiding Honors Thesis writers through a similarly challenging—and similarly rewarding—process.  He describes the experience as “really enjoyable,” whether the project is in physics, chemistry, or political science.  He has found it fascinating to watch Thesis writers in all fields work independently to carefully think through a problem and its implications.

One Thesis project in history, on which Dean MacLaren was the third reader, has remained in his memory as a particularly thought-provoking piece of work.  The Thesis compared reactions to the Vietnam and Gulf Wars on Tulane’s campus, studying university archives and old issues of the Hullabaloo.  Whilst the student opposition to the latter was fairly muted, protests against the war in Vietnam were not—in fact, the Tulane Army ROTC building was even burnt to the ground during this time.  The student concluded that the Draft played a large role in cultivating campus opposition to the Vietnam War.

Projects like this are why Dean MacLaren was so delighted to introduce the first day of the Honors Thesis Forum last month.  The event gave students a chance to talk about their own work, and to hear about the work of others, which is a crucial element of academia.  Scholars should never forget to tell the wider world exactly why their work is important, because, after all, it surely is.


Dean MacLaren is assuming the position of Provost at St. Xavier University in Chicago in July.  The Honors Program would like to thank him for his tireless work in support of our mission.