A Conversation With Dean William Tsutsui

 

William Tsutsui has been dean of Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences since July 2010 but already he has made news. Tsutsui was blogging about his experiences with the Japanese American Leadership Delegation that was visiting Tokyo when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan March 11. His interviews and SMU Adventures blog provided media outlets (from The New York Times and NBC Nightly News to CNN and The Dallas Morning News) with an eyewitness account of the natural disaster’s impact on Japan. In fact, Tsutsui’s quote comparing the movement of downtown skyscrapers to “trees swaying in the breeze” was the Times’ quote of the day March 12. He also has spoken to numerous student groups on the subject. Tsutsui, a specialist in modern Japanese business and economic history, joined SMU from the University of Kansas, where he served as associate dean for international studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, professor of history and director of the Kansas Consortium for Teaching About Asia. He received M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in history from Princeton University, a Master of Letters in modern Japanese history from Oxford University’s Corpus Christi College and graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies. As dean of the largest of SMU’s seven schools, Tsutsui has been promoting the benefits of a liberal arts education to numerous alumni and SMU constituents and developing a strategic plan to position Dedman College for further progress. He also is helping Dedman College prepare for its major role in implementing the new undergraduate University Curriculum, which goes into effect for the entering class in fall 2012. And on occasion, he will eagerly share his passion about the Japanese film icon, Godzilla, the subject of one of his books. Action figures of the mutant monster line the shelves in his office in Dallas Hall. In the following interview Tsutsui shares his optimism about the future of Dedman College.

You have said that Dedman College and SMU provide the perfect formula for the model of success in higher education. What do you mean by that?

"SMU and Dedman College are the perfect mingling of the two great traditions of teaching and research," says Dean William Tsutsui.

We’re at a difficult point in higher education in the United States. It’s not just the economic issues facing a lot of universities now, but also an existential crisis – what are we doing, what value are we giving to students? I spent 17 years at the prototypical flatland state university being asked by taxpayers in the state of Kansas to train their kids to do anything and everything and to do it for nothing. Big public institutions like Kansas and Berkeley and Ohio State are wonderful examples of the modern American research university that have contributed to life, well-being and knowledge in countless ways. The problem is that the model of a gigantic state university funded largely by federal research grants and touching every aspect of society looks increasingly like a brontosaurus, and we’re undergoing climate change in higher education. In particular, state universities have lost touch with a fundamental part of their mission – the education of undergraduate students. That’s something that liberal arts colleges like Amherst and Williams have long focused on and continue to do extremely well. But liberal arts colleges also fall short in serving students and society because they don’t have the commitment to creating knowledge that a research university does. SMU and Dedman College are the perfect mingling of these two great traditions of teaching and research. We have high-powered, cutting-edge research, scholars winning highly competitive national research grants and creating knowledge that could change millions of lives. At the same time, every faculty member in the College is dedicated to teaching undergraduate students. A rich undergraduate experience, based on individual relationships between faculty and students inside and beyond the classroom, must continue to be the hallmark of Dedman College and SMU.

How do you make the case that the liberal arts continue to play a vital role and make significant contributions to society?

We are undeniably in a moment of renewed worries about the state of the liberal arts and increased scrutiny of the place of liberal education in American colleges and universities. The discontinuation of departments and degrees, especially in the humanities, at many institutions has been chilling. And students seem to be voting with their feet, walking in the same direction for a couple of generations: away from the liberal arts and toward professional schools. We’re all familiar with the arguments for why a liberal education is the best possible preparation for life and career in America today: look at any corporate board of directors or the leadership of any top government agency and you are likely to find a slew of liberal arts graduates; the liberal arts prepare you not just for one job (as more narrow professional or vocational training might) but for a wide range of jobs that need readily transferable skills like reading, writing, research, analysis and creativity; the liberal arts prepare individuals to lead full, open-minded, civically engaged and reflective lives; today, nations like China and India are trying to emulate the liberal arts from America to stir creativity and breadth in their undergraduates. But we also need to emphasize the role of the liberal arts in combating the fear that seems so prevalent today in American families and throughout our society, a pervasive sense of anxiety growing from economic uncertainty, international concerns, and political divisions. It is precisely at this moment, I believe, that the liberal arts are the most valuable. The constant questioning, critical thinking and healthy skepticism that characterize the humanities and sciences are a potent antidote to uncertainty and anxiety. A liberal education teaches us that “not knowing” is the normal state of being and that by thoughtful, self-reflective and collaborative investigation, experimentation, discussion and debate, new options can be discovered, new truths revealed and a new comfort found amid insecurity and doubt. The liberal arts help us master and direct our fears and approach the future not with apprehension and unease, but with the confidence that no challenge is too great to be studied, contemplated and eventually surmounted.

You’ve been working on a strategic plan for Dedman College. One of the main initiatives is support for undergraduate education. What does that entail?

Students conduct research in the lab with Eva Oberdorster (right), senior lecturer in biological sciences.

As part of a university with several high-caliber professional schools that offer attractive undergraduate programs, Dedman College must provide the kind of curricula and educational experiences that can draw the best students to the liberal arts. To get those top students requires an institution to not only offer excellent academic programs but also top scholarship support. Dedman College has been a little behind the times in that regard. Happily, with the Dedman College Scholars program we’ve begun to compete for exceptional students at the highest level. We must work harder to build the financial base of endowed scholarship funds that are necessary to increase the academic quality of our undergraduates. We need to take advantage of our real strengths at SMU and one of those is our size – this is still a very intimate campus, where students can have extraordinary experiences and take on unique roles. One of the ways they can do that is through undergraduate research. At large state universities focused on attracting huge research grants, faculty often don’t have the time to mentor undergraduates, to give them an enhanced educational experience. At SMU we can do that in our labs, libraries and classrooms. Dedman College also needs to create more degree programs that capture the interests of students, such as we have achieved through the Embrey Human Rights Program. Students today (and especially those we have at SMU) are incredibly idealistic – they grew up doing community service projects and participating in volunteer programs. The Human Rights Program offers them an opportunity to explore how they can make a difference at a personal level in the world. We need to develop similar major and minor programs that build on faculty strengths and engage our undergraduates: I hope we can expand our existing environmental studies program and consider degrees related to important issues like migration, where Dedman College has interdisciplinary expertise in anthropology, sociology, literary studies and political science. We also need to provide more opportunities for international exposure, both inside the classroom and through education abroad, and for service learning. New and enhanced options in experiential learning and building global awareness will contribute to the undergraduate experience.

How does the strategic plan address graduate education?

That is a tough one, because many people still think of SMU as primarily an undergraduate institution. Nevertheless, the research projects that we’re engaged in and the high-level scholarship that takes place in the College are not sustainable without vibrant graduate programs. Strong graduate programs also feed collaborations across disciplines, build bridges to the community through research and service, and enhance the productivity of faculty. Graduate students also can play an important role in mentoring undergraduates and facilitating undergraduate research projects. Many graduate programs in Dedman College have long histories and records of educating and placing their students. Unfortunately, graduate education is probably the least well-funded part of the College now. We need to find ways to build support for our doctoral programs, to offer students financial packages (including health benefits) that are competitive with other top universities around the country, and to increase the number of graduate students within our departments.

In a time of budget cutting and faculty reduction at universities nationwide, you are proposing an increase in Dedman College faculty. Why?

Despite the overall growth at SMU, the development of new programs and the ever-increasing demands on scholars and educators, the total number of faculty in Dedman College has not changed in 25 years. Recruiting and retaining a faculty of excellence is an ongoing challenge, especially in today’s competitive climate. For Dedman College, however, the size of the faculty may well be our most pressing concern. Almost all College departments have fewer tenure-track faculty than their equivalents in SMU’s comparative peer institutions, and some are not even staffed to the levels found in small liberal arts colleges. This situation means that Dedman College departments generally do not have the number of faculty necessary to provide the breadth of teaching and research generally expected in leading American universities. We need to work through the Second Century Campaign to build the number of endowed chairs, which have a rapid and substantial impact on the reputation of the University. We can hire well in Dedman College, we just need the financial resources to do it.

Why are interdisciplinary programs a major aspect of the College’s strategic plan?

Maria Richards (right), coordinator of SMU's Geothermal Laboratory, and graduate students study a map that denotes geothermal resources.

The budgetary zero-sum game that has affected Dedman College for the past 25 years has made it very difficult for faculty to collaborate across disciplines – they’ve pulled back into their departments, reluctant to support interdisciplinary endeavors. But the problems of the world today are too big for any one discipline or department to solve. Look at any of the big issues – cancer, health care, climate change, democratic transformations – all of these require scholars with a variety of training and expertise coming together to explore possible solutions. I am proposing the creation of a new organization in the College to stimulate the kind of interdisciplinary collaboration that feeds an active intellectual climate. Dedman College is rare among universities at our level in that it doesn’t have a humanities center. I envision a high-profile institute that will spark interdisciplinary connections across departments and schools, throughout the humanities and sciences, spanning research and teaching. It also would welcome undergraduate and graduate students in addition to faculty. I can easily imagine it contributing to the development of new courses and new degree programs, as well as enhancing our ability to compete for large research grants. Dedman College is fortunate in having a number of established units that support interdisciplinary research: the Tower Center for Political Studies and the Clements Center for Southwest Studies have international profiles, the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man is a long-term contributor to research in the natural sciences, and the new Center for Scientific Computational Science has great potential. These centers and institutes can and should provide leadership in stimulating dialogue across campus, but the new institute will play a critical role in creating a vibrant culture of interdisciplinarity in the College and at SMU.

What are your priorities for research in Dedman College?

Historically, the majority of externally funded research at SMU has been conducted in Dedman College. We have the potential to do even more, but we need to provide better support for undergraduate and graduate research and further assist junior faculty members in competing for the top national grants. We also need bridge funding to help senior faculty start new projects or launch new areas of investigation. In addition, we must ensure that the natural and social sciences have adequate laboratories and collaborative spaces, and that they have the latest technology to support the work of scholars and students. Dedman College faculty members have long been enthusiastic participants in the process of discovery, and a lot of people locally recognize the value of that research – the benefit it brings not just to the world but to Dallas in particular – because it generates new economic opportunities and addresses a wide variety of social, political and cultural challenges. People want to invest in people. That’s why it is so important to get our faculty out into the community as part of The Second Century Campaign. When alumni see the passion that our biologists, economists, psychologists and other faculty bring to their research, they understand that what can seem like a faceless institutional gift actually has a very human imprint. To help stimulate research activity, the College, working with our Campaign Steering Committee co-chairs Kelly Hoglund Compton ’79 and Fred Hegi ’66, has created the Dean’s Research Council, a donor organization that provides resources for promising new scholarly projects. We’ve already received a $100,000 leadership gift from Pierce Allman ’54 and have selected some impressive young, tenure-track faculty members – Amy Pinkham in psychology, Yunkai Zhou in mathematics and Lisa Siraganian in English – who will receive seed funding as a springboard to compete for large federal grants.

Why is it important to raise Dedman College’s profile?

Dedman College serves Dallas in countless ways, but we seldom get the recognition we deserve because few people are aware of all that we do. The College’s outreach spans from members of our Economics Department consulting with the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Dallas to our faculty in the sciences collaborating with researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center to undergraduate students in sociology, world languages and religious studies working on tutoring, bilingual education or local history programs with low-income communities in East Dallas. Connecting Dedman College more deeply with Dallas will enrich faculty scholarship and the student experience, provide new opportunities for applied research and funding, and contribute to our region’s economic vitality and the quality of life.

What will Dedman College’s role be in implementing the new University Curriculum (formerly General Education Curriculum), effective fall 2012?

Dedman College is where all SMU students begin their collegiate journey, no matter what majors or minors they ultimately choose. The University Curriculum provides the common knowledge, skills and experiences every student must accrue before he or she graduates. The new curriculum makes it easier to pursue multiple majors and minors. It also accommodates more opportunities for honors programming, international study, undergraduate research, internship experiences and service learning. Students must demonstrate second-language proficiency equal to four semesters of college study. What I particularly like is that the new curriculum engages students more actively in the process of their own education, forcing them to do more than just sit in a classroom and take notes from PowerPoint slides. It will require students to think about how they learn and what they’re going to learn, asking them to be more active and intentional, for example, in identifying a community service experience or gaining global perspectives. SMU will be in the forefront of having an up-to-date student-focused curriculum. Of course, this new curriculum also will pose a few challenges for Dedman College. The foreign language requirement will have a huge impact on our World Languages and Literatures Department. We also have to work to develop our interdisciplinary offerings. There is sure be a lot of juggling in introducing this curriculum, but it’s a valuable opportunity for faculty and the institution to evaluate and sharpen the undergraduate experience – this challenges us to reflect on what we are doing in the classroom and what we can be doing better.

What are you saying to alumni who may be concerned that the SMU “as they know it” is going to change?

I’ve spent a lot of time talking to alumni about their strongest memories of SMU. Some will mention athletics, for others it was their sorority and fraternity experiences. But I’m often pleasantly surprised by the number of alumni who can remember the first classes they took. I was talking recently to a successful graduate in the automobile industry who transferred to SMU; he remembers even today that one of his first classes was in philosophy, and that he called his parents right afterward and said, “This is the place I was meant to be.” That’s exactly the experience I want our students to have when they take classes in Dedman College. I don’t want them to think, “This is high school, year five.” They need to be exposed to a broad range of perspectives (and challenges) by their instructors. As long as we keep engaging students and firing their curiosity, that fundamental experience of an SMU education will remain consistent over the decades. That’s the genius of the liberal arts – you never know what will capture a student’s passion. There is so much to learn out there in the world, and it’s unlikely we’re ever going to learn exactly all that we need to know. Take for example the events unfolding today in Libya. You probably can count on one hand the people in America who’ve had courses on Libyan politics. It’s not a good investment of resources at most universities to have specialists in only that field. Nevertheless, as informed citizens we need broad exposure to political movements, to Islam, to technology and its power, and to civil-military relations that allow us to understand an unpredictable and rapidly changing situation like we’re seeing in Libya and all over the Middle East. And that’s what the liberal arts can offer us. Even if you haven’t been trained to deal with a specific issue or series of events, a broad liberal education equips you with a toolkit of analytical skills for making informed, intelligent decisions about a rapidly changing world.

What are your final thoughts on Dedman College?

The time is now for Dedman College; we have all the ingredients to really fly – a wonderful faculty, a strong student base, and a supportive administration and Board of Trustees. Now is the time for us to define our vision, to ask where we want to go and how investment will make a difference, and then to take off. There is no more optimistic campus in America than SMU, and there is no part of this University better positioned for growth and success than Dedman College.

To support Dedman College’s faculty, students, research and programs, visit www.smu.edu/Dedman/Giving or call Courtney Corwin ’89 at 214-768-2691.


 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *