The independent news organization of Duke University

McLendon outlines top priorities

What is it about future Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences George McLendon that makes him so appealing to Provost Peter Lange and the search committee that nominated him for the job? In part, it's what former-U.S. President George H. W. Bush might call "that vision thing."


McLendon's vision for Arts and Sciences is painted in broad strokes, given his outsider status and lack of experience as an administrator, but he already has a sense of some of the division's strengths and weaknesses and what he wants to accomplish during his tenure.


In the long run, he wants to bolster comparatively weaker areas of the University, such as the arts and natural sciences, and bring them to the level of Duke's stronger academic departments, said McLendon, who currently serves as chair of the chemistry department at Princeton University.


"[Arts and Sciences] has islands of extraordinary strength that really provide tremendous visibility for Duke [and] tremendous prestige for Duke, and there are other parts of the Arts and Sciences contingent that, although solid, are not nearly as luminary," he said. "What one would like to be able to do is meld the islands into a continent."


In order to achieve this, McLendon said he would seek to continue the major push toward interdisciplinary initiatives that Lange and outgoing Dean William Chafe have begun. Lange said one of McLendon's major challenges will be to bring interdisciplinary studies to the next level, particularly in undergraduate education.


McLendon said he believes this will be a welcome challenge, as he has spent his entire career working across disciplines. Indeed, sociology professor Thomas DiPrete, who headed the search committee for the new dean, said McLendon's ability to reach out into other areas was an important factor in his nomination.


An overarching theme for McLendon is to make the University stronger at the seams. He said he hopes to improve ties between students and faculty members, since he felt such ties are among the best aspects of his current school, Princeton University. He also advocates more continuity in the learning process for undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral students and faculty members.


"We're all in this same business--we're all trying to learn," he said. "There are parts of the experience that are very different [for different classes], but there are parts of the learning process that are exactly the same."


Because of his past success at Princeton, McLendon seems to be quite confident about dealing with the weighty Arts and Sciences budget, which has been projected in the red for the immediate future. He said he has faced worse budget crunches before, and his philosophy is simple: make the most of available resources and find new ones. Lange and Chafe have been working to relieve budget constraints since Chafe announced that he would resign last March.


McLendon's vision for Arts and Sciences is rooted in a healthy respect for the University that at times seems to border on awe--welcome news, surely, for those who fear McLendon is part of an Ivy conspiracy to transform Duke into something it is not.


"Tradition is a two-edged sword," he said, referring to Duke's lack of a comparatively long and storied past. "It provides a sense of stability and accomplishment. It can also provide a sense of entitlement which is not healthy, and there are times when features are just silly. Where you say, 'This classroom was this way when Woodrow Wilson was here, so we just can't change it,' and, you know, Woodrow Wilson didn't have laptops."


His training period has already begun, as he will be learning from Chafe over the next six months and will spend at least two days per week at Duke until he assumes the deanship July 1.


McLendon seems emboldened by his perception of the University as young and nimble. "There is a sense from the undergraduate students right through [President] Nan [Keohane] that Duke is constantly inventing new opportunities for itself," he said. "One of the debts that those of us coming in from the outside owe is to build on that foundation and make things even better."


Share and discuss “McLendon outlines top priorities” on social media.