The University Record, February 4, 1998
Earl Lewis in his Rackham office. Photo by Bob Kalmbach
By Jane R. Elgass
Earl Lewis will be recommended as dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies and vice provost for academic affairs-graduate studies following an intensive search conducted during fall term. The Regents will be asked to act on the recommendation at their Feb. 19-20 meeting. Lewis, a history scholar whose research explores the complex interactions between power and race in the industrial period in American society, has been interim dean since Sept. 1. If approved, his appointment will be effective March 1, 1998-June 30, 2003.
In making the recommendation, Provost Nancy Cantor said she "couldn't be more pleased with the outcome of this search. Lewis is perfectly situated to provide extraordinary leadership for Rackham and for the campus community more generally. He is an eminent scholar with a decidedly interdisciplinary bent, and has the presence and support across campus to solidify Rackham's role as a centerpiece of intellectual ferment for the University."
"Lewis's scholarly expertise provides a timely historical perspective on community formation and the social construction of race in America, topics of great relevance to our tasks today as an institution in the midst of debates about contemporary American values and societal expectations," she said.
"His administrative experience in the history department, as director of CAAS and as a faculty affiliate of the American Culture Program enable Earl to see clearly the press of questions of optimal size, diversity of participants and collaborations across boundaries confronting our graduate programs throughout the University. He is affording them a strong voice as they struggle with changing realities.
"As important," Cantor added, "Earl Lewis is a citizen of the campus, and my colleagues and I will greatly appreciate his insights as we involve him in his role as vice provost in a host of academic affairs endeavors. We are very grateful to the search committee for its efforts over the last four months, and to Earl for his willingness to continue to serve the University."
Speaking with the Record last week, Lewis noted that his interim status provided an opportunity to begin thinking about some initiatives for the short term as well as others that will benefit the Graduate School over the next few years and beyond.
Many of the activities he foresees undertaking on behalf of graduate students and programs will flow from the emphasis he places on "the centrality of interdisciplinarity on campus. They will be packaged around issues related to the academic intellectual mission of the Graduate School," he said.
Two programs were launched last fall--the Rackham Summer Interdisciplinary Institute and the Rackham Interdisciplinary Seminars (Record, Nov. 19, 1997). Lewis also hopes to host "a series of events designed to help people think of Rackham as an intellectual site on campus."
These include the popular public "Evenings at Rackham" series held the past two years and workshops and other activities designed particularly for students, such as a three- or four-part workshop focusing on writing for the academy, writing grant proposals and writing dissertations.
Lewis noted that the University needs "to take a look at how we prepare students for a range of careers, both academic and non-academic." He plans to work with deans, chairs and program directors to take a look at enrollment levels, examining what might be the optimal size of the various graduate programs. "Whatever we do, we should be careful, thoughtful and consultative."
He has been working on a project that would see U-M graduate students placed as teaching fellows in liberal arts schools through an exchange program as a way of helping students get the best possible preparation for academic jobs.
"There is a tension in the system," Lewis noted. "We've been encouraged to shorten the time-to-degree, but students found they didn't have the range of experience necessary to be competitive. An exchange of this nature will help address that shortcoming."
Also high on Lewis's list of priorities is maintaining as diverse a student population as possible in light of challenges from the courts and society and from within higher education.
"Michigan was a leader and should remain a leader in promoting diversity in all forms," Lewis said. "This requires us to be thoughtful and forward-thinking, but always with our mind on our relationship to the past."
Other initiatives that will be moving from the back to the front burner include:
Extending the early fall orientation program over the course of the academic year. Lewis said participants in periodic student forums are identifying a range of issues the Graduate School can address to make life easier for the students. For instance, international students have shown a need for help in preparing tax forms.
"We're getting ideas from students on critical issues," he said, "and we hope to create more opportunities to hear from them and model programs that will help them."
Built in 1938, the Rackham Building still has its original plumbing and wiring. "We will have to think hard about addressing infrastructure needs and needs of our students," Lewis said. "In doing so, we hope to develop a master plan for the use of the building. For instance, does it make sense to make some of the conference rooms more multi-purpose? Should we add new technology in the Amphitheater?"
With the advent of the M-Pathways program, Lewis said the Graduate School will have to take on more of a consultative role with academic units than it has in the past. "Individuals in the units don't have the time, skills and in some cases the equipment to take advantage of the opportunities offered by M-Pathways. We have to be ready to render help on site. And we need to make certain that protocols for data entry are in place and observed and ensure the integrity of the data."
And, Lewis said, "We just want to imagine some things that will be fun." Students have indicated that there's no place in Rackham where they can "just come and hang out," he noted. "We need to think about creating some social spaces."
Lewis will put teaching on hold
Earl Lewis still is sorting out what it will mean to be dean of the Graduate School, what it will mean for him personally and professionally and what it will mean for his family. "I think I will discover what it means in its fullest in the next few years."
For the short-term, it likely means no teaching. He hopes to be able to teach after the first couple of years of his term, and is exploring the possibility of co-teaching a course or two with colleagues in the near future.
Lewis graduated with honors from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., pursued graduate study at the University of Minnesota, and held his first teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley, in 198489.
He joined the U-M in 1989 as an associate professor of history and of Afroamerican and African studies, and was named professor in 1995. He has served as director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, graduate chair in history, on the Rackham Executive Board and on several other committees, including a three-year stint on the VCM Oversight Committee.
Lewis plans to remain active on the research front. The author, co-author or editor of three books, he helped pioneer the study of African American urbanization and community formation in the 20th-century South, and his first book, In Their Own Interests, remains one of the most significant studies of its kind.
Lewis is close to completing another book, titled Skin Color: History, Identity and the Multiple Meanings of Race in 20th-Century America that combines his recent thinking on the need to reconceptualize W.E.B. DuBois's formulation that African American life is framed by a sense of dualismBlack and American.
He also is working with one of his former graduate students, Heidi Ardizzone, on An Affair of the Heart, which explores a much-publicized 1920s case of love, alienated affection and race in New York.
Lewis is on 18 doctoral committees, serving as chair of 12 of them. He is an active member of several professional organizations.
His essays and articles have appeared in several books and journals and he was the general editor, with Robin D.G. Kelley, of an 11-volume history of African Americans for young adults. He co-edits the American Crossroads books series of the University of California Press and sits on three editorial boards.
Lewis was selected as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and is a member of the Board of Visitors, College of the Humanities, The Ohio State University.