Q+A With Michael Orr: New Guy on Campus
The start of semesters always brings about changes. For students, this means new classes with new students and professors. For Michael Orr, this meant starting his position as Skidmore’s new Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs. Skidmore News sat down with the new dean to learn more about his goals for the college.
Jessica Pavia: Let’s start with an easy question: What are you currently reading?
Michael Orr: I tend to have three to four books underway at any one time. Right now, I’m reading Richard Russo’s recent collection of short stories entitled Trajectory. Russo is a favorite author of mine—I have probably read his academic novel Straight Man at least half a dozen times. I’m also in the midst of Lynne Murphy’s The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship between American and British English, which I’m finding fascinating. I’ve also begun familiarizing myself with the work of our faculty and I am currently reading Professor Greg Pfitzer’s Picturing the Past: Illustrated Histories and the American Imagination, 1840-1900. Finally, I have just started reading Sigal Ben-Porath’s Free Speech on Campus.
What decisions led you to where you are today?
I grew up in the UK and, after completing my BA degree in art history at University College London, decided to come to the United States to pursue my PhD in art history at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. After completing a curatorial internship at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, I ended up accepting a faculty position at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.
At the time, I didn’t know anything about liberal arts colleges. Although I didn’t expect to stay there very long, I fell in love with teaching at a small residential liberal arts college and remained there for over 20 years.
What about liberal arts colleges did you fall in love with?
I loved being a faculty member at an institution that truly valued teaching but that also had a serious commitment to supporting faculty scholarship. Many schools claim to value teaching and scholarship but, in my experience, liberal arts colleges genuinely value teaching (small class sizes, a realistic teaching load, emphasis on teaching excellence in faculty reviews), while providing support for scholarly activities (support for scholarly and professional travel, sabbatical leaves, pre-tenure sabbaticals, etc.).
Liberal arts colleges also allow faculty to teach outside of their narrow areas of scholarly expertise, and I found that experience to be tremendously rewarding. I also found that liberal arts colleges facilitate faculty engagement across disciplinary boundaries and that there are numerous opportunities to join together with colleagues from across the institution around issues of common concern.
There, I developed a deep commitment to the values and goals of liberal education and an abiding belief in the educational benefits of the residential liberal arts college. I believe that places like Skidmore can have a truly transformational effect on students.
What was your time like teaching at Lawrence University?
I served multiple terms as department chair and became increasingly involved in shared governance, including chairing a number of faculty committees and task forces. For the first 10 years of my career, I never imagined that I would ever aspire to become a dean. However, I found myself increasingly being asked by my peers to take on academic leadership roles and, in the process, I discovered that the work could be very rewarding and that I seemed to be good at it.
After spending a year at Macalester College as an American Council of Education Fellow working closely with the president, the dean of the faculty and the chief financial officer, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at serving as dean of the faculty at a liberal arts college. That led me to accept the position of Provost and Dean of the Faculty at Lake Forest College, a liberal arts college near Chicago.
Besides being asked by previous colleagues to take on leadership roles, and then enjoying that responsibility, what else attracted you to the Dean of Faculty position?
I realized that providing leadership in an academic environment is deeply rewarding. I discovered that I could have a bigger impact furthering the educational mission of an institution by working to build consensus around a collective vision than I could as a faculty member teaching my classes and pursuing my research. I also enjoy helping others to solve problems and to come up with collective solutions. In fact, much of the work of the Dean is facilitating the work of others—I find that work to be very satisfying.
What attracted you about Skidmore?
After seven years at Lake Forest, completing a number of major initiatives, including building a new science building and revising the general education curriculum, I felt ready for a new opportunity. The position at Skidmore was very attractive to me. Given Skidmore’s national reputation and the strength of its faculty and academic programs.
Also, my wife and I had enjoyed being in upstate New York during my graduate work and we were excited at the prospect of returning to the area. We enjoy a variety of endurance sports, including mountain biking, road cycling, cross-country skiing and rowing, and Saratoga Springs is a great location for all of these activities. We are delighted to be here.
What was your previous experience like with building a science building? In other words, what can we expect?
At my former institution, I helped lead the planning, renovation, and construction of a project that resulted in a 130,000-square-foot science facility. As you can imagine, such a project requires close collaboration and coordination between the design team, the construction company, facilities services, the faculty and staff who will inhabit the building, and the fundraising staff.
The first phase of CIS is now underway and, during construction, the campus should expect some disruption due to noise, delivery of construction materials and the presence of as many as 90-100 construction workers during peak periods of work.
At the same time, I think it will be exciting to watch the new wing begin to emerge later this fall once the steel superstructure begins to appear. The north wing is scheduled to be completed by the end of summer 2020 and moving into the wing that summer will require lots of advance planning.
You mentioned being excited about Saratoga’s outdoor activities. Have you taken advantage of that yet? Do you think you’ll get involved with on-campus activities?
So far, my favorite activity has been mountain biking. I love the challenge of riding the technical single-track trails behind the Van Lennep Riding Center (though I’m currently nursing a bruised foot from falling off a rock ledge on my bike!). I’m not sure if I’ll have the opportunity to get involved with any of the outdoor clubs on campus, though I’m hoping to visit the boathouse soon and learn more about Skidmore’s rowing program.
What issues concerning the school and campus are the most important to you? And how are you planning to change or progress those?
The College has an ambitious strategic plan, Creating Pathways to Excellence: The Plan for Skidmore College, 2015-2025 [plan to create a distinctive and competitive liberal arts campus] and I am keen to help the College implement the plan. Among the strategic initiatives that are already underway, two in particular are high priorities for me: building the Center for Integrated Sciences and implementing the new general education curriculum.
I am also committed to furthering the College’s goals for diversity, equity and inclusion. I want to strengthen our ability to recruit and retain an outstanding faculty and to make progress in diversifying our faculty. Ultimately, I want to support the teaching and scholarly/creative activities of our faculty to ensure that students continue to have access to a first-rate educational experience.
I hear you are now co-chair of the developing Black Studies program; what has that been like for you?
Professor Kristie Ford and I are serving as co-chairs of the search committee for the new director for the Black Studies program. We are working to hire an outstanding senior faculty member who can lead our efforts to establish a minor in Black Studies. I feel fortunate to be working with a strong search committee and am very optimistic that we will be able to bring some outstanding candidates to campus later this semester. It is very important to the search committee that students are able to provide feedback on the candidates and we will ensure that they have an opportunity to meet the finalists.
Lastly, what is one thing you'd like the faculty members, and students, to know about you?
I am a faculty member at heart and love engaging with faculty and working with students.