By Matthew Wojtechko
As the Saint Vincent College school of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences makes the transition from two schools to one, Dr. Margaret Watkins makes the transition from interim dean to dean.
“Following in the lines of what Plato said in The Republic, she did not seek this out,” John Smetanka, vice president of Academic Affairs and academic dean, said of Watkins, who is a philosophy professor. “She didn’t say yes all at once. It took her some time to discern whether it was the right choice for her.”
Watkins was interim dean for the new AHSS school since its inception at the beginning of this school year; she was announced as the selected dean applicant on Jan. 31.
The hiring process for the AHSS dean began with a faculty committee deciding the position’s qualifications in the fall, followed by a similar committee reviewing the applicants. The vice president of academic affairs then made a recommendation to the president, who appointed the dean.
Of the 75 individuals who applied, six received Skype interviews, and two gave campus lectures the first two weeks of this semester.
This is according to Smetanka, who chaired the search committee.
“Dr. Watkins was determined to be the best person who best matched all our needs and had all the requirements we were looking for,” he said.
Smetanka said that these requirements, which were explained in the position’s advertisement, include a leadership style that reflects Saint Vincent’s mission, a record of very strong scholarship and school administration experience.
A dean, who is the chief administrator of a school, oversees programs and faculty, seeks grants and fundraising, is involved in student recruitment and meets with Smetanka and the other school deans weekly, Smetanka said.
In addition to his administrative responsibilities, Smetanka teaches astronomy, just as Watkins still teaches a philosophy class per semester.
In fact, all school deans teach, and the practice was specified in the position’s requirements document.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Smetanka said. “It really keeps you connected with the students and it’s what we all love to do.”
When first asked to take the interim dean position, Watkins said she asked Smetanka to release her from teaching due to feeling overwhelmed at the idea, but he “rightly pushed back.”
“One of the things he said was that his continuing to teach reminds him what we’re all here for, what the most important thing is,” Watkins said, “And it’s definitely been that way for me this year.”
As interim dean, Watkins said her main goal was to “hold down the fort,” such as by ensuring the tenure and promotion processes went smoothly.
“As permanent dean, I’ll have to do more thinking about the future of the school, and that’s going to be a long process involving every single faculty member in the school, and the students as well,” she said.
Since the AHSS houses many of Saint Vincent’s core classes, Smetanka said Watkins probably oversees twice as many faculty members as the other two schools.
Watkins said that her responsibilities include assessing student learning in preparation of Middle States review, meeting with administration and faculty, allocating hiring needs, improving faculty development opportunities, highlighting programs for admission and marketing, working on personnel conflicts and fielding approvals in the chain of grade appeals.
“Then there’s the big picture stuff that we need to think about,” Watkins continued. “The humanities, the social sciences and the arts, these are all disciplines that we’re not quite sure of as a culture what the value is. I think we’re all convinced of that value, but we have to think how to articulate that for future generations.”
Before accepting the dean position, Watkins chaired the Honors Program at Saint Vincent and is a member of the Hume Society, having served as program director for a multi-year conference, according to an email from college president Br. Norman Hipps, O.S.B., announcing Watkins’ new position.
The email also says that Watkins has developed and implemented “strong assessment practices,” achieved greater cohesiveness in the AHSS school through new programs and policies and will have her book The Philosophical Progress of Hume’s Essays published soon.
Smetanka said Watkins is a diligent worker with a perfect background for the dean position.
“Anybody who’s talked with her knows that she has the leadership style and the personality to bring people together,” he said.
Watkins stated that a big change is anxiety-producing, especially when said change was not anticipated.
“But everybody is working very, very hard here across the administration and faculty, and the students as well, so I’m cautiously optimistic about the future,” Watkins said.