Harry Hirsch is the new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. As a
political scientist, Hirsch has taught at Harvard and the University of
California, San Diego. Most recently, he served as the G. Theodore Mitau
Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Macalaster College before coming
to Oberlin on July 1.
What are your first impressions of the Oberlin College community?
think Oberlin is a wonderful place. I’m not sure faculty who have
been here a long time, or students who aren’t familiar with other
campuses, realize how exceptional it is—how serious the intellectual
climate is, across the campus, and how close student-faculty relationships
are. It’s unusual.
What do you feel is your most important responsibility as Dean of the
College of Arts and Sciences?
I think my first
responsibility is to the faculty—to make sure they have the tools
they need to do what they are expected to do, to make sure they are treated
with respect by the institution. And to help recruit and retain the best
possible faculty across the board.
How have your previous professional experiences at Harvard and
the University of California, San Diego prepared you to undertake your
obligations at Oberlin?
Every institution is different, of course. I
think my years at Harvard gave me an appreciation for what truly exceptional
students are like—and I think Oberlin students are truly
exceptional. UC San Diego is a huge institution, and being there
helped me understand how important class size can be. The experience
of students there—large lectures, semester after semester—is very
different from the experience of students here. I’m convinced
that small class size is crucial to the educational experience, to the kind
of expectations students develop and faculty members develop. And of
course UCSD is right on the ocean, so I learned how to surf. I think
we should add surfing to the athletic department.
How do you view the collective student, faculty, and administration
response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?
I think our response so far
has been what one would expect of Oberlin—serious, meaningful,
socially conscious. I was terribly impressed that so many students
showed up at the forum last week. That wouldn’t have happened at a
lot of schools. And President Dye’s quick action to help Dillard
Who has influenced you the most?
I had an extraordinary mentor when I
was a member of the junior faculty at Harvard—Judith Shklar, a
well-known political theorist. I think she taught me a great deal about what it
means to be a scholar and a teacher. She was born in Latvia, and she
and her family escaped the Nazis at the last minute at the beginning of
World War Two; she was very young at the time. She understood in her
bones that politics is a matter of life and death, which we saw in
New Orleans—people died because the government response was slow
and stupid. And having escaped with her life, Professor Shklar also
had this unusual combination of complete realism about human nature
and joy about the possibilities of knowledge—realism without
pessimism. It’s an unusual combination. And she was
brilliant. She could demolish an argument faster than anyone
I’ve ever seen. She taught me you can disagree with
someone totally and still like them, respect them. That’s an
What do you look forward to the most in the upcoming academic year?
Do you have any broad institutional goals you’d like to see come to
I’m going to teach a January term course; I’m looking
forward to that. This is the first September in a long time I
haven’t been in the classroom. It’s very strange. I
think it’s crucial that we begin as quickly as possible to implement
the Strategic Plan that was adopted last year. And I’d like to
do something about classes with long waiting lists; my office has begun
working on that, and we’ve been able to add some sections in some courses.
Is there any piece of advice you’d offer to incoming
Take at least two courses just for the fun of it, sometime
in your four years. Learn a foreign language even if you
don’t like the idea; you’ll be glad later. And
don’t be afraid to make mistakes. As my grandmother used to
say, if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. I really