The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News September 16, 2005

Off the Cuff: Harry Hirsch

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?
I 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 was admirable.

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 important lesson.

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 fruition?
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 students?
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 believe that.


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