Roar, Lion, Roar: An Interview with Dean Valentini
You've likely seen him walking around campus in a shockingly blue suit (the shade, of course, is Pantone 292). If not, you may have received one of his thoughtful emails signed Roar, Lion(s), Roar! I have been a fan of Dean Valentini (Deantini, as he is affectionately known by students) since the first, but not last, time he greeted me warmly on campus. As his tenure as Dean comes to an end, I asked Dean Valentini if he would sit down with me to share some reflections on his experience as Dean, his future, and Columbia College. The following conversation took place on April 29th, 2022.
Daniel Meadvin: I really appreciate you agreeing to be interviewed by me. I thought that with this being your last semester here, it would be a great opportunity to get you into the pages of the current before you leave. I’ve prepared a couple of questions and then we can see where it goes. Ready to go?
Dean Valentini: I am.
DM: I’ll start off with a softball. Well, some maybe would consider it a harder question, but you can decide. What would you say is your favorite piece of literature, music, or art that’s included in the Core Curriculum and do you have a favorite Core Curriculum class?
DV: Well, I would say Contemporary Civilization is my favorite, but for a specific reason. In the next year, while I’m on leave after being Dean, I’m going to try to educate myself, so that I can teach Contemporary Civilization. So, it’s my favorite in that I’m doing to devote a lot of time to it. In the broader sense, I won’t pick a favorite because it’s very important to me that students recognize that all parts of the Core are connected, there’s a unity to it, and I don’t really think about it as separate parts. In my mind, all the parts are connected, so it’d be like asking which of the beams that hold up a building is the most important. Well, they’re all important. I wouldn’t want to say one part is more important to me than another, and for the same reason, I wouldn’t pick anything from a particular part of the Core as my favorite. I think they’re all, basically, part of a unity. I like them all, I enjoy them all, and I engage them all. Although, students can pick favorites.
DM: Since I started here, you’ve been at the forefront of a storytelling initiative called My Columbia College Journey. And I’m sure any of our readers who have spent some time waiting for the Hamilton elevator are familiar with that initiative. So, I wanted to continue by asking you a little bit about your Columbia College journey. How did you first become a part of the College, how did you become Dean?
DV: I will start by saying, I hope My Columbia College Journey is familiar to a broader range of students than just those who end up waiting for the Hamilton elevator. We make a concerted effort to make it visible, apparent, clear, understandable to all students, because it’s really important not just to me, but to everyone in the College, that students are aware of this, understand it, and embrace it. I’ve been a professor at Columbia for thirty-one years now. I’ve been involved with the College for one way or another for most of those; at the very beginning, I was focused on my research lab and doing a lot to develop that, but I’ve been on pretty much every faculty committee in the College. I was the one who developed the Science Research Fellows program, which started before I was Dean. The College has been very important to me for a very long time. I’ve taught thousands, and that’s not an exaggeration, of Columbia College students; at one point, before I became Dean, I had taught 25% of all the students who were in the College that year, because I had taught General Chemistry several years in a row, which is taken by a lot of students. I became Dean of Columbia College by a very unusual route. My predecessor resigned and then was fired in the space of twenty-four hours, just before the beginning of the fall semester 2011, and so the College was without a Dean. So, I was asked by the President to be the interim Dean, which means I didn’t have a continuing appointment, it was an appointment to establish continuity. During the time I was interim Dean, I was recommended by a search committee to the President, and he accepted that recommendation. In June of 2012, I became, I guess you say, the real Dean. Bwog ran a headline at the time, “Deantini is Dean Forever.” It’s been a very important journey, and I have had to focus on developing, refining several of the Core Competencies, which did not exist when I became Dean. I was asked to participate in a committee on the instruction of medical students, and I got the idea that we should focus our students’ attention on becoming someone, acquiring a set of perspectives, abilities, understandings, and skills that would be important to success in life no matter what you do. Four years later, we came up with My Columbia College Journey.
DM: One thing I remember from convocation and that I’ve heard from you a few times since then is the concept of Beginner’s Mind. You’re about to make a big transition in your life. Can you tell me about how you’re approaching that with Beginner’s Mind?
DV: Beginner’s Mind has been important to me for far longer a time than I’ve been Dean, ever since I read Suzuki’s Book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. In the first lecture of every class I teach, I emphasize the importance of Beginner’s Mind, because I think it’s crucial for success in science, for success in any classroom. It’s very very important in the college in terms of, also, interactions with one another––not making assumptions or snap judgements. People are very complex, and everyone should make an attempt to get to know people in their full dimensionality. I’m certainly approaching the future with Beginner’s Mind. I’ve had two, what I’d call, job offers. One of them, which I won’t reveal the details, was offered to me by someone who knows me who was a little tentative in describing it to me, because they felt I might think it wasn’t an appropriate offer for someone who had just finished being Dean of Columbia College, but I congratulated the person for using Beginner’s Mind and allowing me to think about a particular opportunity I hadn’t thought about. Broadly, I’m interested in things I can do that are intellectual, scholarly, in which my time is devoted to those things and not administrative things. I loved being Dean, but I’m not interested in seeking a position that’s similar to this at another university. People have asked if I’m interested in being President of this or Provost of that, but I don’t really want to do that. I want to occupy my time with other things: I have an idea for a book; there’s another class I’d like to develop; I’d like to work on the integration of the science curriculum between Chemistry, Physics, and Biology. Things that are more about scholarship.
DM: In President Bollinger’s email announcing this would be your last year as Dean, some of your successes he mentioned were the Core to Commencement fundraising campaign, the Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights, and the Live Well | Learn Well program. A lot of these fit into a more administrative category. In addition to those grander developments, are there any quieter, humbler successes of yours as Dean that are important to you.
DV: Those did involve ideas, they are intellectual, but they are efforts that engage a lot of people to achieve a goal. My role in Live Well | Learn Well was primary organizing people; we had fourteen different working groups for Live Well | Learn Well, and each working group had many people in it. In Core to Commencement we have hundreds of people who are helping us to raise money, and it was my role to inspire them. Now I want to focus on things that aren’t just my idea, it’s my project and it doesn’t involve this grand organizing of a lot of people. In which case, most of your effort is organizing people and not actually your own work. I’d like to do things that are my own work. There’s very little I’ve done as Dean that is like that. Everything we’ve done involved other people. One thing you could say is that it was very important to me to develop a particular kind of culture within the staff of Columbia College. A culture of recognition that students and faculty are the reason we’re all here and that success is defined by the students and faculty whom we support in one way or another. I’ve said to them two things. Every morning when they wake up they should say “I am Columbia College,” this wasn’t a program like Holder or Live Well | Learn Well, it’s quieter. And no matter how well we think we’re doing in Columbia College, we should follow this little ditty my mother used to tell me when my age was measured in single digits: “good better best, never let it rest, until your good is better and your better is best.” That wasn’t a program, it was quieter in that sense, and I just did it. In my role as Dean, which is like chief executive of the college, I conveyed to the staff of the college how I felt they should engage with their work. That wasn’t very public, but it was mine. I didn’t consult anyone; I just did it.
DM: I’ve heard around campus concerns from some students that the ratio of the university administrator to professors is too high. How would you respond to these concerns?
DV: One has to address that at two different levels. Administration within the College and within the university at large. I can’t really comment on the latter, but I can comment within the College. We’ve certainly added people in the category of administrators, which means they’re not instructional staff. We have a Director of Student Wellness. We didn’t have a Director of Student Wellness when I started as Dean. Is that person an administrator? Yeah. There are only two titles you can have: an officer of administration or an officer of instruction. I remain an officer of instruction; I happen to be also appointed as Dean. The people who are professional staff at the college who are not members of any union are officers of administration, all of them, no matter what they’re doing. The Director of Student Wellness is an administrator. The person who supports students in the Core Curriculum is an administrator. All of those people are working on behalf of students and faculty all the time, and we couldn’t function to support the success of students and faculty without them. I don’t know how many such positions there are now compared to when I started as Dean, but we’ve addressed a lot of issues since then. Live Well | Learn Well was about student wellbeing; we have more people focused on student wellbeing than we did in 2011 when I became Dean. We’ve had a massive increase in applications to Columbia College; that takes more people to actually deal with those applications, so it’s possible there are more people working with admissions now. All the people with the title administrator deal with functions directly connected to students. Even people working in the financial office, they’re responsible for making sure students on work study are paid and appointed properly. I don’t think within the College there is any issue; I don’t know enough about the overall administration of the university to comment on it there, which is not to say I think there is a problem, but I don’t understand it well enough to have an opinion.
DM: Could I sum up your answer fairly as: there are positions that count as administration that you might not think of as administrative, and it takes more to keep all this running than you think.
DV: Yeah. I asked students once when I was at lunch in John Jay, “when you refer to the administration, who do you mean?” And a student said, “well, we mean you and the President.” Well, are the Dean of Student Life or the Director of Student and Family support administrators? Yeah, but what is the function that they serve? How do they serve students? There are very very few positions in Columbia College that do not directly serve students and faculty, and the others indirectly serve students and faculty.
DM: We’re at the fun part, so I get to ask you a couple of fun questions.
DM: Joe’s or Blue Java?
DM: Any must take courses before graduation? Not including the Core Curriculum.
DV: Energy and Energy Conservation taught by Professor Valentini.
DM: Favorite place on campus to just sit down and take it all in?
DV: Um… Steps of Low Library.
DM: I’m partial to the sixth floor of Butler.
DV: Oh, yes. That’s very nice. My wife, who was a graduate student, wrote her thesis in Butler. She has an attachment to it. But yes, I like the steps of Low Library because students sit there/
DM: If you had to fulfill the PE requirement, what classes do you think you would take?
DM: What about the language requirement?
DM: Are you teaching next year?
DV: I’ll teach my Energy and Energy Conservation class next spring, and I’ll be developing another class that I want to teach as well.
DM: Does that have any prerequisites?
I finished by asking Dean Valentini if he was up for a bit of a challenge. I showed him an unmarked color swatch of Pantone 292, which he is well known for sporting, alongside one of the very similar Pantone 284. I asked Dean Valentini to pick Pantone 292 from the pair.
He considered his options for about ten seconds before making his selection.
'Deantini' got it right.
//DANIEL MEADVIN is a Junior in Columbia College and Editor-in-Chief at The Current. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.