A new perspective

July 29, 2015

Traffic in and out of Dean Jeff Ayres’ first-floor office in Founders Hall is steady and often outbound as he heads to meetings with departments, committees, councils and other groups that require or invite his presence. In or out of meetings, Ayres, in his own words, shapes policy, “shepherds” and supports faculty and “responds to daily needs and concerns, people popping in, things coming up, helping departments in the review process, and finding major-series lecturers.”

The daily rhythms of academic administration are different from full-time teaching and scholarship, he observes, and after a productive first year, he now has deeper appreciation for both worlds.

Keeping a foot firmly in teaching political science, which he has done at Saint Michael’s since 1998, makes him a better dean, Ayres says. He’s continued to teach Canadian politics, and team-taught a course on environmental sustainability during the spring semester followed by an academic study trip to Wales with 11 Saint Michael’s students and education Professor Jonathan Silverman for two weeks in May. “It’s important … to be in touch with how the student body may be evolving and with the challenges faculty face teaching,” he says.

When he put forth his name as a prospective candidate for dean in 2014, Ayres said, he hoped to advance “an integrative learning perspective,” which he calls “the 21st century rubric for the liberal arts.”

“It means we don’t just promote the curriculum. We promote co-curricular opportunities as a way of enriching the student experience,” he says.

Ayres points with satisfaction to specific initiatives and trends that move Saint Michael’s toward this vision. One is “the deepening internationalization on campus,” which is close to his heart as a key developer of the International Relations major that now enrolls 35 students. Saint Michael’s also recently became an official “Peace Corps Prep” site, and and recently hired faculty across departments who have connections to China, Canada, Germany and Armenia.

“It’s important to give undergraduates more direct access to this interconnected world we live in. It’s hard to imagine being successful today without being a global citizen,” Ayres says. Strengthening and growing short-term academic study trips will be part of this internationalization, he says, as will increased focus in admissions on drawing international students. Ayres is proud of a new major in environmental science, of the just-approved major in neuroscience, and of a productive strategic planning process in full swing. Ayres also devised a “course release system” to recognize meritorious faculty performance, as trustees had requested. Beginning next spring, professors can apply for releases from teaching to work on projects that benefit their careers, departments or the college.

Ayres praises the camaraderie and high morale in Founders and says he enjoys his workdays, which typically go from early morning to late evening, including productive quiet time on Saturdays in his office with its view of Mount Mansfield. He’s welcomed visiting former students, who remind him how much he misses regular interactions with students and department colleagues, he says.

Despite the responsibilities, Ayres still knows how to have fun. He found time to attend a couple of Phish concerts across the U.S. last year.

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