A year ago, when Eric Kaler sat through the public meet-and-greets that were the last stop before he was named president of the University of Minnesota, faculty in the audiences voiced a concern. In an era of frenzied cost-cutting, would chemical engineer Kaler protect the liberal arts?
The announcement Monday that the new president had selected a philosopher with a long record of distinguished teaching, Karen Hanson, as the University of Minnesota’s new provost was greeted as a resounding “yes.”
The news even prompted a round of applause from the loyal opposition, which had been sitting on its hands as Kaler got his feet wet.
“She has a degree in philosophy and an interest in the philosophy of the mind and in moral philosophy,” crowed Bill Gleason, U of M professor of lab medicine and pathology and the self-described “Whining Dinosaur” behind the university-focused Periodic Table blog.
VP and provost at Indiana University
Currently executive vice president and provost of Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, where she has taught for 35 years, Hanson will become Kaler’s No. 2 and the U of M’s chief academic officer. She will be the first woman to hold the post.
The university’s Board of Regents is scheduled to vote on her appointment during its meeting today and tomorrow. Assuming they approve her $390,000 salary, she will begin work in February 2012.
Hanson’s staff confirmed yesterday that, like most other ranking academics, she has been approached frequently by headhunters and search firms and has always begged off.
“For her to move at this point in her career is really significant,” said Gleason. “This woman is really tied to the U of M.”
Like her new boss, Hanson is a university alumnus, earning her B.A. in philosophy and mathematics there in 1970; her Ph.D. in philosophy was conferred by Harvard University in 1980.
Father was long-time U faculty member
Hanson’s ties to the institution run deeper than Kaler’s. Her father, Lester E. Hanson, was on the Animal Sciences faculty for more than 30 years, retiring as department head in the early 1980s, Hanson said in an interview yesterday. One of her brothers earned a degree in chemistry from the U of M; the other earned a degree in economics and a J.D.
“I know my parents would be thrilled,” she said, lamenting the fact that both died before her homecoming was announced.
Hanson joined the IU faculty in 1976. She has held several administrative posts since, but has continued to teach and to win numerous teaching awards. In addition to her appointment to the Philosophy Department, she teaches comparative literature, American studies and gender studies.
“Both President Kaler and Karen Hanson seem to have a vision for the whole university that includes a strong appreciation for the liberal arts,” said Regent’s Professor of American Studies Elaine Tyler May, a member of the U of M’s Faculty Consultative Committee. “In this most dismal of times politically, I am hopeful.”
The most important thing Hanson can do, she added, is to safeguard the university missions most at risk. “I think what we really need — really need — is leadership that puts a strong priority on research and teaching,” she said. “My brief interaction with both [Kaler and Hanson] and their public remarks make me optimistic.”
Provosts typically provide leadership in all of a university’s academic areas, from budgeting and priority-setting to student and faculty recruitment and retention. During her five years as provost in Bloomington, Ind., Hanson headed strategic initiatives aimed at strengthening IU’s global recruiting abilities, life-sciences research and research facilities, arts and humanities programming and faculty and student recruitment.
To replace Dean Tom Sullivan
Hanson will replace former U of M Law School Dean Tom Sullivan, who has held the job since 2004. Some members of the university community have suggested that during his tenure and that of former President Bob Bruininks humanities took a back seat to business partnerships and the U’s professional programs.
In remarks she made to the university’s News Service, Hanson signaled a different framework. “College is a time to prepare for a job,” she said. “Yet public research universities also play the central role in creating society’s new knowledge. Through their liberal arts mission they help sustain and advance culture. They help people have productive and meaningful lives. They help citizens learn to live with one another, express themselves civilly, and be analytic about directions of the nation.”
Janet Ericksen, who teaches at the university’s Morris campus, the coordinate campus with a liberal arts focus, called herself “especially pleased with the choice of Hanson,” particularly because of the pressure on higher education to show its programs provide job-specific training.
“Her comments about public misperceptions of the liberal arts and about how valuable education in the humanities specifically and liberal arts in general can be are encouraging,” she said. “We have to explain better why training people to be able to do lots of jobs — which a liberal arts education aims to do — not one in particular, is just as important and perhaps even more important.
“A student who has solid skills in critical thinking and writing, has flexibility and adaptability, and is comfortable with a wide array of perspectives is a good investment, as many companies have stated,” Ericksen continued.
‘Valuable companion to President Kaler’s experience’
“This kind of thinking, which Hanson seems clearly to have, will be a valuable companion to President Kaler’s experience. And that makes me more comfortable that she’ll understand and help him understand the mission of the humanities and liberal arts, on the UMTC campus as well as the coordinate campuses.”
Helping Kaler grasp the mission will be far from Hanson’s largest challenge, however. “It’s not just going to be Kaler and Hanson who can make this institution the strong institution it needs to be,” said May. “The Legislature, the citizenry — everyone needs to value this institution and put the resources there to keep it strong and vibrant.
“As good as they can be, they can’t do it alone.”