The College’s new dean, Heidi Bostic, discusses the critical role the liberal arts play at UNH and beyond.

Thursday, September 1, 2016
Picture of Heidi

Dean Heidi Bostic assumed leadership of the College of Liberal Arts this summer, on June 27. After just a few months on the job, Bostic — energetic and optimistic — has taken the pulse of the College and is developing exciting initiatives in consultation with faculty. Most are too early for prime time discussion, but the guiding philosophy behind them is clear:  the liberal arts are central to all learning at the University of New Hampshire and crucial for addressing the grand challenges of our times.

Bostic brings to the College many years of experience in public and private higher education as a faculty member and administrator. Most recently, she was professor of French and the inaugural director of interdisciplinary programs at Baylor University’s College of Arts and Sciences. She also served as chair of Modern Languages and Cultures, Baylor’s largest academic department. With a doctorate from Purdue, Bostic has published scholarship spanning eighteenth-century French literature, contemporary feminist theory, narrative studies and the role of the liberal arts. In this interview with The College Letter, Bostic discusses the role of liberal arts at UNH and beyond.

The College Letter (TCL): What inspired you to want to lead the College of Liberal Arts at UNH?

Heidi Bostic (HB): The short answer is the mission of the place and the quality of the people. UNH is a land-, space- and sea-grant institution that takes seriously its responsibility to serve the people of the state, the nation and beyond. Along with that mission, there's a deep-seated commitment to interdisciplinary work and engaging grand challenges — for example, the sustainability of the seacoast region. Related to that is a commitment to serving students who may not otherwise have access to an education and to ensuring that the research and teaching we do is relevant to students’ lives. And the quality of the faculty, staff and students here is simply superb.

TCL: What are the qualities you possess that will make you an effective leader for the College?

HB: I'm eager to listen to other people and I get a lot of satisfaction in facilitating other people's success. I like to help people come together to solve problems and to achieve things together that we couldn't do separately. I'm also willing to take some risks and try something new. And I’m aware of broader trends in higher education and society and the kinds of accountability that we’re called to think about. What is it that we do? How does it serve the world? The fact that I’ve learned and worked at a variety of institutions is helpful in this regard. I’ve been at a small liberal arts college, a regional state university, a large private research institution and other large land grants. I’ve studied in France. I've taught in Chile. So I have a broad perspective about the landscape.

TCL: Over the course of your career, what achievement are you most proud of?

HB: In leadership roles, very little of what we accomplish is something attributable just to us. It’s a team effort. That said, I'm proud of the mentoring I've done with faculty, staff and students: having some difficult conversations in certain instances, helping faculty to better understand what they need to do to succeed, mentoring students, working with graduate students and having them go from very unsure, nervous, maybe first-generation students on to Ph.D. work. That's really very satisfying for me.  

TCL: Your academic background is in French language and literature. What drew you to that field?

HB: Like most of us in higher ed, it comes down to having excellent teachers. It started in high school when I fell in love with French language, culture, history and art. In graduate school, I had a wonderful professor of 18th-century literature. I clicked with the style and social awareness in the literature, which was trying to do some good in the world. Interestingly, I have at least three colleagues nationally who are scholars of the French 18th century who are now deans, so perhaps it's something about the spirit of Enlightenment, that fomenting of democracy through what are called institutions of sociability, such as cafés and salons, where there was discourse and sharing of ideas and creating solutions in a collaborative environment. I really think it is similar to being a dean.

TCL: As you have familiarized yourself with the College in recent months, what do you perceive to be the strengths of the College?

HB: There are many. I have to say it’s been such an adventure already. I’ve been to an archaeological dig site. I’ve worn a hardhat to tour a campus building that’s under construction. I’ve been to the storage facility for the Museum of Art and seen the fantastic collections there. I’ve been spending a lot of my time in faculty department chairs’ offices in about ten different buildings, and with our center and program directors, going all over campus. What I’ve come away with is that there is incredible talent and commitment on the part of our faculty and staff. What has struck me the most is the positive energy of people. They are so excited to share with me what’s been going on in their departments, research centers and programs. They’ve achieved so much through really creative and imaginative means. We have scholars making a huge impact in their field. We have folks publishing acclaimed books and articles in top-tier journals. They’re securing sizable grants to let them do their research, and they’re involving undergraduates. They’re working across departments and colleges. They’re getting out into the world, which is that land-, sea- and space-grant mission. They are publishing op-eds in The New York Times, carrying out musical or theater performances, organizing art exhibits and combating violence. They’re giving invited talks and mentoring students for internships, and on and on. I’ve been impressed by the range of engaged activity going on in the College.

TCL: What are some of the immediate priorities for attention that have emerged?

HB: One is telling our story because liberal arts is so large and diverse that we need to tell a succinct story that summarizes who we are, what we do and the kind of impact that we produce. We need to make sure that our programs are not well-kept secrets. We can continue to develop and strengthen connections with colleagues across campus and beyond. We can continue to work on extending the reach of the liberal arts out into the world so we can highlight our role in addressing grand challenges. Coupled with that, as part of the Celebrate 150 events and the public launch of the Campaign for UNH, we need to keep working with supporters of the College to enable students to do the wonderful things that we know they can do, like getting the resources in place so that more students can afford to come to UNH, study abroad, pursue internships and research, and engage in the wider community.

TCL: What are the pressing educational needs of students today and how should the College respond to those needs? 

HB: We need to provide students with roadmaps and make sure that they are aware of all of the opportunities and options available to them. I'm delighted that UNH is paying more attention to career and professional success, engaging with students as whole human beings, helping them think about their life's work. To me that's much broader than just a narrow vocational training. It's not just about the first job you're going to get out of college, although that’s very important, it’s also thinking about your life's work. What kind contribution do you want to make and how can UNH help connect you to those opportunities. The current generation of students in particular is interested in thinking beyond themselves about what their lives mean and what they can contribute to the wider society. That's exciting because their education is not just a private good — not just something good for them as individuals — but a public good. That’s what a public university is all about: how can education serve the society, how can we help students engage as thoughtful citizens and neighbors, and how can their education help that happen?

TCL: What skills and qualities do you see liberal arts graduates bringing to the workforce and the broader society?

HB: In 2013 and 2015, the Association of American Colleges and Universities surveyed employers to find out what they look for in their employees. Their findings echo what we in the liberal arts know very well — that a broad and deep liberal arts education prepares students for work and life. Employers said they want to hire recent graduates who have a demonstrated ability to think critically, who can communicate clearly and who can solve complex problems. Employers care more about those things than they do about the particular major the student may have pursued in college. They want students who demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity. They want students with intercultural skills who embrace diversity. They want students who can continue to learn on the job. These kinds of skills are exactly those that liberal arts graduates bring to the workforce. Recently, I attended the 2016 Social Innovation Internship Showcase on campus. A good half of the students were either majors or minors in the liberal arts. These students had spent their summers working with socially conscious businesses, either for-profit or not-for-profit organizations, doing incredible and important work. The students gave presentations about their internships, and the employers themselves were in the audience and testified to the impacts. Many of the students have been hired as part-time employees for the fall and some who had just graduated got full-time jobs with these businesses. It was a testimony to the ways in which liberal arts students at UNH are prepared to translate what they learn on campus into the workforce and make a positive difference such that employers are clamoring to hire them.

TCL: What role do you see alumni playing in the life of the College?

HB: I’ve already had a chance to meet some of our alumni, and they’re absolutely fantastic and committed, and they love UNH. One reason why they love UNH is because of the wonderful teaching that goes on here. Many alumni have talked to me about certain teachers who changed their lives and really made a difference, who saw talent in them. So, alumni can help in lots of ways. They can be mentors to our students and help them as they think about transitioning to their life after college. Alumni have come back to UNH to give invited talks in courses. We have wonderful alumni on our development board in the College of Liberal Arts that my predecessor Dean Ken Fuld started. Our alumni are also our most crucial donors. They enable us to launch all kinds of wonderful programs for students and support student scholarships. Alumni can contribute in other ways, too, by remaining engaged and sharing their expertise with students. I would like to make sure that alumni who are in a position to hire recent graduates are among the ones coming back for the career fairs. I really hope that a lot of alumni will be part of the Celebrate 150 activities on campus this year.

TCL: Projecting five or ten years ahead, what are the distinguishing features of a successful College of Liberal Arts at UNH?

HB: A lot of that is going to be continuing on the path we’re already on, which is excellence in research, excellence in teaching and excellence in service. And enabling students to work alongside faculty and be co-creators in some of those activities. Beyond that, I think that success will mean that the liberal arts are interwoven into every corner of this campus, because the liberal arts are really the foundation for everything else that students do. That could mean more dual majors or cognates or minors. Our students should be involved with the Entrepreneurship Center. The achievements of liberal arts should be recognized. We will continue to foster a respectful, healthy and inclusive environment for students, faculty and staff, meaning that we will hire the best and the brightest and recruit the best and the brightest students. We will have crafted our story in a way that other people will hear, and we won't have to be the only ones telling it. If you can have a clear and convincing narrative and repeat it often enough, other people start to do the telling for you.

TCL: What is one thing about you our readers might be surprised to learn?

HB: One thing that comes to mind is that I really like contemporary indie alternative music that's popular on college radio stations such as WUNH. I've discovered the 3S Artspace in Portsmouth and have been a pretty regular audience member at many of the national acts coming through. Sometimes in the afternoon I have to drink coffee in order to stay up late enough to go to a show that starts at 9 p.m. on a weeknight! I love being in the presence of that kind of talent —people so devoted to their craft.

TCL: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

HB: A theme that’s much on my mind is how the liberal arts can engage in responding to the grand challenges of our age. The liberal arts have so much to offer every aspect of our society. We teach students skills, abilities and aptitudes they can bring out into the world to make the world a better place. One of the things I find heartening is the incredible team work and spirit among the deans of the other colleges here at UNH. They all understand and embrace the centrality of the liberal arts and are eager to partner with us on programs and initiatives that will enable the development of these skills and abilities in more students.

I also want to add that one of the wonderful things about the College of Liberal Arts right now is the incredible legacy of my predecessors, including Ken Fuld who just stepped down and the associate deans who worked with him. And the team in place now, the associate deans, faculty fellow, and all our staff members in the College — it's an unbelievably talented team and that really makes all the difference. No leader can achieve much on his or her own; it’s about engaging everybody in the shared effort where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


Photo by Perry Smith.

September 2016