An Interview With Dean Dorothy Hodgson
In this very special faculty spotlight, we spoke with the outgoing dean, Dorothy Hodgson, about her career in academia, her time at Brandeis and her plans for the future. Dean Hodgson served as the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences since 2018 before retiring June 30, 2023. See more faculty interviews from the Dean's student newsletter published monthly across the academic year.
What attracted you to Brandeis University when you accepted the position of dean of the School of Arts & Sciences?
So many things attracted me to Brandeis!! As a feminist scholar and activist, I was moved by Brandeis's social justice mission, a mission that started with its very founding in 1948. Brandeis's commitment to include and support of people from all walks of life, including women, people of color and international students, also appealed to me. I know mentioning "women" may sound odd, but the University of Virginia, where I was an undergraduate, only accepted women into the college a few years before I started in the 1970s, even though it was a public university (!) I also cherish Brandeis's unique "value proposition" as both a prestigious research university and an exceptional liberal arts education, and its relatively small size — which means that I can get to know all of the full-time faculty and many of the students and staff. Finally, I love the kindness of faculty, staff and students here. Brandeis is a warm, welcoming community.
Your academic background includes a bachelor's degree in English (University of Virginia) and both a master's and PhD in anthropology (University of Michigan), along with over 30 years of anthropological work in Tanzania, East Africa. What advice do you have for students who want to pursue anthropology as a career?
I'd encourage everyone to consider pursuing an undergraduate degree in anthropology, which will prepare you well for a range of careers and a life of curiosity and learning. Cultural anthropology, my sub-field, will turn your world upside down, teach you to decenter your own worldview, critical thinking, strong writing and oral communication skills, how to formulate research questions, then gather and assess evidence to answer them, and much more. As for pursuing a career in anthropology, my best advice, whatever your degree, is to take some time out in the world after you graduate from college to work and to explore the places or issues you are interested in.
As you note, my undergraduate degree was in English — I never had an undergraduate course in anthropology at UVa. But after working as a paralegal in D.C. for two years, and quickly realizing I did not want to go to law school and become a lawyer, I quit my job, traveled to Tanzania for three months and stayed for three years working in community development. I loved my work, but had many questions about what we were doing and why — which led me to graduate school in anthropology and eventually to my first job as an assistant professor at Rutgers University, where I spent my career before joining Brandeis in August 2018.
What skills and knowledge obtained from your time in anthropology helped you succeed in higher education administration?
At the heart of cultural anthropology is a curiosity about and empathy for people from different walks of life. I am a people-person, a problem-solver and a program-builder. I have always drawn on my skills as a cultural anthropologist, including building rapport, prizing relationships with people, listening, empathy, curiosity and respect for differences, in my many leadership positions. I value consultation, collaboration, communication, collegiality and transparency. My style is warm but direct, supportive but critical when necessary.
In 2020, we experienced an unprecedented historical event that is still impacting higher education three years later. As dean of the School of Arts & Sciences, what do you think were some of the biggest challenges (logistical or otherwise) that you had to face during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how did you overcome them?
Ugh. COVID. The toughest part of the pandemic for all of us was the beginning of the shutdown — when no one knew what was happening and we were making decisions in the midst of anxiety, uncertainty and often conflicting advice. Fortunately, we faced the challenges as a collective: long Zoom meetings with my team, faculty, the Provost, staff, students and others to weigh options, share information and ideas, and decide on next steps. I am proud of how we handled the pandemic at Brandeis and managed to reopen the campus in a manner that reduced risks for everyone in our community but still embraced our strengths as a residential liberal arts college: masking, the regular provision of free PCR testing, physical distancing requirements (as an anthropologist I never liked or used the term "social" distancing), and constant sharing of data and information. On a personal level, to keep myself strong in a time of crisis management, I sought solace and strength from my husband, friends, and family; long outdoor walks and hikes; reading novels; and watching light, funny shows like Ted Lasso.
Your term is scheduled to end June 30, 2023. What do you plan to do next?
Sleep. Hike. Sleep some more. Bike. Travel (including a return trip to Tanzania after many years). Spend time with my family. Write. Frankly, I first have to clear my head of "dean" work before I can truly figure out my next steps. My husband, Rick Schroeder (who will be retiring from teaching in anthropology and environmental studies at Brandeis), and I have bought a house in Carrboro, North Carolina, to be closer to family and friends, enjoy some warmer weather, be near an academic community (UNC and Duke), and explore another part of the country.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
As I tell everyone, it has been an honor and privilege to serve and lead as dean of the School of Arts & Sciences. Brandeis will always be a part of my heart and I hope to cross paths with many of you in your future journeys.