John McGreevy prepares to step down, reflects on tenure as dean of Arts and Letters
Kelli Smith | Wednesday, May 2, 2018
Ten years ago, John McGreevy made the transition from chair of the department of history to dean of the College of Arts and Letters.
The transition made him nervous, he said — he would henceforth be responsible for Notre Dame’s oldest academic college and serve as the main voice for what is now 500 faculty members, 3,000 undergraduates and over 1,000 graduate students.
“[I was] wondering if I could succeed and flourish in the role,” McGreevy said. “Because you are speaking in front of a lot of different audiences, you are playing a lot of different roles [and] you are making decisions. You can only grow used to that over time.”
McGreevy occupied the post for a decade. In February of this year, the University announced McGreevy’s decision to end his tenure as dean. His successor will be department of sociology chair Sarah Mustillo.
“It’s been a great experience,” McGreevy said. “I wasn’t a person who was chomping at the bit to become dean. I was happy to do it if asked. But I have found it a very rewarding job.”
Despite the challenges that came about through managing time, “a lot of different people” and certain personnel issues and disputes, McGreevy said he liked the day-to-day aspects of the job the most.
“I feel lucky, honestly, to have met the people that I have met in the job and to just see how deeply students and faculty and benefactors and supporters and parents and top administrators, how deeply they love Notre Dame and how hard they are working to advance the University,” he said. “I wish every faculty member could see that because it is a neat thing to see.”
McGreevy began his Notre Dame story in 1982 as an undergraduate student. After graduating in 1986 and teaching elsewhere, he joined the University faculty in 1997 and served as chair of the history department for six years and was a history professor before being asked to become dean.
“I took the job because I thought maybe I could make a difference in the role,” he said. “It is a role with a lot of influence at Notre Dame in terms of hiring and setting priorities. … You do that in collaboration, of course, with the faculty and with your colleagues and administration. And I think that’s proven to be the case — it’s been satisfying in that way.”
As dean, McGreevy said his responsibilities included raising money to support the college’s priorities, determining the allocation of resources and communicating with the administration, the departmental chairs and the University’s other colleges while advancing the educational mission of the College of Arts and Letters.
“I came in with some goals in mind but … it took a little bit of time to come up with everything,” he said. “You are changing all of the time, too. Things happen that you don’t anticipate.”
In addition to increasing the number of faculty within the college, McGreevy said changes during his time as dean include making collaborative programs with other colleges on-campus, expanding departmental space with three new buildings and raising money to assist graduate students.
Another one of his most significant contributions to the college was an ambition he had in mind as soon as he took on the role as dean — increasing the level of interest in student theses.
“We are really proud of the fact that over 40 percent of our students do a senior thesis now and that’s up from nine percent when we started 10 years ago,” he said. “I think our departments have advanced, probably the most dramatic advance has been in economics because it was really quite small.”
Getting stronger students who were more interested in undergraduate research helped the college achieve that student thesis increase, McGreevy said.
“I think it has just been a happy marriage of more ambitious and talented undergraduate helping faculty see that this could be one of their most rewarding kinds of teaching that you do, which I believe to be the case, and putting that together,” he said.
McGreevy said he feels confident Mustillo — who will take over the position July 1 — will not need much advice from him regarding the position.
“We are at a place where students are eager to come to, a place that has resources and a place where you really can do things,” he said. “And I think that’s what makes this dean’s job really attractive and I think I have said that to my successor, Sarah Mustillo — that it’s really a job where we can do interesting things.”
Though July will mark the end of McGreevy’s time as College of Arts and Letters dean, this isn’t the end of his career at Notre Dame; he said he plans to spend the next year researching and writing about global Catholicism before rejoining the faculty as a teacher and advisor.
“Seeing how people love Notre Dame — it’s very striking,” McGreevy said. “And I have no regrets whatsoever having done it. I think I will be a better faculty person because I’ve done it. … You see how strong some of our faculty are and what they do to advance their careers and advance their disciplines and it makes you want to be a little bit like them.”