When the dean of the Honors College, Charlie Slavin, passed away July 30, it rocked the University of Maine community in a way that will be felt for a long time to come.
While the Honors College was left devastated in the wake of Slavin’s passing, the continuity of the program he tended dearly needed to be kept on the correct path.
Just over a month later, UMaine Senior Vice President of Student Affairs and Provost Susan Hunter announced Dr. David Gross was named as interim dean of the Honors College.
“First I must say, it’s been [a little over] a week since I was offered this interim position,” Gross said. “My first reaction to Charlie’s passing was one of shock and grief. He certainly had a huge footprint in the university community as a whole and in the Honors College.”
“The idea of honors at Maine without Charlie Slavin was unthinkable.”
Gross’s journey to this position is certainly not a typical one. After teaching English for 32 years at the University of Oklahoma and working in an administrative role in their Honors College, Gross — a graduate of Orono High School — came back to Maine, hoping to settle down and retire.
“To be honest, there was a definite hesitation as to whether I wanted to take this on,” Gross said. “Well into retirement when I anticipated gradually working less and ended up working more, there was definite hesitation. But I think my years as administrator and teaching honor’s courses at Oklahoma had prepared me well and I was confident.”
‘I can’t be Charlie’
The period of time between Slavin’s abrupt passing to the present has been an emotional whirlwind for all involved.
“We did nothing the week Charlie died,” Hunter said. “The week of [August] 22nd the first thing from an operational standpoint was I asked dean [of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences] Jeff Hecker to take on signature authority for the Honors College if anything truly had to be signed. This has been a very, very difficult month.”
In late August, Hunter sat down with the honors faculty to discuss the next step in determining an interim dean and eventually a replacement.
“Really, the key elements [for the interim position] were somebody very grounded in honors, so it would be someone the honors community would immediately see as one of their own, but also someone with administrative experience, because honors is about an 800-student unit — it’s not a lemonade stand,” Hunter said.
Hunter mentioned that the honors faculty didn’t bring up any specific names in the meeting, but she soon began consulting with a number of faculty members on who should take on the interim role.
“I made about 10 or so phone calls to people within honors and had conversations, and to be honest, Dr. Gross’s name kept coming up over and over again,” Hunter said. “This is a horrible situation that we’re faced with but we ended up lucky with someone. He was very willing to take it on for a year. He does not want to continue on, but he’ll bridge us to that point. [Gross] was somebody that Charlie felt very highly of, reached out and consulted because he had some administrative honors experience that Charlie would be tapping into.”
While Gross admitted to hesitancy about accepting the position, it came down to the passion that grew for the college he’s worked for over the past seven years. He recognizes he can’t build the relationships that Slavin developed for more than two decades at the University in a single year, but Gross is eager to continue the path that Slavin set the Honors College on.
“I can’t be Charlie. I have to be myself, and one way to think of the Honors College is if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Gross said. “I’m proud of this college. I’ve been teaching in it for seven years and I love it. I think the students are overwhelmingly capable and enthusiastic and hardworking.”
Gross plans on improving certain areas of the college that he’s capable of in his short time in the position, but isn’t about to make any sweeping changes.
“There are some few things I think I can help improve, but especially as an interim dean, it would be inappropriate to make wholesale changes and like I said they’re not necessary,” Gross said.
Gross is still working on getting acclimated to his new position. Going from a part-time preceptor to dean of the Honors College is quite a leap, especially for someone who was anticipating gradually working less.
“I never dreamt that well into retirement I would have a full-time job. Driving up from Hampden every day, it’s been a big change for me,” Gross said. “It’s totally different being a classroom teacher than being an administrator. It’s a whole different world. There’s this constant activity either via email or in person. You have a minimum of that as a teacher but your life isn’t built around it. I kept a minimal daybook as a professor to remind myself when I had a doctor’s appointment. Now it’s a bunch of stuff every day.”
The one glaring weakness Gross sees in himself for his new post is his lack of relationships around campus. Being part-time for the past seven years, Gross only came to know the students and faculty in the Honors College, whereas Slavin’s extensive web of relationships stretched across the campus.
“What I view as my main handicap in this job, is my professional career wasn’t spent at the University of Maine,” Gross said. “I don’t know people around campus like I wish I did. That’s going to be a steep learning curve for me. Since I’ve been a preceptor I just teach my courses in Colvin or Balentine and that was it. Beyond the Honor’s faculty, I don’t know many people that well.”
Finding the replacement
Hunter made no mistake that a national search would begin to take shape immediately. However, as national searches usually do, it could take the entire school year to find a replacement.
“The president [of the University, Paul Ferguson,] and I felt very strongly that we would want to do a national search,” Hunter said. “Our Honors College has a very good reputation. Charlie was very established in the honors’ community nationwide. We have a good reputation and we think we’ll attract a strong pool of candidates.”
Although it is a national search, that doesn’t mean any administration at UMaine is prohibited from applying.
“Obviously if somebody from here wished to apply for that position they will be absolutely welcomed,” Hunter said. “A national search doesn’t preclude a local candidate.”
A committee featuring members of faculty and administrators will be formed to assist with the application process.
“The committee will do screening, job descriptions and probably have a poly-communications interview to narrow the pool and cut down to three or four to bring for on-campus visits,” Hunter said.
As for who will chair the committee, both Hunter and Ferguson have an idea of who it may be, but aren’t ready to announce it.
“We just obviously started. I’ve talked to President [Ferguson] and we’re both of the same mind when it comes to who might chair this — we’re not announcing it yet,” Hunter said.
When asked what the committee should look for to replace Slavin, Gross was detailed.
“They need to find someone with commitment to the honor’s endeavor — a profound, core commitment to liberal education. That is to say learning for its own intrinsic values. There’s precious opportunity college students have to live what Socrates called the examined life. He’s famous for saying ‘the unexamined life is a life without value.’ Liberal education, when it’s working the way it should, fosters and cultivates and nurtures that kind of academic intellectual inquiry for itself, not to acquire credential, not a means to an end.”
Gross also wants the Honors College to continue the program’s strenuous prerequisites needed for students to graduate from the Honors College, specifically the honors thesis.
“It’s very much on the model of a master’s thesis,” Gross said, implying that completion of the Honors College is an excellent advantage if one is interested in graduate school.
Honors College preceptor Mark Heggarty echoed the sentiment, that the foundation of a liberal arts program should stay in place once a permanent dean is hired.
“I think it’s the commitment to the honors curriculum and to the faculty of a critical thinking, research-based liberal arts program and I think that’s going to continue,” Heggarty said. “Our new leader has to mimic that. There’s a strong undergraduate research component to the Honors College and I can’t imagine we’d give up on that.”
Heggarty also mentioned Slavin’s focus on sciences and math in the honors curriculum and believes the new dean should share some of those qualities.
“We have a lot of [honors] students from the science departments. We have strong relationships with some of the genomic programs in the state. There’s real collaboration with the sciences,” Heggarty said. “Charlie did a good job, along with some of the core faculty in the Honors College of reminding us of the essentially of science in our curriculum.”
With the shock still too new, there hasn’t been much decided on how Slavin will live on at UMaine, other than a celebration of life Sept. 14 in the Collins Center for the Arts from 5-7 p.m.
Both Gross and Heggarty believe that something will be instituted to remind future students of Slavin’s legacy, but what that will be is still undetermined.
“I think it would be really great if we were able to formally recognize Charlie through an endowed position in the Honors College or a program,” Heggarty said. “It’s surreal what happened. Charlie had a big impact. I don’t think most of us impact an institution to the same extent. It’s sad that people aren’t going to know Charlie.”