Leading LS&A through the pandemic
by Jan Schlain
From the June, 2020 issue
"I actually was going to be a veterinarian," says Anne Curzan, the dean of the U-M's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. "For a long time, I was quite committed to the idea that I was going to be a veterinarian, because I wanted to be James Herriot," the British vet and author.
She grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. "My dad was an attorney who spun off his own consulting business," Curzan says, "and my mother was trained as a political scientist and taught until she had children, and she raised three girls." Curzan was the middle child.
Her mother "loved being inside the Beltway and in D.C. and kind of at the heart of U.S. federal/political life," Curzan says. But she also "spent every summer of her life in Good Hart, Michigan," where Curzan's grandfather, MSU president John Hannah, had a farm.
So that was her girls' summer, too. "I learned to ride horses when I was young," Curzan says. "And James Herriot took care of horses, and I thought that was all very wonderful."
She also "played sports since I could walk. My dad loved tennis and had us playing when the racquets were bigger than we were ... I was also a rhythmic gymnast. I was very serious about that from the age of about eleven until eighteen." She says sports taught her "a lot about discipline. I think I learned a lot about grit."
A scholar, too, she was admitted to both Stanford and Yale. "I was really excited about being in California," she recalls. But "when I visited Yale, it struck me as a place where being geeky could be cool, and given that I am at heart a total geek, Yale seemed like a great place for me to be."
She entered as a math major. "I loved math, and I took the intensive first-year math course. I was one of the few women in that course and
did well." But sophomore year she took a course "on set theory that I could not master ... I had hit something in math that I couldn't get, and there was no one there who told me that I could get it ... That experience drove me out of math."
If she had it to do over again, she says, she'd double-major. Because that same year, she took a linguistics class "on the history of the English language with Marie Borroff, and I fell in love. I thought it was the coolest thing I ever studied." If you enjoy Curzan's Michigan Radio show "That's What They Say," you can thank Borroff.
After graduation, Curzan taught in Wuhan, China for two years. "I made dear, dear friends," she says, and she found her calling: learning and teaching about how English works.
Her U-M dissertation advisor, the late Richard Bailey, showed her "how linguistics could matter for real people in real time and how it matters for social justice issues." And Bailey introduced her to Geneva Smitherman, another Michigan PhD and a powerful advocate for the education of African American children.
"Her work blew me away," Curzan says. When she was awarded a collegiate professorship, she named it in Smitherman's honor.
Curzan had previously been assistant dean, and her friend John U. Bacon says he was not at all surprised when Curzan was chosen to lead the school. "It's not just that she's a superb teacher. Anne is a badass marathoner, triathlete--hard-core," he says. "But academia is clearly where her heart is."
Bacon is also a fan of Curzan's grandfather. Hannah oversaw MSU's explosive growth after World War II, chaired the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and led international efforts to alleviate hunger.
Curzan keeps a photo of him in her office "to remember his guiding principle--'In the end, it is all about people.'" If he were here now, she emails, "I think he would take very seriously the challenges and look for opportunities to make the institution stronger, as he did for MSU coming out of WWII."
"I don't care what picture you paint," Bacon says. "Nothing is going to be easy going forward." The Covid-19 pandemic devastated both the university's educational model and its finances.
When the decision was made to shut down, "we had to take over 4,000 classes in LS&A and take them remote in four days," Curzan says. "That was the faculty and the students, all of the staff, stepping up to make that possible. And they did it with generosity and grace and creativity."
Pointing to U-M president Mark Schlissel's May statement, she says that "We are cautiously optimistic that we can come back in the fall." To make that work, they'll need to rethink "how we work, and the ways in which we teach and learn.
"We're deeply committed to residential education, and we're learning a lot about both what we miss and can't do in remote places and what is possible in remote places," she says. "And so a key part of this will be reflecting on that learning and using that to build an even stronger community on campus when we come back.
"I honestly don't know what that's going to look like," she admits. "There's a version where I'm actually able to welcome people to campus because everyone's moving in. There's a version where I'm welcoming people more virtually, or entirely virtually."
But whatever form it takes, "I'm excited for the school year--the excitement for students of getting to explore classes and areas and questions that they may not have known that they wanted to explore, or questions they wanted to ask.
"I really want to get to think about what matters to them, what gives them purpose, what are their goals and aspirations, and how can we support them in getting there."
Along with her other skills, Bacon says, Curzan "could be a public intellectual. She is a great spokesperson for the liberal arts at a time when they're under attack--the inherent value of a degree in the humanities and the sciences for their own sake.
"But my very strong hunch is that she's going to be a president of a university," Bacon adds. "And if Michigan's lucky, she'll be Michigan's president."
Curzan says she's not thinking about that. Right now, she has LS&A to run.
"I care so deeply about the college," she says. "And my focus is: how do I make sure this continues to be a place where everyone can thrive?"
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