“I’m your black-Jewish-Irish-Catholic-Jehovah’s Witness dean!” a smiling Aaron Dworkin told an audience of incoming freshmen at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. The kids laughed and clapped.

The orientation session last September was a transitional moment for Dworkin, too. The U-M music grad (bachelor’s 1997, master’s 1998) had been in the school’s top job less than two months. “I’m a little nervous, like you guys,” he told them.

Dworkin, forty-five, had no background in academic administration. Until returning to Michigan, he’d spent his entire professional career at the Sphinx Organization, the Detroit-based nonprofit he founded while still a student in 1996. At Sphinx, he had ten full-time employees and a $4.4 million budget. As music school dean, he oversees 150 permanent faculty, 101 staff, and a budget of $49 million.

Nationally respected in the world of classical music, Sphinx is best known for its annual Sphinx Competition, which offers large cash awards and performance opportunities to young minority musicians. Started in Dworkin’s home and now based in the Renaissance Center (courtesy of General Motors), Sphinx hosts two in-house orchestras, offers a summer academy, and provides some free violin instruction to urban elementary schools. A survey showed that in a recent ten-year period, every African American hired at a “top-tier” U.S. symphony had some Sphinx connection.

Dworkin’s spacious North Campus office holds not a single book or, as far, as I can tell, a sheet of paper. A laptop rests on a handsome desk behind the small conference table where we are seated. Tall, with narrow glasses, Dworkin creates a California effect. His short-sleeved blue shirt and tan pants are natural fabric; he sports an ear stud and a necklace composed of narrow silver bars. (In more formal settings, he favors silky, dark suits, but no ties.) A couple of people told me meetings with him are typically brief and extremely focused, and he’s squeezed me into a summer schedule that includes several weeks in London and Paris with his family, but he appears unhurried.

Dworkin’s chic is matched by an easy, flowing enthusiasm. As a U-M violin student, he caught the attention of dean Paul Boylan, who encouraged him in launching what became Sphinx. Learning that James Wolfensohn, then president of the World Bank, was an amateur cellist, Dworkin wrote to ask for a donation; Wolfensohn responded with a check for $10,000. When he opened the envelope, Dworkin writes in his 2011 autobiography, Uncommon Rhythm, “I started crying.”

That donation was soon followed by others, including $40,000 from the U-M president’s office. By 1998, Dworkin and his then-wife–in the book, he gives her the pseudonym “Sherrie”–had cobbled together enough funds to launch the first Sphinx competition.

Dworkin swiftly built Sphinx’s reputation, lining up support from famous musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, and soon was giving interviews to national media. Framed newspaper and magazine articles about him adorn his office’s waiting room. In 2005, he was awarded a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. (Though he and “Sherrie” had divorced by then, he gave her 10 percent of the award.) The year after that, Newsweek named him one of fifteen “people who make America great.”

“The force of his personality and passion made the organization stand out on a national level,” says Dworkin’s friend Rick Sperling, who runs the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit. “He has lived the experience he is promoting–classical music has had such an incredible impact on his life.”

While opinions vary on why blacks and Latinos have been slow to break into the top ranks of classical music, Dworkin insists the largest single factor is that “orchestras have not treated diversity and inclusion as a priority.” He says that while every major corporation has a diversity officer, “there isn’t a single orchestra” that has one.

With a slight smile, the dean recalls how, when he used to lecture people representing orchestras or universities about the importance of diversity in music, they would respond, “Easy for you to say!” Now he’s in their position himself: “I am at the big institution!”

With 15 percent underrepresented minorities, SMTD’s student body is already diverse. To keep it that way, Dworkin has hired its first “diversity inclusion officer,” lawyer Freyja Harris.

Dworkin is “a rock star among deans at the U-M campus,” says University Musical Society president Ken Fischer, a Sphinx board member. Former dean Christopher Kendall built SMTD’s strength in chamber music. Dworkin shone a spotlight on it by creating a chamber music competition called “M-Prize” with an unheard-of $100,000 top award.

M-Prize drew 172 entries and caught the attention of the New York Times. Twenty-nine groups came to Ann Arbor this past May for the competition’s two-day finale, and a fifteen-member panel crowned the Calidore String Quartet the winner. The up-and-coming group from New York returns for a UMS concert in February.

Though U-M’s music school is well respected, it’s not at the same level as Juilliard, Oberlin, or the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. But Dworkin says that his ambition is to make it “the most relevant school of the performing arts in the world.” No one measures universities’ relevance, but the implication is that the SMTD will become hotter now that he waves the director’s baton.

For Dworkin, relevance also means preparing music students for jobs other than professional symphony musician or music professor. Snaring a full-time symphony job was never easy, but in these days of shrinking funding and dwindling audiences, Dworkin says, only one-half of 1 percent of music grads can expect to land one.

With this in mind, he launched a program called EXCEL (Excellence in Entrepreneurship, Career Empowerment & Leadership) to teach students management skills, fundraising techniques, and grant writing. The school’s magazine recently celebrated grad student and flutist Ashley Stanley, who got seed money from the school to commission six composers to write music “inspired by the state of Michigan. EXCEL has completely changed the culture of the school!” she told the magazine.

Dworkin displays a stylishly disassembled violin in a frame on his office wall. At last year’s orientation, he told the students the “the violin has been the one constant in my life.” In his memoir, he recalls how, as a young boy, he listened to his adoptive mother play the instrument and yearned “to be able to speak in the voice of the violin.”

Dworkin’s diverse persona began with his birth in New York City in 1970. His unmarried parents–she Irish Catholic, he an African American Jehovah’s Witness–gave him up for adoption soon afterward.

His adoptive parents were a Jewish couple, both neuroscientists. Though they were glad to pay for his violin lessons, his memoir describes them as lacking emotional warmth and sometimes using severe punishments. When he stole Ding Dongs from a newsstand, his father beat him with a belt–drawing on his scientific training to inflict maximum pain.

Asked about that incident now, Dworkin remarks that “corporal punishment was pretty routine in the early Seventies.” He and his parents were estranged for many years, but in the book, he relates how the couple eventually reached out, and they had a “wonderful reconciliation.” Still, he says, his feelings about them remain “complex.”

When Dworkin was ten, the family moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania. Usually the only black child in his classes–kids teased him by grabbing his Afro–he won respect for his musical talent, becoming concertmaster of a regional youth orchestra.

Still, he was much happier when his parents let him transfer to the Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan. There weren’t many black kids there, either, but he loved his classes and made close friends through their mutual love of the arts.

The years after high school were tough. He and “Sherrie,” who is white, became a couple at Penn State. Her parents were so upset that they stopped paying her tuition. They would eventually accept Dworkin, but in the meantime his parents, unhappy with his grades, cut him off, too.

Struggling financially, the couple moved to Lansing, then to Ann Arbor. They returned to school at U-M in 1996, married soon after, and had a son, Noah, in 1999.

But even as Sphinx grew and their professional lives stabilized, Dworkin writes, years of stress took their toll on the relationship. They separated when Noah was a toddler, and subsequently divorced. At about the same time, Dworkin reconnected with his biological parents. They had an emotional reunion and have stayed close.

In 2005, Dworkin married Afa Sadykhly. Born in Moscow, and raised in Azerbaijan by a Muslim mother and a Jewish father, she, too, is a Michigan-trained violinist. They’d known each other as students, and she was Sphinx’s first paid employee. The group’s executive and artistic director when he stepped down last year, she succeeded him as president. They have a son, Amani, and recently moved from Ann Arbor Township to a condo in downtown Ann Arbor.

Dworkin’s complex personal and professional history might seem like the material for an epic identity crisis, but he emerged from it with an infectious confidence–both in himself and in the transforming power of the arts.

Dworkin says he was “definitely not looking to go anywhere” when Michigan approached him–“I had said no a number of times to multiple institutions.” But he felt a “deep affinity” for the university–and also “a need for me to have an impact” in higher education.

Deans are appointed for five-year terms–often renewed once–and Dworkin has acknowledged feeling some urgency to make his mark. Kendall, his predecessor rebuilt the school’s physical plant; Dworkin wants to build its financial strength. He hopes to find an angel with a love of the performing arts–and pockets deep enough to justify renaming the school in his or her honor.

Such a “naming gift,” Dworkin says, “could really transform the financial support we’re able to provide for our students.” Former dean Paul Boylan believes there is a “pretty high” chance Dworkin will find that angel, describing him as a “fantastic fundraiser.”

Dworkin also is committed to shaking up music education, which, one U-M faculty member says, was “designed to produce students that can reproduce/re-create from the western European, classical model.” The faculty member, who asked not to be named, says he supports the dean’s vision–but not all his colleagues do.

Dworkin acknowledges getting some “pushback” on his initiatives. That’s to be expected, he says, given people’s natural aversion to change. But he believes he was hired to breathe fresh air into the school, and he’s determined to do so.

“It’s not a matter of me getting used to Michigan,” he says calmly. “It’s a matter of Michigan getting used to me.”