The World According to Gieg

By John Prendergast


Photo by Bill Cramer

    The crowd milling around the first floor of Hayden Hall paused from its continental-breakfast eating and turned toward the balding man who had climbed onto a wooden chair by the doorway.
    "HEY!!!" he shouted again. "This way!"
    He pointed emphatically, thrusting both arms outward, across Smith Walk toward the Towne Building, where the opening session of the celebration marking the 25th anniversary of Penn’s environmental studies undergraduate major was supposed to be starting. Held last April 30, the event attracted more than 100 faculty members, alumni and current students to share their research and career histories and to pay tribute to the man directing traffic: Dr. Robert F. Giegengack, chair of the department of earth and environmental science (formerly geology) and director of the environmental studies program since its founding—a "Gieg fest or Gieg roast," was the way Dr. Richard Beeman, professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, put it. (Most everyone calls Giegengack "Gieg," and especially students; he answers the phone with a clipped "Gieg here.")
    "For the people who didn’t recognize me," Giegengack said, when the crowd had filed into the lecture hall, a few still munching croissants and drinking coffee, "I traded my hair for eyeglasses."
    Dr. Samuel Preston, the Frederick J. Warren Professor of Demography and dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, who presented Giegengack with a certificate congratulating him for founding the environmental studies program and a National Geographic Atlas of the World, called him the "force of nature" behind the program. Beeman, who has known Giegengack for 30 years, described him somewhat more vividly as "a total pain in the ass" to him and previous deans, always "clamoring for more, more, more for his department and program."
    Which he meant in a good way—for the most part.
    "I’ve watched Gieg in action for all those years—and he’s been a highly visible force to observe—and I think he’s been watching me," says Beeman, in an interview in his Logan Hall office. "He’s been making fun of me, and I’ve been making fun of him."
    Giegengack is prominent among a relative handful of faculty members—"the usual suspects," Beeman calls them —who can be counted on "to serve selflessly and creatively in almost any project aimed at improving undergraduate education," he says. "Whether it’s been his involvement with the general honors program, the development of the environmental studies major or just being there all the time for students. He’s the kind of guy who at graduation time will come up to a student’s parents and give them a hug and say nice things. This is a nurturer par excellence." Beeman’s daughter, who minored in environmental studies at Penn, "is one of the hundreds of devoted Bob Giegengack fan-club members," he adds.
    University administrators wishing to join the club are advised to have thick skins, however. "This is an area in which Bob’s and my relationship has been interesting because we are, I think, genuinely dear friends and mutual admirers—but for much of the past 10 years, I have been the administration," Beeman says. "Part of Bob’s career has been being a gadfly, but it’s more than [that]. I think he really has felt that much of what he has accomplished has been in spite of administrators—and, indeed, he personally and the programs he has created have not always been as well and enthusiastically supported as they deserved to be. So what he has achieved—which is substantial—has often been achieved by dedication well above the call of duty."
    At the same time, Giegengack "almost revels, or wallows, in a sense of aggrievement about the administration." Beeman traces this back to an incident from the mid-1980s, "one of the formative events of Bob’s life," when then-Provost Thomas Ehrlich decided to "give a big chunk" of Hayden Hall, the geology department’s home, to the School of Engineering and Applied Science. "Bob fought this tooth and nail and was defeated. He has never forgotten it," Beeman says.
    To this day, when Giegengack sees him wearing a bowtie (which Beeman almost always does), he accuses him of trying to look like Ehrlich, who also wore bowties. "This has become a standing joke, so at some level he’s conscious of it," Beeman says, but it’s an indication that "There are some rivers that run deep" there. (Corroborating evidence: When, interviewing Giegengack in his office this fall, I remind him of Beeman’s "pain in the ass" comment from the anniversary celebration he gets up from his desk and returns a moment later with some yellowing copies of Almanac, the University’s journal of record, detailing the space controversy.)
    "In that sense," Beeman continues, "I wouldn’t say he’s his own worst enemy because there’s so much obvious good there, but there are some occasions when he makes it more difficult for himself than he needs to." He laughs. "Not every administrator responds as genially as I do to this kind of anti-administration bent."

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