Rick Beeman


The biggest regret Rick Beeman, Ph.D. , has about his new post as dean for undergraduate education and director of the College, is that he no longer has time to take his Bernese mountain dog, Chief Justice John Marshmallow (Johnny) to doggy play group near Swarthmore College.

But Beeman has a solution: In the morning, he asks Johnny if he wants to go to work, and if he jumps in the car, off to work they go. A similar sense of fun invades Beeman's teaching style -- he's been known to dress as Davy Crockett for his crowd-pleasing history lessons.

A busy guy who keeps getting busier, Beeman has always balanced academic demands with administrative responsibilities. In addition to his new post, he is senior fellow of the planned National Constitution Center, an interactive museum slated to appear on Independence Mall in 2000.

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The new director of the College tackles liberal arts in the 21st century. He's aided by sometimes-officemate Chief Justice John Marshmallow.

Candace diCarlo photo

Q. What's been keeping you the busiest?
A.
Trying to figure out what my job is. There are a number of different components: There's the running of the College office, which is a very important job because it serves the needs of 6,000 undergraduates at Penn and it's a complicated set of services we provide. I'm committed to regarding our students as very, very valuable customers and to being very attentive to their needs.
   But the most important part of the job is that I have to try to determine what the liberal arts education of the 21st Century is going to be; to work with faculty, principally, but also students, and to really take stock of what constitutes human knowledge at the end of the 20th century and to try to imagine what the curriculum will be for the 21st century -- not 2050 because I can't even imagine that, but 2010.
   And that's a difficult job, because the knowledge base is changing so rapidly -- exploding really.

Q. What are some of those changes? Are there any constants?
A.
There's always been a tension within liberal arts education -- a tension between vocationalism and a more general education process. As the cost of a college education has gone up and as the economy grows so much more competitive and more specialized, I think that poses special challenges to liberal arts colleges to define their missions.
   One challenge arts and sciences has is to remain utterly true to the essential values of liberal arts while being responsive to a very different market, frankly, a different kind of customer base. Faculty hate it when I talk about students as customers, and of course, they're much more than customers, but they're also customers with real needs that have to be served, for which we have a responsibility. We simply can't teach them within our traditional disciplines.

Q. How do you balance academics and administration?
A.
There's a lot of stress and schizophrenia involved. I really love the idea of the old medieval academy of people acquiring knowledge for knowledge's sake and imparting that knowledge to others.
   But I've also always been a citizen actively involved in the real world. I was always interested in politics -- as a kid I thought I wanted to grow up to be president. By the end of my college career, I decided that being a professor would be a much nicer, saner life than being president.

Q. What are some of the greatest challenges facing the College now? Fiscal?
A.
One of the great challenges facing the School of Arts and Sciences is fiscal, because the School is still trying to eliminate a budget deficit. But the School of Arts and Sciences is a multipurpose institution with many components. Among them, money is the least of the critical factors in undergraduate education. It really is.
   To achieve significant change and improvement in undergraduate education does not involve spending a lot more money. It involves motivating faculty already here to think anew about this changing knowledge base, and changing technologies and so on.
   So, the greatest pleasure I have in this new job is that I actually get to think about education rather than money.

Q. How might you jump-start that motivational process?
A.
I'm going to basically have lots of conversations with smart people.
   If there's one thing my experience at Penn tells me, it's that we will not create the curriculum of the 21st century in a College faculty meeting, but rather in informal voluntary discussions. We may eventually have to bring some proposals before a faculty meeting, but that's not really where creative thought occurs.

Q. Is teaching still your greatest joy?
A.
Absolutely. I've always taught while I have administered, whether as a department chair or as an associate dean or what have you. And I've always appreciated it more rather than less during those times. I will say that this week is the first week in my history as a teacher where I've felt the conflicting time demands of being a dean and a teacher. I'm feeling a little frayed at the edges.

Q. Does your part in the Constitution Center add to that?
A.
My being named as a senior fellow was really the formalization of a role that I've always had. I think there's no question about it that my being dean makes it more difficult for me to spend as much time as I was before. And I'm sort of stumbling to the finish line in my term as senior fellow, and I'm looking forward to there being someone to follow me -- hopefully from Penn.
   But it will remain one of my long-term projects and sources of satisfaction. I believe deeply in the purposes of it. This really is going to be a place where Americans of all educational levels, of all social classes, can come and learn about not only the history of the U.S. Constitution, but also the present lessons of American citizenship.
   As a teacher, I teach a couple of hundred students a year, but millions come to Independence Mall, so it's a remarkable teaching opportunity.

Q. What's the most exciting thing you're looking forward to in the next century?
A.
Here's a cliché: I want every student coming to Penn to enter Penn with the same kind of intellectual ambition with which Benjamin Franklin entered the city of Philadelphia at age 17. And I want them to leave Penn with that intellectual curiosity nowhere near sated. That's my clichéd goal.
   Now, how to do that: I think the College needs to be much more actively involved with admissions and with the recruitment of students so that we admit a class of aspiring Benjamin Franklins, or their female counterparts.
   I want the College to do everything possible to make College students truly feel a sense of pride, and of challenge -- at being students in the College. And I don't think that is 100 percent the case today.
   I think the fact that the College office was located in the squalor of the mezzanine of the Mellon Bank building was a terrible statement about the centrality of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. I think that our relocation back into Logan Hall, even though the building isn't finished yet, is a wonderful statement of what the College is and of what it hopes to do.
   Most important of all though, I think we really need to offer College students a curriculum that is not only relevant to their needs but that is really rigorous. I think that the College student of the 21st century will have to work even harder than the College student of the late 20th century. And I think the faculty will almost certainly have to work harder at the undergraduate component of their jobs. I want them to want to.

Q. You sound sort of like an incoming politician raising taxes.
A.
That's right. That could be trouble. I do think faculty work very hard. Teaching two courses a term is in fact much more demanding than it appears if you're just counting the number of hours a professor is in the classroom. I have great respect for what professors do. But, I think we really have to work overtime to make sure we're giving our students the education they need and deserve.

Q. And you need time for the dog.
A.
That's actually my other great desire for the next year -- that I leave enough time to play with my dog. And, in fact, to settle into life with my new wife -- I'm getting married at the end of May [to Mary Cahill, former director of finance at Penn]. And so I'm starting a new life in a number of respects. I'm very happy to report that she loves the dog. And the dog loves her.

Originally published on April 2, 1998