Barry had just been appointed Dean of Science when I met him

Lee Gass

Barry had just been appointed Dean of Science when I met him. I walked into the mailroom in Zoology, and Kathy Gorkoff, our secretary, asked me if I had met the new Dean, who was standing right there. He wasn’t on the job yet, and wouldn’t be for another few months. But he was on the ball and he know both my name and the main thrust of my reasearch. He said he’d like to visit my hummingbird lab sometime, I said “What about now?”, and off we went at a near run. As it happened, all my graduate students and postdocs were working hard either designing equipment for or performing experiments when we arrived. They were in a light, high mood, and responded enthusiastically to Barry’s many queries. He stayed only for a few minutes, but after that he always knew all of our names. “Hi, Lee. Great day, eh? How’s it going in the hummingbird lab? I keep thinking about Gayle’s experiment and wondering how it’s turning out.”

Other than chance meetings on the sidewalk over the next few months, the next time I saw Barry was after I got a call from John Sams in the Science Deanery. John said that he and Barry had been cooking up a new program called Science One. It would be offered to a small group of first year students each year, and several departments would contribute faculty. Students would receive 4 courses’ credit for Science One, would take no other science courses in the first year, and would be eligible to enter any majors program in our faculty in the second year. They were commissioning a committee to plan the program, which would begin in two years’ time, and wanted me to serve on it. I imagined a range of scenarios, and quickly realized that many of them would not be worth playing out. If they were going to invest in something that important, I wanted it to be a winner and I wanted it bad. But I also wanted to be involved at the beginning and at the most fundamental level. It would be worse than useless for me serve on a committee if it were committed to the wrong ideals or committed to methods that could not achieve them.

I wanted no part of that, but on the other hand I wanted in. More than wanting in, though, I wanted in on my own conditions. I told John that I would be happy to serve on the committee, but only under an important condition. He asked me to tell him my condition, but I said I wanted to tell both of them at the same time. John scheduled a meeting, and when we started it a few days later, Barry folded his fingers in the air in front of him and said “I understand you want to tell us about a condition under which you will serve on the Science One planning committee. John and I think that Science One is exciting, we think it is important, and we want you on that committee. What is your condition?”

I replied that I did not want to work for a program that would skim the academic cream from the entering crop, so to speak, “cream” being defined as it always is in The Academy in terms of grades - - “marks” as we say in Canada. If, out of 100 students admitted to the program all 100 ranked among the top 100 applicants to the whole Science faculty, I wanted no part of it and I told them so. “Why in hell not?”, said Sams.

The simple version of my response, then and now, is that the pressure of getting the very top marks often leads students to suppress their imagination, suppress curiosity, and deny ignorance. I want to work with open minds, not just smart ones. I’d feel a lot better considering anyone admissible to the Faculty of Science but selecting on some other basis. That way, I thought, we could produce a deeper, more powerful, and more lasting kind of understanding for a larger number of students, and at the same time give them a perspective on learning that could guide them for a lifetime. It also seemed then that the most creative scientists are people like that, whether or not they got the best marks in high school.

Barry and John agreed to my condition, I served on the committee, and that changed my life and the lives of many others. And we do not select Science One students solely on the basis of their high school marks. After they are admitted to the Faculty of Science, we select them on the basis of the range of their interests and activities, which is clear from their curriculum vitae, and an essay that they write about why they want to be admitted to a program like Science One. For the most part that works a thousand times better than anyone dared to imagine it might.

In the third year of Science One, after the many triumphs of our first two years, Barry was invited to give a talk about this new program of his. He accepted, then thought he should learn something about the program first-hand. Barry came to class on a Wednesday, when we met for four solid hours of lecture-discussion then adjourned to our weekly planning meetings that often took another two hours. Wednesdays were big days because so much happened.

For four hours that day, Barry sat through our classes, somewhere toward the right side of the room. He listened to four lectures from four people on what he may have seen as four different subjects, but which in our minds and those of our students were related in a deep way. Jim Carolan was up in the second hour and I went next. (Actually, Jim ran well into my time in his excitement, but that was OK because he was on a roll. How Jim and I interacted in Science One is another story. I’ll let Jim tell his own version of that.)

My hour was bedlam, as usual. It was a wild and wonderful time in which I talked just enough to keep things hopping. Sometimes it wasn’t clear whether I was in control of the class or not, and I couldn’t have cared less. We were excited, we were rolling, and we were on the edge, riding a wave of exploration. The locus of activity floated around the room, and Barry turned to face it wherever it was. At one point an argument broke out; something about how best to interpret some set of information. A student ran to the blackboard to develop one side of the argument, another ran to help her, and eventually it was time for us to stop. More or less a normal session.

When we got to the meeting, everyone was a little high. We had sushi for lunch, I remember, because I turned purple while clearing wasabi fumes from my air passages so I could breathe. Barry mainly listened while we did usual thing. That changed from moment to moment, but from week to week it rather consistently expressed a tension between our wanting to know what we were going to be doing and needing to understand what we had just done and the rapidly changing population we were doing it with. Typically, banter bangs around the table, bouncing from seriousness to levity, from the future to the past, and from the serious business of the course to gossip about our clientele.

I don’t remember what we talked about, but at one point someone said something, and I replied with the offhand comment that “I don’t teach them much.” Suddenly, Barry came to life and said, “Boy, you sure don’t!” If Barry had been anyone other than the Dean when he said that I might have let it go, but I couldn’t and I didn’t. When the alpha male challenges I respond if I have anything to say. This time, I had a lot to say and I was determined that he would get it.

“That’s right, Barry. I don’t teach them much. But they learn, and they learn a lot. And did you notice the quality of the discussion in there today?”

“Yes! That was amazing. So many of them had so much to say. And they listened. It even sounded like they knew something.”

“That’s right. And do you know why it sounds that way? It is because they do know something. They know a lot, they know a lot about what it means, and they can use that knowledge to learn more. They couldn’t talk like that if they didn’t. Nor could they do it if they didn’t trust each other more than most people usually trust each other in universities.”

“But how do they know so much if you don’t teach them?”

“It’s because they read.”.

And do you know what the Dean of Science of a major Canadian research university said in response? “Students won’t read.”

“They’ll read if you don’t teach them much! Especially if they know you’re going to test them on it later. My students read their asses off, even though I never give reading assignments by chapter or page. I just say ‘Read everything you can find out blood, because we‘ll be talking about it next class’”.

To Barry’s credit, that story was beginning to make the rounds in classes within a week. As a student of education, Barry is pretty sharp. He learned fast as Dean, and continued to learn fast as Provost. There’s a lot for all of us to learn. What have I learned by working with Barry? The most important things, by far, are that administrators can listen, they can learn, and they can use what they learn to support real reform in education.

To read articles about Science One and related programs, click here , here, and here.