Triangle Talks with soon former CoAS Dean Norma Bouchard | The Triangle
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Triangle Talks with soon former CoAS Dean Norma Bouchard

Photograph courtesy by chrisinphilly5448 at Flickr.

On March 26, it was announced that Dean Norma Bouchard of College of Arts and Sciences is leaving Drexel to become a provost at Chapman University. She served as dean for almost two years. She agreed to talk to the Triangle about her time at Drexel and her “bittersweet” departure. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Ioana Racu: Can you tell me a little bit about your background before coming to Drexel?

Norma Bouchard: I came to Drexel after having served for four years at a very similar college, San Diego State University. Prior to that, I was a faculty member, a permanent member and then an Associate Dean at the University of Connecticut for 17 years.

IR: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience at Drexel specifically?

NB: It’s been an interesting experience because, within six months of my arrival, we were in a pandemic. It’s been a very positive experience. The college is full of incredibly talented students, faculty and staff. It’s really a jewel of a college — I can say that without a shadow of a doubt. I’ve been privileged to work with some of the best people I’ve ever worked with in academia in 25-30 years, thanks to the College of Arts and Sciences.

IR: Besides your administrative work at Drexel, what are some of your academic interests?

NB: Cultural studies, cultural history — I work broadly. I started as a modernist, 19th and 20th century. In the last five or six years, I’ve been working on Mediterranean studies, Post-colonial studies [and] Diaspora studies across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. I also dabble in film studies.

IR: How did the pandemic affect your work as a dean and as a member of the Drexel community?

NB: There were certainly many challenges. We’ve all experienced those. The big challenge that everyone had to face was to maintain continuity in teaching, research and service. We all had 24 hours to get out, remember the announcement? That was a very short period of adjustment. It was remarkable that everybody adjusted. The faculty, the students and the staff learned how to do everything remotely. I would say another big challenge was to continue to grow the college, to expand, to address our vision and move it forward, while having the added complication of not being together. I’m very proud to report that we were able to do that. We had a plan of reorganizing major functions of the college, we did Women’s Day in Research, and we maintained teaching continuity. We did a lot of public outreach to the community.

IR: What are some of the most important goals that you accomplished in your time at Drexel?

NB: I come from the public school system. I am the product of public schools. I have an accent. I was born and raised in Italy. I went to school at the University of Turin. The European school system is 99 percent made out of public schools. I started graduate work at the CUNY grad Center in New York, finished up at Indiana University. So, Drexel was my first experience, actually, in a private institution. I’ve always been in the public school system. What I have been very committed to is shared governance, distributed leadership. Institutions are so complex, and they’re becoming more complex. Post-pandemic, they’re going to be even more complicated, right?

There are many determinants we saw in the pandemic — who came back, who couldn’t, who could do hybrid learning, who had to move. We really need to think hard about bringing everybody to the table when we make decisions — faculty, staff, students, alumni. We need to strive for diverse teams, because when you have lots of different people with different perspectives and experiences, you come up with better decisions. That is something that I think I pushed very hard for the College of Arts and Sciences. We’ve done everything as a group. That was sort of a cultural shift. I do think it’s very important to be very forthcoming. Explain what our reality is. I stress the collective achievement, because it was everybody’s effort to really figure out ways of working much more together as a college sharing services that are crucial to support everyone, as well as working on the strategic plan. The fact that we’ve been able to do all of that in the pandemic is big kudos to the [Drexel] community.

IR: You were part of the committee that created the Anti-Racism Taskforce. What other initiatives did you start in your time at Drexel?

NB: Diversity is something that’s very close to my heart, as an immigrant. My first academic job was actually in Puerto Rico, where 95 percent of the students are Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean and so on. I was a dean at San Diego State, also a very large Hispanic-serving institution. So naturally, underrepresented students, underprivileged students, first generation students are very close to my heart personally, but also professionally. I work in post-colonial, migration and  diaspora studies. In the pandemic, I decided to start the first ever Office of an Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the college. With [Amelia Hoover Green’s] (Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) leadership, we launched a community read, which was a book selected by students — Wilder’s book, “Ebony and Ivy,” a big study on structural racism. I also asked each and every department to create a Diversity Council. We have 13 diversity councils now. We launched a mentoring program for underrepresented students. Another thing we’re launching this summer is actually a mentoring program, especially focused on underrepresented students in STEM, in partnership with Johnson & Johnson. We decided that it was time to start investing into our Africana Studies minor. We just finished a cluster hire of African Studies scholars. We launched a Curriculum Innovation Award. Under the leadership of the Associate Dean of diversity, equity and inclusion, we’re also providing training and support for faculty for inclusive pedagogy. There is a lot that still needs to be done!

IR: How do you feel about leaving Drexel after spending two years here?

NB: It’s been very bittersweet. I’ve been privileged to work with some of the most amazing individuals I’ve ever worked with. I think it’s probably the best way of putting it. I am sure that I will stay in touch with the friends and colleagues I have been privileged to work with. I have no doubt. I’m even keeping my place in Philadelphia!

IR: What do you have to say to current students of College of Arts and Sciences as a last message and as a goodbye message from the current Dean?

NB: First of all, keep your brilliant selves, the students in class are just amazing. My message to the students is that the knowledge base now flips every five years. That means that you’re going to have many, many jobs in the course of your lifetime. Think about really acquiring foundational skills and competencies, transferable skills and competencies. Try to train the mind and just your work habits, for flexibility, creativity, and ability, really, to navigate bodies of knowledge, both breadth and depth. In the College of Arts and Science, we train students with important competencies, a variety of qualitative, quantitative problem-solving skills. Those are transferable skills that employers demand all the time.

I also think that besides those vocational values or career competencies, there are a lot of epistemological values that come within education in arts and sciences. We study humanities and the social sciences, because we want to understand ourselves, the world, the impact of ourselves in the world a lot better. Deep disciplines such as history, anthropology, philosophy, train us to understand the different beliefs that have shaped communities and the world right across history. They help us understand and foresee the broad implications and the consequences of our behavior of runaway technology. I also believe that your generation will have to contend with a lot of challenges, including the environment, climate change, and how you need the technology, but you also need the mindset, the culture. Take arts and sciences courses, major or minor in Arts and Sciences. Make sure that you really establish those fundamental foundations that are going to make you successful. We educate, and we try — this is what science is all about.