The Bell Atop the Books: The Lasting Impact of Dean Linda Wells

At age 64 and approximately 70 days before she will step down as Dean of the College of General Studies, a position she has held for the past thirteen years, Linda Wells is without any trace of senioritis. Even though she travels frequently for her job (her most recent visit was New York, next is Chicago), arrives to work every day at 7 a.m., and must zip from one meeting to another to meet her daily schedule, one could not detect a hint of fatigue.

“No, it is not stressful for me,” Wells says. “I’m rarely stressed. I think the word on the street about me is I’m pretty much on an even keel.”

With a level of confidence that would make George Clooney seem insecure, it is hard not to believe her. So why does Wells want to leave such an esteemed position?

“[It] felt like it was time for somebody else to have his or her hand at the Deanship,” she says simply.

Last October, BU Provost and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Jean Morrison announced that Wells had informed her and President Brown that she would like to step down as Dean of the College of General Studies at the end of the 2012-13 academic year. For the past 33 years, Linda Wells has served the Boston University community in a variety of roles. As an educator, administrator, and mentor, Wells has made lasting contributions to the generations of people who have passed and will pass through Boston University.

Photo courtesy The Office of the Dean of the College of General Studies
Photo courtesy The Office of the Dean of the College of General Studies

Dr. Robert Wexelblatt, CGS Professor of Humanities and member of the College’s hiring committee in 1980, recounts how BU almost missed out: “Thirty years ago… it was common to have two or three hundred applicants for every opening in the Humanities division, many of them better qualified than the members of the search committee. The year Linda was hired was like that,” he said in an e-mail interview with The Quad. Wexelblatt then explained that after interviewing its 11th applicant, the committee was certain they had found the next hire. They were absolutely sold on the talented woman they had just met, and the committee members assured the candidate she would hear from them soon. When the committee then called in the final interviewee, Linda Wells, from the waiting room, the consensus dissolved.

“She was so bright, energetic, funny, poised, and quick-witted; she answered our questions so articulately; her anecdotes were so engaging and her talents so obvious that we had a bit of a fight,” wrote Wexelblatt. “The majority of the committee, while conceding Linda’s virtues, felt committed to the other candidate…. Others of us, though, pleaded to hire Linda on the grounds that she was simply too perfect to let slip through our fingers. In this case, the minority prevailed.”

Wells was hired as a junior faculty member by the College of General Studies in 1980. As a professor, Wells taught the CGS freshman and sophomore humanities courses in areas such as literature and film.

“Linda had a reputation as an outstanding classroom teacher,” wrote CGS Chair, Professor of Social Science and then-colleague Jay Corrin (GRS ’76). Former student Thomas Cleary (CBS ’88) confirmed such a reputation in his online comment for the Collegian, the alumni newsletter of CGS: “Despite my unpunctual attendance, what I learned through literature and how to critically look at the world from every angle I carry with me to this day.” (Cleary attended the College back when it was called the College of Basic Studies—CBS).

Another commenter, former student Jane Gilmartin née Arena (CBS ’84), noted how Wells was a teacher beyond the classroom as well. “Of all my college professors, I remember her most vividly…. Just before I graduated from CGS, she took me into her office and offered me words of wisdom and advice on my own future. It meant the world to me and I have never forgotten that gesture. She taught me so much more than she ever set out to do.”

But Wells’ teaching didn’t stop at her students, as several faculty members found her to be a mentor.

“She’s been a real mentor for me,” Dr. Natalie McKnight, Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Professor of Humanities at CGS, told The Quad. “She has played pivotal roles in my career here at BU, and I’ve learned a lot about leadership from her along the way.”

Associate Professor of Natural Science Millard Baublitz wrote in an email interview about his early experience as a faculty team-member with the veteraned Wells: “Since I was still a relative novice at teaching at CGS, she sometimes offered excellent advice to me. For example, she counseled me to learn the names of all of my students as soon as possible.”

Dr. Adam Sweeting, CGS’ Acting Chair and an Associate Professor of Humanities said Wells was “a very strong supporter of faculty governance and [she] helped me to see what this [position] really meant while I served as Chair of the Faculty Council.”

Having served over a decade as an “energetic, passionate, and demanding instructor” at the College, Wells began her gradual transfer to administrator when she was named Chair of the formerly combined Division of Humanities and Rhetoric. The first female chair in the history of the College, Wells was a “powerful force,” according to Dr. Corrin, which would prove beneficial for her later on in her career.

In 1997, Wells expanded upon her role as an administrator when she left the classrooms of her professorship in the College of General Studies to serve in the Office of the Provost. As Special Faculty Assistant to then-Provost of Boston University Dennis Berkey, Wells directed the University’s accreditation review efforts. However, she would not be in this position for long.

When Brendan Gilbane (DGE ’50, COM ’52, GRS ’59/’69) announced he was retiring from his longtime position as Dean of the College of General Studies in 2000, the search for a successor was on. Having gained experience as an academic administrator from her Chairship and her work at the Provost’s office and having taught at CGS for 17 years, Wells was certainly considered a qualified candidate for the position. According to former colleagues, it seemed that her being a fellow faculty member (even while serving in the Provost’s office, as a tenured professor, she still performed some functions at the College) was particularly helpful in her appointment as the fourth Dean of the College of General Studies.

“Several of us lobbied hard to have her selected as our next dean. Linda was the right person for the task, given her quick wit, inimitable people skills and tough skin for making hard decisions,” wrote Professor Corrin.

These characteristics would prove to be well-suited for bringing about CGS’s 21st century transformation. Since assuming the position in 2000, Linda Wells has been the driving force behind establishing the College as a “respected hub for undergraduate education.” Under Wells’ leadership, the College has made dramatic improvements to all elements of the student experience. The most noticeable of these are the school’s renovation efforts.

Wells has brought an artist’s touch to the formerly drab CGS building. From the building’s lobby to the basement Gilbane Lounge, to the Marilyn and Jeffery Katzenberg and Writing & Academic Support Centers, and to even the main stairwell, Wells has ushered in aesthetic changes that make the college a more pleasing place to learn.

Dean McKnight noted the importance of these renovations in Wells’ legacy when she told The Quad, “Even while we will really miss her when she steps down, we will have many pleasant reminders of her presence around us all the time.”

Wells says, “The Provost said to me when I was named Dean, ‘Do something about that building!’… I like all the decorating that I’ve done.”

“Several of us lobbied hard to have her selected as our next dean. Linda was the right person for the task, given her quick wit, inimitable people skills and tough skin for making hard decisions.”

Even more reflective of her experience as an educator are the improvements she has made to the College’s faculty. Following a principle of whether she would feel comfortable if they were teaching her own children, Wells hiked the standard for teaching at CGS. Because of her, all instructors at the College must now meet a PhD requirement for employment.

More importantly, Wells addressed the long-standing issue of faculty morale. Instructors now teach four days a week instead of five (with intentions to reduce to the norm of three), allowing them more time to tend to scholarly research, a requirement for achieving tenure. And the “five-year revolving door policy” for non-tenure track faculty members was done away with, ensuring the educators a greater job security.

Professor Corrin also mentioned this structural change. “Linda had the foresight to appreciate the efficacy of non-traditional appointments in the form of lectureships,” he wrote. “Although this was a painful transition for many faculty who wanted conventional titles, it was Linda’s administrative and people skills that mitigated the difficulties that accompanied these changes, and the transition in appointments has enabled the College to retain outstanding teachers with a series of renewable contracts.”

“This college is a teaching college,” she says, and “securing a really terrific faculty” is something of which she is quite proud.

In essence, Dean Wells’ mission was to make the College of General Studies on par with the other colleges at BU whilst retaining its unique status as a separate institute specifically for interdisciplinary education of undergraduates. The College’s creation of the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning reflected this goal. Founded by Dean Wells, the Center “promotes excellence in undergraduate education” by “supporting undergraduate internships and research opportunities” and providing “forums for professors and administrators to explore ideas about interdisciplinary education.” Examples of the Center’s programs include the annual education conference Advancing Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning and the publication of the peer-reviewed academic journal IMPACT.

“As a new CGS faculty member, I first observed her initiative to improve teaching by giving faculty members the tools that faculty elsewhere on campus already had at their disposal,” said CGS Lecturer of Humanities Cheryl Boots (GRS ’96/’00). “She understood that these items were necessities for teaching students and conducting research in the 21st century at BU.”

Reflecting on her contributions to the College, Wells says, “I never aspired to be Dean…[but] it’s been very fulfilling.” She still considers being a professor the “height of her career,” a statement not at all surprising when one knows of her background.

Before she became Dean or Professor or even Mrs. Wells, she was a bookworm. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she earned her PhD in 19th and 20th century American and British Literature after having received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English from Colorado State University and briefly teaching in the Colorado public school system. Although this marked the beginning of her formal experience as a teacher, her role as an educator far preceded this.

Born in Colorado, Wells grew up on her maternal family’s rural cattle ranch. With a widowed mother who had to work in the offices of a mining company, baby Linda and her sister Theresa were collectively raised by her mother’s extensive Italian family.  It was this extended family that instilled in her a passion for reading, storytelling, and education, reflected in her childhood nickname: “the little professor.”

“We had great storytellers in our family,” she recalls, “primarily my grandmother’s brothers and sisters. And then I found literature! And from then on, I knew it. This was it. I was in.”

This family structure is something she has recreated in the workplace, and it has cohered well with the College of General Studies’ emphasis on team-building. Wells says she sees co-workers “as brothers and sisters,” with herself in the role of the “bossy older sister” (in the kindest way). This outlook on management style appears to be one of the best aspects about her leadership.

When asked to select an object in her office that she believes best represents her, Wells instantly chooses a rustic schoolmarm’s bell that sits atop some antique books.

Stacy Godnick, Senior Assistant Dean of the College and longtime colleague of Wells, wrote in an email interview, “She is even-tempered and treats all colleagues, regardless of rank, equally and humanely. She is thoughtful and never rushes to judgment.  The glass is always half-full for Linda. In fact, I am fond of saying that Linda goes from ‘yes’ to ‘no,’ meaning that her natural response to a request is ‘why not?’ She has always been open to new ideas.”

Professor Sweeting added on the subject: “She is a superb educational leader who constantly pushes us (in the gentlest ways) toward creating a more dynamic learning environment for our students.”

Given all of this praise, finding a satisfactory replacement for Linda Wells will no doubt be a challenging task. A Dean Search Advisory Committee was formed last fall to recommend to President Brown a suitable candidate for the College of General Studies Deanship. The committee has “examined the vitae of a dozen applicants,” and committee head James Shanahan, Associate Dean and Professor at the College of Communication, says that “the search committee has selected a group of four candidates to visit campus soon.” The committee hopes to name the successor by July 1.

“I just wish the best for the person,” says Wells. “I really hope that the next dean will be able to preserve the best of what we have here–around camaraderie, collegiality, shared decision-making…. But I also hope the person has some new ideas.”

“I really think that in the 21st century, the next dean is going to need to think really creatively about what does it means to offer a university education,” she adds.

Though she’s stepping down, Wells isn’t leaving BU. Following a year-long sabbatical, in which she will ease out of the Deanship’s rapid pace by spending time with family and friends, concentrating on her research interests, and (of course) reading, Wells will return to BU in a yet-unnamed role at the Center for Career Development. In this role, Wells will combine her research interest in “the world of work,” her deep network of connections, and personal wisdom to mentor primarily undergrads but also alumni in career-related areas. In fact, Wells doesn’t even view her departure from the Deanship as stepping down. She thinks of it as “moving from one room to another room.”

When asked to select an object in her office that she believes best represents her, Wells instantly chooses a rustic schoolmarm’s bell that sits atop some antique books. Resonating with the items’ affiliations with education (in addition to their aged nature, she added), she expresses how teaching and reading have always been aspects of her life. I find the choice of items quite fitting, but for another reason. Whether it is as the professor who kindly left students with some advice in their last semesters, or a colleague who showed a new faculty member the ropes in their first couple weeks, or a boss who saw something in someone that no one else did, the many impressions Linda Wells has made on CGS and the Boston University community ring like a brass bell in numerous individuals, and they will last like classic stories.

Thomas Pelkey

Thomas Pelkey

Thomas Pelkey (CGS '13, CAS '15) is an expatriated Texan hailing from suburban Houston. He majors in American Studies, concentrating on American popular culture and media, and minors in Film and Television. He likes history, business, and especially television. If you want to compliment his writing, vent your outrage, or just hear some trivia fun-facts, email Thomas at tpelkey@buquad.com.

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