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Q&A: Spring 2011 with Michael Orr
WITH MICHAEL T. ORR,
AND DEAN OF THE FACULTY
This summer, Michael T. Orr succeeds Janet McCracken as Krebs Provost and Dean of the Faculty. Born and raised in England, he received his B.A. with honors in the history of art from University College London and his master’s and PhD degrees in art history from Cornell University. From there, he joined the faculty of Lawrence University in 1989, received tenure in 1995, and was promoted to full professor in 2003. As an active and productive scholar, Orr has specialized in medieval English art and has a wide variety of publications to his credit. Recognized for his skills as both a teacher and an administrator, he has been awarded several teaching prizes and has chaired numerous university-wide committees. Spectrum spoke with Orr in the spring, as he was finishing up his duties at Lawrence.
Can you tell me a bit about your background and what led you to the U.S.?
My family home is in southern England in a town called Beaconsfield, which is about halfway between London and Oxford. When I decided I wanted to go to graduate school, I ended up coming to the States, in part because of some funding issues affecting higher in England at the time. I went to Cornell and had a great time in Ithaca, not only enjoying the academic side of things but also the experience of living in the States. My wife, who is from England as well, had joined me and, while I was completing my graduate work, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to stay here afterwards. As I was finishing up, I got the offer from Lawrence to teach there and moved to Appleton in 1989. Being at a small liberal arts college has been a very, very good fit for me.
Tell me a bit about your academic interests and background.
My primary area of focus is in late medieval art, particularly illuminated manuscripts, handmade books created with extensive decorative programs. I concentrate on books intended for private religious devotional use in the late 14th and 15th centuries, primarily in England. There’s a particular kind of prayer book from this period known as the book of hours, and that’s what I do most of my research on and around.
When you come to Lake Forest College, do you plan to teach classes?
My hope will be to periodically be in the classroom. I think it’s very important for a dean of faculty to be reminded of the experience of teaching, in terms of the day-to-day experience of the faculty. I also think it’s the most effective way to establish authentic connections with students and to get a sense of the institutional culture from the student perspective. Having said that, I think it would be unrealistic for me to teach in the first year, so I’ll have to see how the workload and the demands of the position play out to determine at what point I would be in a position to do some teaching.
What led you to make the jump from academe to administration?
It certainly wasn’t my initial impetus for going into a faculty role! Over my time at Lawrence, increasingly I found myself being asked to take on either positions in faculty governance or administrative roles, and I served on a number of important committees and task forces. And gradually, through those experiences, I found that thinking more broadly about institutional priorities and how best to further the broader educational goals of the institution had become of great interest to me. Eventually this interest culminated in my deciding to seek the one-year fellowship opportunity offered by the American Council on Education (at Macalester College), which is very much intended to be a sort of training ground for faculty members looking at taking on senior leadership positions in college administration. That’s the experience that confirmed this was the direction I wanted to go in.
What do you see as the most important aspect of a provost’s job?
Above all the provost is charged with maintaining and improving the academic quality of the institution and supporting and facilitating the work of the faculty. That ultimately is the key charge, and it is absolutely central to an institution fulfilling its mission. So the person in that role, I think, should feel deeply and passionately about the importance of teaching and scholarship and the central contribution of faculty to fulfilling that mission – and be committed to facilitating that in as many ways as possible.
You come to campus this summer. What’s your first order of business?
First, to try to get to know the institution and the faculty as extensively as I possibly can. I want to meet with faculty individually, both over the summer and continuing into the start of the academic year. I feel pretty deeply that one of the roles of an institutional leader is articulating a collective shared vision, and that vision really has to come from within the institution. As someone who comes from the outside, my first task must be to get to know the College and the people within it.
When you’re not working, what might we find you doing?
My wife (Alyson Chapman, a physical therapist) and I have long had a great interest in various endurance sports. So we do triathlons and cross-country skiing and mountain biking.
You have a family?
Yes, we have two kids. My son, David, is a music performance major (who plays the double bass) at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and my daughter, Elizabeth, will be starting high school.
In coming to the College, do you see the proximity to Chicago as attractive?
Absolutely. From the perspective of an art historian, being an hour or so from the Art Institute and some of the other cultural offerings in Chicago is very appealing!