Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Kerry Thompson is nothing if not hands-on. When he noticed Western bluebirds nesting in the Bell Field dugout earlier this summer, the erstwhile biology professor built birdhouses for them, placing them "at the ideal nesting height."
That handiwork actually makes perfect sense for a man who loves problem-solving and is committed to doing whatever the College needs.
Since former Dean Jorge Gonzalez stepped down to become president of Kalamazoo College in Michigan, Thompson was recruited into his new role, which he officially assumed July 1. Before that, however, having no previous administrative experience, he shadowed Gonzalez for a few months, filling in for him when he was out of town; attended deans’ conferences, including the annual deans’ meeting in Annapolis; read up and talked to people.
"Most deans will tell you it’s a job you learn on the ground," says Thompson, who is married with four children. "You learn it by doing. But you need certain competencies going in. You need qualities like integrity, fairness, loyalty—loyalty to the College, loyalty to people."
Noting his lack of prior administrative work, Thompson says, "But they knew that. I assume they balanced my weaknesses with my perceived strengths. And I am devoted to proving them right. I’m going to do the best I can for this College."
Looking forward to the next academic year, "anything and everything I can do to build community, I will do," the Oakland native says. "Everything I can do to support the chairs and the mid-level managers, I will do."
Thompson has appointed a new team of associate deans: Carl F. Braun Professor of Chemistry Eileen Spain is the new AD for research/divisional dean of the sciences; theater professor Susan Gratch has been appointed AD for curriculum and academic support/divisional dean of the arts and humanities; and cognitive science professor Carolyn Brighouse is the new AD for Core curriculum and student issues/divisional dean of the social sciences.
"They are distinguished faculty with long histories of service," Thompson says. "We are a team. I want to be both a great team member and an effective team leader. They may have accepted these positions because they want to go on to administrative work. They need to be mentored and given the opportunity to succeed."
Beyond community-building, Thompson says he’d like to streamline College procedures: "You’ve got multiple approaches, but they never become coordinated activities where they’re all on the same page. I’d like to add coherence to our efforts so that they are more effective to our goals of producing excellent students and excellent scholarship. I can’t do it in one year as an interim, but I can start pushing us in that direction."
He says he also wants to "be a myth-buster" about the purported wall separating administrators and faculty. "That is a myth," he says. "Faculty don’t think you can be an advocate for the faculty and be an administrator. That isn’t true. We’re all on the same team." He says he isn’t sure how to achieve that yet, but "I believe in the power of food and coffee."
Thompson hasn’t decided yet whether the deanship is a role he will want to take on permanently, although he says, "Personally, what I’m hoping is that the same thing that I love about working in the lab—problem-solving—can be translated into this position. Solving problems for people and the institution. Then I could see this being something I could do."
He will give up teaching while serving as dean, which creates "promise and regret." A "student-centered teacher" who forms close relationships with his students, Thompson says he will miss being in the classroom. Thinking back to his time at UCLA, where he received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate (in psychology and neuroscience), he recalls relationships with professors who "changed my life": one who gave him his first job in a lab, and another who gave him his first lab to run. (His research interests include Parkinson's disease, neurodegenerative disorders and epilepsy, and he has investigated the use of stem cells to treat such disorders.)
However, Thompson says he never felt the connection to the UCLA community that he feels to Oxy. And, even though he may not have administrative experience, having taught here for 11 years, "When you hire a dean from within, you hire someone with a built-in love of the institution." That means someone who is ready to roll up his sleeves and do whatever the campus needs, whether building birdhouses or bridges.