May 31, 2018
If you’ve received an email from Jane Atkinson, vice president and provost, you know she often signs off with “As ever, Jane.” It’s an uncommon valediction, but one that fits Jane well. To many, it signals constancy, steadfastness, a ready ear. “I’m here for you, as I’ve always been.”
For the Lewis & Clark community, Jane has been a steady, reliable presence whose commitment to the college has never wavered. In addition to being an inspiring professor and mentor, she has held almost every leadership position at Lewis & Clark, from dean to provost to interim president.
As the spring semester—and her tenure—was drawing to a close, we caught up with Jane and asked her to share some reflections about her nearly four decades at Lewis & Clark.
The Move West
I spent my early childhood in St. Louis, where the Lewis and Clark Expedition is huge because the city is considered the Gateway to the West. When I was little, I had this laminated picture of Sacagawea hanging on my closet door, pointing the way west. I’d never been to Oregon before I came here in February 1978 for my interview. It was this beautiful, verdant landscape shrouded in mist. I remember thinking, “This is too beautiful for words.” I was just charmed. The people were wonderful.
Why Lewis & Clark
I truly believe in and value a liberal arts education. At Lewis & Clark, I could be the kind of faculty member I wanted to be—someone who cares about undergraduates, who works closely with them, who mentors them, who helps them think about their futures.
What’s Changed at L&C Over Time
When I first came to Lewis & Clark, I remember a faculty member saying, “When you go to national academic meetings and have Lewis & Clark on your badge, people won’t know where that is.” I thought, “Hmm. Okay.” But over the years, Lewis & Clark has become a much more familiar name in academic circles. We have a fabulous faculty, and it’s an internationally connected faculty. Now when I go to academic conferences, people say, “Oh yeah, Lewis & Clark.”
Also, Portland has grown up alongside the college. When I first moved here, Portland hadn’t yet become the Portland we know now. The restaurant scene was horrible. The Crab Bowl was kind of the big deal, as was the Benson brunch. Now everybody wants to be in Portland. So, over these decades, both Lewis & Clark and Portland have become much more familiar to the world. This visibility helps us hire and retain wonderful faculty and staff as well as attract great students.
What’s Stayed the Same
There’s a common denominator to Lewis & Clark students that I remember then and recognize now, which is just this boundless curiosity and a lack of self-consciousness in their desire to learn. Students will blurt out a question because they genuinely want to know the answer rather than because they want to impress the socks off you. They’re willing to learn from their mistakes—they’re very resilient that way. And, of course, our increasing diversity has been wonderful. It’s made us a much richer community.
L&C: ‘The Little Engine That Could’
Lewis & Clark has always felt to me like “The Little Engine That Could” … “I think I can, I think I can.” In those early days, there was a real sense that “this college is taking off.” I heard things like, “We’re a regional institution, and we’re going national. We’re building a faculty. Come be a part of this.” That was all very exciting, very energizing. There’s always been a strong sense of ambition and possibility at Lewis & Clark, and people are really willing to take chances and experiment. That’s been true for every decade I’ve been here.
Jane’s Sampling of Memorable Initiatives
Gender Studies—This was one of the first initiatives I was involved in, and it was fantastic. We had strong leadership within the faculty, like Jean Ward, and administrative enthusiasm. David Savage, a historian who was then associate dean of faculty, was directing an NEH [National Endowment of the Humanities] grant that was to be used, among other things, to fund a series of summer seminars for faculty. In the summer of 1981, he organized the faculty development seminar around women’s studies. Visiting scholars from four disciplines—history, psychology, anthropology, and literature—conducted the seminar. It was a marathon experience. It gave us the opportunity to engage with serious scholars who were themselves inspired by the women’s movement. Out of that NEH seminar, the Gender Symposium and later the Gender Studies program were born.
General Education—This was a topic that occupied me very early on. At first, I was hesitant to teach the first-year course … I felt like I was here to teach anthropology. But my graduate school advisor gave me some very wise advice: “You know, the interdisciplinary teaching I’ve done over the years has been the most gratifying work I’ve done as a faculty member.” I ended up teaching the first semester of Comparative Civilization with Dick Rohrbaugh, who covered the Biblical world, and Jeff Barlow, who addressed East Asia. I covered Ancient Greece since I had started out as a classics major. Anyway, I came to love teaching first- year general education students.
Later, there was a desire on the part of the faculty to change the first-year course. Susan Kirschner [senior lecturer in humanities] and I led that process. We ended up with Basic Inquiry for about nine years. It was a writing-based course that was very student centered. It was during this period that I became very interested in theories about student learning and writing, and how to work with students in productive ways.
Campus Master Plan—In the mid-1990s, when I got into administration, I became very involved in the build-out of campus. I don’t think of myself as a visual or spatial thinker, but I’ve really enjoyed working with architects and other colleagues as part of design teams. The campus has always been beautiful, but because we were dealing with a former estate and early ad hoc buildings, a lot of the elements didn’t mesh. Much of the work we’ve done since—the Signature Project buildings, the Albany Quadrangle renovation, Howard Hall, the apartment-style residence halls, and so on—have been designed to help bring the campus together. If you look at a campus map now, you’ll see how both foot and car traffic have been rechanneled in a way that successfully integrates the original Fir Acres buildings and gardens with other parts of campus where students and faculty do their work and live their lives. I learned so much from being part of the effort to rethink the campus.
Three Schools’ Visioning—When I became vice president and provost in 2000, I suddenly had a view of the institution in its entirety that I’d never had before. Not everyone gets to see that. Even when I served as dean, I thought the world revolved around the school I was in.
Over the last 18 years, I’ve really valued the opportunity to work at the institutional level. Obviously, each of the schools is important, but there’s also a larger institution. I think that’s been central to my work as vice president and provost—how to knit the place together operationally, conceptually, and in terms of vision, planning, and purpose. There are wonderful people working very hard within each of the three schools, and their work need to be complemented by an effort to think about, and work on, improving our institutional cohesiveness and integrity.
—Interview by Shelly Meyer