Off the Cuff: Joyce Babyak, acting dean of the College

Joyce Babyak is currently serving her tenure as acting dean of the College. Last year, Dean Babyak participated in panel discussions on free speech, the limits of free speech and dissent. She shared with the Review her thoughts regarding Oberlin’s policy on dissent, religious ethics and her contributions to the College.

Nora Kipnis

What do you most hope to accomplish as the acting dean of Arts and Sciences? How long will you have to do it?

The position lasts until there is a new dean in place, so there will be a dean appointed by the search committee sometime this year. When that new position takes effect, I will return to my position as the [associate] dean of Arts and Sciences.

What are the highlights of serving as acting dean?

Working with faculty on structuring resources and on personnel issues such as promotion to full professor, those kinds of huge moments in a faculty member’s career.

It’s also very interesting to be able to work with the Office of Development and with some of my colleagues on senior staff. It gives me a different view of the institution and what it takes to make Oberlin the place it is.

What would you like students and faculty to know about the new academic credit system?

It really is intended to help students know that they can build a schedule with four full courses or the equivalent, and if they do that successfully every semester they will graduate after eight semesters. Students don’t have to fracture their schedule every semester to get to the magical number of 14 credits. So I think we’ve come up with a system that is more logical, to be honest. It makes sense.

We, of course, understand that students do many other things, and so the faculty built into the requirements for graduation some latitude, so that some of the co-curricular work that students do can count towards graduation — such as ExCo courses, courses in athletics, learning assistance courses and some of the practica that are offered, such as the journalism practicum, which has been such an important part of many students’ careers at Oberlin.

So the faculty want to recognize the complexity of what students do, and it all really matters for graduation, but we want to have a system that would make it easier for students to focus on what they want to focus on and what they need to focus on.

I think it’s a benefit to faculty because faculty can now roughly count on most students seeing each course as one quarter of their workload.

I’m interested in your work with Oberlin Animal Rights. You participated in a panel discussion last spring. Was this the first time that the use of animals in academic research has been discussed here? What’s the history, and where is the College heading on that issue?

I participated in that panel in my capacity as Chair of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which oversees the use of animals in research. There are some qualifications around that, but essentially all the animals that are used in the lab science courses have oversight if they are housed in the animal care facilities. That circumscribes it a little bit, but this issue comes up from time to time; naturally this is a concern to students and to faculty, and continues to be a concern.

There are several important things to remember, but the research we do on animals is very carefully evaluated in terms of how the animals will be treated. There are very clear guidelines that are set by national bodies that must be followed to make sure that we are minimizing the number of animals used, that they are treated humanely, that their housing conditions are monitored and are also considered by food standards to be humane. And I think we do it in a very responsible way.

The committee, which is appointed by Marvin Krislov, evaluates every single protocol that comes forward that involves the use of animals in research. As to where student concerns about this are going, I think it’s always important for students to be concerned and to make sure that people are paying attention.

You have a background in religious study that surrounds the ethics of solidarity and pragmatic acceptance. Can you explain what that means?

As an ethicist, my major field is religious ethics, and religious social ethics, so I’m concerned about ethical formulations that address social issues. One place to begin ethics is to look at the human condition. We are characterized as finite and contingent beings, and we are limited in many ways. Our capacities are very limited, our lifespan is limited, and we are contingent — and that is dependent upon a variety of factors, and that is the historical accident of our birth, where we live, where we grow up, our backgrounds, our possibilities, as well as what decisions we have made in the past.

And part of what is true for me is that we are also free. How free we are is a matter of debate, but we do get to make choices for ourselves. But one of the biggest choices that we have to make is that we have to accept the pluses and minuses of who we are and the fact that we are finite and contingent. In doing that, it allows us to accept the historical characteristics of our lives and it allows us to accept the fact that who we are is in part because of the choices that we’ve made. That is what I call ethics of acceptance.

When we can do that, I think that it helps us make specific choices in our lives around social issues.

What do you think this focus of religious study will bring to your new position as acting dean?

Part of our particularity is that what we do now does depend in part on what we have done, and I think that my work as an ethicist, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about human situations, conditions and ways in which we can evaluate what we do and try to do things well. And so I think that being an ethicist informs the way I approach all of the challenges that I face.

Last year you participated in panel discussions on free speech, the limits of free speech and dissent. Could you talk more about that?

Specifically what the panel was on had to do with dissent, and my role on the panel was to speak to the College’s policy on dissent. I had been invited by the Dean of Students to be a moderator of sorts, to make opening statements at events where expressions of student dissent were expected and to keep an eye on how things were developing.

Do you think you’ll continue to work on this issue as acting dean of Arts and Sciences?

I think we have a reasonable policy. The important thing is whether Dean Estes continues to have someone to continue to articulate the outlines of the policy to audiences before speakers when active dissent is expected. I think it’s really important that students know what is and is not permitted. Knowing that allows students to decide how to shape whatever expressions of dissent they think are appropriate.

The policy itself requires that it be distributed at occasions where it’s thought to be needed, and so that does happen and will continue to happen. But I don’t know whether any different decisions will be made about how to make sure students are informed. Nothing is ever carved in stone here and shouldn’t be. There’s always pos- sibilities that people will ask for revisions, but for the time being I’m comfortable with the policy.

I was actually on the faculty committee that revised the policy more than 10 years ago.

What do you look forward to as the acting dean?

It’s an unusual position to be an acting dean because the length of the position is relatively short at this point. But what I look forward to is the opportunity to work with faculty and colleagues in the administrative and professional staff to make sure that the faculty have appropriate resources to be giving the very best education possible for our students, and to create an environment in which they themselves thrive as well.

I enjoy having the opportunity to contribute to the mission of the institution in a new way for a time.