Off The Cuff: Tim Elgren, scientist, teacher and new Dean of Arts and Sciences

Tim Elgren is a Chemistry professor at Hamilton College and Oberlin’s new Dean of Arts and Sciences, a duty he will assume on July 1, 2014. Elgren sat down with the Review to discuss his attraction to the sciences, his experience as a teacher, and his first impression of Oberlin students as possible victors of the Hunger Games.

Maddie Stocker, News Editor

What geared you toward the sciences?

I’m a physical inorganic chemist, so that’s a lot of chemistry. That’s my background. [I went to] undergraduate school in St. Paul, MN, and really explored a lot of areas. I was interested in psychology, I got interested in biology, and ultimately landed in chemistry, and really felt that I was incredibly fortunate to have landed at exactly the kind of level of question that I really enjoyed thinking about. So chemistry was a natural place for me. I went off to Dartmouth [College] and did my graduate work in this specialized area of chemistry. I [was] always interested in environmental chemistry, but when I got there I became interested in a biochemical detoxification project, so that was my root into the chemical basis of toxicology and environmental toxicology.

What made you want to go into teaching?

There were many tracks for chemists, so there are really two questions that are interesting: The first is Why teaching? The second is: Why teaching at a liberal arts college? A lot of people headed off to industrial careers, and chemistry is a very professional track in that way, but I really enjoyed the academic environment, so that’s what I really wanted to pursue. But then I went off into a postdoctorate as well, which is common for scientists.I did a postdoctorate at the University of Minnesota, [which has] a very large research lab. A lot of the people were going off to research institutions, and that really didn’t interest me. I really wanted to work at a small college again, a liberal arts college, where there was an opportunity to reach out across the disciplinary borders and work with my colleagues and other students on issues at the interface of chemistry and other issues like public policy and environmental studies and those sorts of things.

Why did you apply for the dean position at Oberlin?

Well, they recruit people, but I was of course looking for a dean job. I had been an Associate Dean at Hamilton [College] and enjoyed it in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. So I had had a lot of success in my role as a faculty member in terms of the normal things that we do: pursuing my scholarly interests, research and enjoying the teaching and developing curricula, which are really part and parcel to the job. But there’s also another aspect to the job that has to do with service and taking on part of the institutional load of helping to deliver the things that we do as a college. That’s part of what every faculty member does. So I was part of a process at Hamilton that lead to a new curriculum, and at the end of that I was asked to serve the administration to help implement that. What I found in the Dean’s office is that I enjoyed helping to [facilitate] my associates’ successes as much as I enjoyed aiding my own. I think that involvement in faculty development is what has motivated me to move on in the administration. This year, the Oberlin job was really the very best job that was on the market. Oberlin’s just an iconic institution [with a] rich, rich background of academic excellence and social justice, inclusion [and] a spectacular conservatory. It’s really just a fantastic opportunity, so of course I applied and was delighted to have advanced in the process and ultimately been selected.

Have you been to Oberlin?

[Laughs.] Yes. I was there for the interview process, but I haven’t spent much time there, and I haven’t spent much time getting to know the campus. So it’s new to me.

Any first impressions?

[Laughs.] You know, I didn’t get much of the quirky and strange part. I just got the sense that it’s a very engaged campus. I’ve always had a very strong feeling, and I knew more about Oberlin as being a leader in higher education. I’ve known about Oberlin for a long time, but I didn’t know much about the student experience. So being on campus, visiting the art museum… somebody grabbed me to get coffee and we went and sat in the Conservatory, surrounded by terrific music. It really was just a rich, rich experience, but I just got a tiny little taste of it.

Is there a specific aspect of the position that you’re the most excited for?

There are a lot of things that are exciting and part of it, from my perspective coming from outside the institution, [is that it’s] really a great opportunity to know a new community and see what they value, and how they express that value in the form of an education, and how that translated into a student experience. I served a year as an American Council on Education fellow, and got to travel to a number of institutions and talk with a number of administrators and faculty and students about the academic experience — not just in the liberal arts sector, but in many sectors. It’s really just one of the great things as you get to know a new institution to see how those things get implemented, and how those aspirations turn into everyday activities and ultimately what the students leave with. I’m really excited to get to know the Oberlin community and various corners of the campus, not just faculty and staff, but the student experience as well. So specifically what I’m really excited about is that the campus is just starting a strategic planning process, and so this is really a great way for somebody from the outside to join the community and think about how the members of the community envision the future of Oberlin.

Is there any aspect of the position that you’re nervous about?

I’m nervous about being an outsider because I would hate to give the impression that I have sharp elbows as I ask questions and get a sense of what Oberlin’s values [are], and how the community works and how the faculty operate. So I’ll be conscious and listen very carefully as I start to get involved and get to know people.

Alright, cool. So tell me, are you familiar with the Hunger Games?

[Laughs.] Yes. I saw the first one; I didn’t see the second one.

That’s really okay, I haven’t seen any of them. But really, if Oberlin students were pitted against Hamilton students in a Hunger Games-type situation, who do you think would win and why?

Oh, tough call…


Yeah, tough call. You know, I don’t know the Oberlin students well enough… but it seems like they’re crafty and creative and resourceful, and I think that would play well in their environment. How’s that for dancing around it?