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Karen Gil in South Building, with a view of the Old Well

One of the first and most important actions Karen Gil took when she became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in July 2009 was to instill a culture of “getting to yes,” said those who have worked closely with her.

Maintaining morale and positivity was no easy feat in 2009. The nation was in the throes of the worst economic recession since the Depression. The University’s budget was severely constrained. Faculty recruitment and retention were major issues. The College had had five deans or interim deans in six years.

“She wanted us to be known as the ‘Can-Do Dean’s Office,’” said Tammy McHale, senior associate dean for finance and planning, to focus on creative solutions and short- and long-term goals instead of fixating on obstacles and limited resources. McHale said her team still uses the “can-do” phrase today when facing challenges.

Gil, who announced in November that she will step down as dean at the end of the academic year to return to the department of psychology, provided much-needed stability and implemented several key measures that have strengthened the College and positioned it for the needs of the 21st century, said Jonathan Hartlyn, senior associate dean for social sciences and global programs.

Under Gil, the College:

  • Began transforming large lecture classes to make them more engaging and effective. Carolina has received national recognition for its efforts in implementing “active learning” strategies, and the College now has a director of instructional innovation.
  • Created the first new science departments in 40 years — applied physical sciences and biomedical engineering — to respond to growing demand for the disciplines.
  • Advanced global education at Carolina by hiring more faculty in the social sciences, humanities and fine arts with global expertise, launching a master’s in global studies program and raising funds for study-abroad and foreign internship experiences.
  • Expanded digital education through the Digital Humanities Lab and Initiative.
  • Strengthened the popular minor in entrepreneurship, adding new areas of concentration and a new office suite for faculty and student collaborations.
  • Doubled the size of Honors Carolina by adding new faculty positions.
  • Saw its endowment grow from $375 million to $600 million. Currently, 26 percent of College faculty are supported at least in part by private funding, an increase of over 2 percent in six years (no small feat in a tough economic climate and considering that the number of tenured and tenure-track positions in the College also grew).
  • Hired its first director of faculty diversity initiatives, hired more women in the sciences and enhanced recruitment and advancement efforts for faculty members from diverse backgrounds.

Many who worked with her praised Gil for her vision, her strategic focus, her support for academic department chairs, creating an environment that fosters collaboration, her ability to listen and seek feedback and her sense of commitment to Carolina.

“It was never about her — she was always working on behalf of other people, as chair [of the psychology department] as senior associate dean [of undergraduate education and later of social sciences] and as dean,” said Bruce Carney, interim College dean and later provost.

She also managed the College during the difficult time in which academic irregularities were uncovered. “When she knew something was wrong, she jumped in; she didn’t try to hand it off,” said Bill Andrews, who served as Gil’s senior associate dean for fine arts and humanities until 2012. “She grasped immediately that it was a serious problem and oversaw the implementation of many reforms in the College to ensure that it couldn’t happen again.”

Gil also supported the arts and humanities when the value of a liberal arts education was being questioned by some.

“I didn’t have to explain their value to her; keeping them on an upward trajectory was just in her core,” said Terry Rhodes, senior associate dean for fine arts and humanities. “Coming from someone with a science background — that was just huge.”

Holden Thorp, Gil’s predecessor as dean (he was appointed chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill and is now provost at Washington University in St. Louis), provides these words of advice for the outgoing dean: “Enjoy the next stage and feel great about everything you’ve done for Carolina.”

By Geneva Collins

Published in the Spring 2015 issue | The Scoop

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