WASHINGTON SPIRIT • Fall 2001  

James E. McLeod, Vice Chancellor for Students and Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences

Guiding the Student Experience

By Candace O'Connor

Each fall, another crop of 18-year-olds arrives on campus, eager to embark on a college education. But how can a busy research university be responsive to these undergraduates: advising them, challenging them, offering them special places to live and learn together, helping them come of age as educated, responsible citizens?

That's a tall order for any institution—and for any administrator who oversees the effort. But James E. McLeod, vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, is undaunted by the task. "I don't say this to the chancellor, because he will wonder why I need a salary, but I consider myself fortunate to have the best job in the University," McLeod says.

His colleagues turn the compliment around: They argue that Washington University is fortunate to have him. Since McLeod joined the German department faculty in 1974 and took on the first in an ascending series of administrative roles, he has made an indelible mark—quietly, modestly, often behind the scenes—on a host of new programs aimed at attracting a talented, diverse student body and enriching their undergraduate experience.

"Many of the great advances of Washington University have been conceived and shepherded by Jim McLeod," says William H. Danforth, vice chairman of the Board of Trustees and chancellor emeritus. "His understanding and wisdom, his goodwill, his honesty and his kindness, his courage and his judgment, his patience and his persistence make him a great and truly effective academic leader."

These advances, all encouraged or nurtured by McLeod, include some of the most successful undergraduate efforts of the past two decades: establishing and building the John B. Ervin Scholars Program for talented African-American students; developing a residential college approach to dormitory living; strengthening the undergraduate advising system; constructing new small-group housing; advising the new undergraduate curriculum effort in Arts & Sciences; enriching the mix of seminar experiences for freshmen; and helping to initiate and shape the expanded year-abroad program.

 


"Many of the great advances of Washington University have been conceived and shepherded by Jim McLeod,"
says William H. Danforth, vice chairman of the Board of Trustees and chancellor emeritus.


"I think Jim is a genius," says Edward S. Macias, executive vice chancellor and dean of Arts & Sciences. "He is able to make the most of our resources in the way that makes sense for this institution. His ideas drive a lot of what we do, and he also has a way of making the most of other people's ideas, setting a tone that lets them succeed on their own terms."

Along with his ideas, colleagues and students alike appreciate McLeod's warm personal style, especially his willingness to listen—often at the expense of his own busy schedule—then offer thoughtful advice, grounded in his own firm values. He strongly believes that, in the educational process, responsibility cuts two ways: The University must offer students a stimulating, nurturing program; while students should view their education as a privilege that entails responsibility to oneself and the larger community.

Michelle Purdy, A.B. '01, is a John B. Ervin Scholar and outgoing Student Union president who worked closely with McLeod. "For the past four years, I have taken to heart the encouraging advice he gave me, and the outstanding example he set," she says. "As a student leader, I learned the indispensable value of listening to others and adhering to one's own intuition by observing Dean McLeod."

McLeod's attitudes and values resonate with lessons he learned during his own childhood in Dothan, Alabama, a farming center where his father was pastor of a local church. In this small world, the young civil rights movement was far away. But other lessons were close at hand.

"Education had an enormous value; it was this thing you must get," he says. "Although most of my classmates didn't go to college, there was never any debate about it in my family. My parents managed to send all four of us—of course, we worked, borrowed, and got scholarships, too—but it was a great sacrifice for them."

At 16, McLeod moved on to Morehouse College and the urban world of Atlanta, where the civil rights movement was in full flower. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Morehouse alumnus and co-pastor of nearby Ebenezer Baptist Church, spoke regularly on campus; rallies took place across the street. "It was a very heady time and place," says McLeod, who participated in the sit-ins and the inevitable arrests.

Morehouse taught him that students have an obligation to leadership, service, citizenship. "It also showed me that, if a student steps out and participates, he will learn better. College is not a spectator sport: If you sit back and simply observe, you are not going to get a good education," he says.

But he also took his studies seriously. Morehouse emphasized such fundamentals as the mechanics of writing, the principles of science. Henry C. McBay, a legendary chemistry professor who was an exacting yet inspiring teacher, piqued his interest in chemistry. Then a stint at the University of Vienna shifted his major emphasis to German. After graduation in 1966, he continued on in German, doing his graduate work at Rice University, where he was an NDEA and Woodrow Wilson Fellow.

Over nearly three decades at Washington University, he has held various administrative positions: assistant dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences from 1974 to 1977; assistant to Chancellor William H. Danforth from 1977 to 1987; and director of the African and Afro-American Studies Program from 1987 until 1992, when he was appointed dean. For many years, he continued to teach as well. In 1991, he received a Distinguished Faculty Award at the annual Founders Day celebration.

In private life, he and his wife, Clara, librarian in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, are the parents of Sara, 15. Active in the community, he is also a serious amateur photographer and, much to Sara's dismay, an old-car fancier.

"The combination of vision and creativity, and the courage to act on both, have made Jim a valuable asset at Washington University," says Gerhild Williams, associate vice chancellor and the Barbara Schaps Thomas and David M. Thomas Professor in the Humanities. "All who work with Jim and whose efforts he has supported have benefited from his uncompromising devotion to the vision of making this a great University."

Candace O'Connor is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.

 

PEER REVIEW

""Jim McLeod is my most trusted adviser on all matters affecting the lives of our undergraduate students. His creative visions for the residential colleges, the redevelopment of the South 40, the new university center, strengthening the advising system, enhancing career planning and placement services, the health and wellness initiative, and the development of our small-group housing concept are all contributing to making Washington University a better place for students. His personal dedication and accomplishment inspire others, and he has emerged as one of the University's most effective leaders."

—Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor

 


 

"The Washington Spirit" spotlights key faculty members and administrators who advance and support our great University's teaching and learning, research, scholarship, and service for the present and future generations.