On March 26, it was announced that Dean Norma Bouchard of the College of Arts and Sciences is leaving Drexel to become president at Chapman University. She was dean for almost two years. She agreed to speak to the Triangle about her time in Drexel and her “bittersweet” departure. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Ioana Racu: Can you tell me a bit about your background before coming to Drexel?
Norma Bouchard: I came to Drexel after working for four years at a very similar university, San Diego State University. Prior to that, I was a faculty member, permanent member and then associate dean at the University of Connecticut for 17 years.
IR: Can you tell me a bit about your experience at Drexel in particular?
NB: It was an interesting experience because, within six months of my arrival, we were in the midst of a pandemic. It has been a very positive experience. The college is full of incredibly talented students, faculty, and staff. It really is a gem of a college – I can say that without a shadow of a doubt. I have had the privilege of working with some of the best people I have worked with in academia in 25-30 years, thanks to the College of Arts and Sciences.
IR: Besides your administrative work at Drexel, what are your academic interests?
NB: Cultural studies, cultural history – I work in the broad sense. I started out as a modernist, 19th and 20th century. For five or six years, I have been working on Mediterranean studies, post-colonial studies [and] Studies on diasporas in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. I also get involved in film studies.
RI: How has the pandemic affected your work as dean and as a member of the Drexel community?
NB: There were certainly many challenges. We have all experienced them. The great challenge that everyone had to face was to maintain continuity in teaching, research and service. We all had 24 hours to go out, remember the announcement? It was a very short period of adjustment. It was remarkable that everyone is adjusting. Faculty, students and staff learned to do it all remotely. I would say another big challenge was to keep growing the college, expanding, addressing our vision and pushing it forward, while having the added complication of not being together. I am very proud to report that we have succeeded in doing so. We had a plan to reorganize the main functions of the college, we organized the Day of Women in Research and we maintained the continuity of teaching. We have done a lot of public outreach to the community.
IR: What are some of the most important goals you accomplished during your time at Drexel?
NB: I come from the public school system. I am the product of public schools. I have an accent. I was born and raised in Italy. I went to school at the University of Turin. 99% of the European school system is made up of public schools. I started my graduate studies at CUNY grad Center in New York, then I finished at Indiana University. So Drexel was my first experience, actually, in a private institution. I have always been in the public school system. What I have been very attached to is shared governance, distributed leadership. The institutions are so complex, and they are getting more and more complex. After the pandemic, it’s going to be even more complicated, right?
There are many determinants that we saw in the pandemic – who returned, who couldn’t, who could blended, who had to move. We really need to think seriously about bringing everyone to the table when we are making decisions – faculty, staff, students, alumni. We need to strive to build diverse teams because when you have a lot of different people with different perspectives and experiences, you make better decisions. This is something that I think I pushed really hard for the College of Arts and Sciences. We did everything as a group. It was kind of a cultural change. I think it’s very important to be very open. Explain what our reality is. I insist on collective fulfillment because it was everyone’s effort to really find ways to work much more together as a college sharing services that are essential to supporting everyone, as well as working on the strategic plan. The fact that we were able to do all of this during the pandemic is a big thumbs up to the [Drexel] community.
IR: You were part of the committee that created the Anti-Racism Taskforce. What other initiatives did you launch during your time at Drexel?
NB: Diversity is close to my heart as an immigrant. My first college job was actually in Puerto Rico, where 95 percent of the students are Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean, and so on. I was dean at the State of San Diego, also a very large Hispanic institution. So naturally, under-represented students, disadvantaged students, first-generation students are very important to me personally, but also professionally. I work in post-colonial, migration and diasporic studies. During the pandemic, I decided to create the very first office of an associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion for the college. With [Amelia Hoover Green’s] (Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion), we started a community reading, which was a student-selected book – Wilder’s book, “Ebony and Ivy,” a large study on structural racism . I also asked each department to create a Diversity Council. We now have 13 diversity boards. We have launched a mentoring program for under-represented students. Another thing we’re launching this summer is actually a mentorship program, specifically focused on under-represented students in STEM, in partnership with Johnson & Johnson. We decided it was time to start investing in our Minor in African Studies. We have just completed a recruiting group for scholars in African studies. We launched a Curriculum Innovation Award. Under the direction of the Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, we also provide teacher training and support for inclusive pedagogy. There is still a lot to do !
IR: How do you feel about leaving Drexel after spending two years here?
NB: It was very bittersweet. I have had the privilege of working with some of the most amazing people I have ever worked with. I think that’s probably the best way to put it. I am sure that I will stay in touch with the friends and colleagues with whom I have had the privilege of working. I have no doubt. I even keep my place in Philadelphia!
IR: What do you have to say to the current students of the College of Arts and Sciences as a final message and as a farewell message from the current dean?
NB: First of all, keep it bright, the students in the classroom are just amazing. My message to the students is that the knowledge base now changes every five years. This means that you are going to have lots and lots of jobs in your lifetime. Think about really acquiring fundamental skills and competences, skills and transferable skills. Try to train the mind and only your working habits, for flexibility, creativity, and the ability, really, to navigate sets of knowledge, both broad and in-depth. At the College of Arts and Sciences, we train students with significant skills, a variety of qualitative and quantitative problem-solving skills. These are transferable skills that employers demand all the time.
I also think that alongside these professional values or career skills, there are a lot of epistemological values that go into the teaching of the arts and sciences. We study the humanities and social sciences, because we want to understand ourselves much better, the world, the impact of ourselves in the world. Deep disciplines such as history, anthropology, philosophy, train us to understand the different beliefs that have shaped communities and the world throughout history. They help us understand and predict the general implications and consequences of our technology runaway behavior. I also believe that your generation will have to face a lot of challenges including the environment, climate change and how you need technology, but you also need the mindset, the culture. Take arts and science courses, major or minor in arts and sciences. Make sure you really lay the groundwork for success. We educate, and we try – that’s what science is.