By Published: Sept. 5, 2017

As a new academic year begins in the College of Arts and Sciences, change is on the horizon. Provost Russell Moore has asked me to serve as interim dean for the next year, and the top agenda item is a multi-year discussion about the future of learning and discovery at the University of Colorado Boulder.


James W.C. White

Titled “Rethinking the university: the futures of learning and discovery,” the conversation will occur both within the college itself and throughout the university and is designed to identify our deepest aspirations in research, teaching, learning and service, and begin building the roadmaps to realize those aspirations. Our faculty, staff and students will play key roles in driving these conversations, and alumni will also have the opportunity to contribute. To learn more, please see Provost Moore and CFO Fox’s Q&A on the process in the most recent edition of CU Boulder Today as well as a website outlining additional information.

I am pleased to report that our conversation begins from a place of profound strength and notable accomplishment. Many of the awards our faculty have earned are well-known—the Nobel Prizes, Pulitzer Prizes and MacArthur “Genius” Awards. Many other honors, numbering in the hundreds, further underscore our faculty’s quality. Our students also generate considerable pride. Each year, another impressive group of students arrives, eager to absorb and apply knowledge in their personal, professional and civic lives.

From its beginning in 1892, the College of Arts and Sciences embraced a clear mission: to offer a higher education to Colorado citizens and others. Former University of Colorado President James H. Baker, who also served as de facto dean at the college’s inception, said the university’s mission was to take “young men from the mines, the ranges and ranches, young men and women from the homes of honest toil, and offer them the greatest blessing the state can bestow upon its children.” Though we might scoff at the antiquated language here, the “blessing” to which President Baker referred remains so today:  a liberal-arts education that empowers our graduates to serve their communities, the state of Colorado, the nation and the world.

Our own community and A&S’s place in it have also changed dramatically. In 1892, a mere 55 students enrolled in the college, and the whole university sat on a largely barren hill overlooking Boulder. Today, some 16,500 students are in the College of Arts and Sciences; the campus is anything but barren; and the once-agrarian West is a cog in the global economy. Through the years, the college has preserved its commitment to a diverse and relevant curriculum, while adjusting its strategies to meet the needs of the day.

So, as we launch a vital discussion about tomorrow, it is important to acknowledge the many triumphs of yesterday along with the significant strengths of today. I would be remiss if I did not thank Steven R. Leigh, who served with distinction as dean of the college for the past five years. I also want to thank Provost Moore for his confidence in me to lead the College of Arts and Sciences during this important time.

As you may know, I am a professor of geological sciences and the founding chair of environmental studies. I am eager to undertake this new role with a commitment to listening, to boldly imagining where the college can go and to employing maximum creativity, flexibility and energy to draw the roadmap to get us there.

We are in this together, and I want to emphasize my commitment to open and transparent communication. I look forward to meeting with students, faculty and staff to hear your visions for a college once again facing new horizons, but doing so confident in all that we have achieved and all that we might achieve in the future.

James W.C. White is interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.