Dean Howard Erlich Steps Down

Howard Erlich is stepping down from his position as dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, but he is not ready to retire just yet. He plans to spend the 2008–9 academic year on sabbatical, remaining as chair of the American Conference of Academic Deans, a national organization that sponsors professional development opportunities for academic administrators. As a tenured professor of speech communication, Erlich has the option of returning to the classroom, or he may pursue one of the many research or service interests he has established over the years.

In 20 years, a dean can accomplish a lot. Associate provost David Garcia, who began his career at Ithaca College as the associate dean of H&S under Erlich, recognized the exceptional professionalism and dedication of his boss. “A mark of a good dean can be seen in the institutions and structures that are in place,” Garcia begins. “He takes great pains to ensure that his decisions are equitable across the school. And I think that in a school as large as H&S that is difficult to do, but it is critical.”

Erlich received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brooklyn College, studying speech and speech education, before earning his Ph.D. in communication studies, specifically political communications, from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1975. In 1973, Erlich became a faculty member of speech communication at Ithaca College, and from 1982 to 1986, he served as both a faculty member and assistant dean. From 1986 through 1988, Erlich was associate dean of H&S and then served as interim dean before assuming the deanship in 1989. 

Laurie Arliss, professor and chair in the Department of Speech Communication, started teaching at the College during Erlich’s time as faculty member and assistant dean. “He valued rhetoric and felt strongly that students needed to be good oral communicators,” Arliss says. “He had high standards, and he really cared about each student’s improvement.” Arliss believes it was his dedication to his work, the school, and liberal arts as a field of study that made Erlich successful early on in his capacity as an administrator. “His commitment to the liberal arts is something that he demonstrates as well as advocates,” Arliss explains. “He is familiar enough with an unbelievably wide array of programs within the school to make good decisions for those programs. I don’t know that there are many administrators anywhere that have such a deep knowledge of so many different and complex disciplines.”

Garcia agrees, noting that “the list of programs created or significantly reconceptualized on his watch is so extensive as almost to describe the School of Humanities and Sciences as we know it.” These programs include the H&S seminar program and the H&S honors program, both programs that were so successful they are now being emulated on an all-College level. “The honors program got started to elevate the profile of H&S on this campus, which has a very strong professional school identity,” explains Hugh Egan, professor of English and the first director of the H&S honors program.

Egan believes Erlich’s enthusiasm for forming the program is what kept the idea alive. “Dean Erlich was crucial in encouraging discussion and keeping the movement toward honors going,” says Egan. Erlich’s commitment to developing a strong liberal arts program at Ithaca College was evident even while he was assistant dean, when he oversaw the complex process of developing the writing major and turning the writing program into a department. “It’s highly unusual for a department of English and a department of writing to exist within the same school,” Erlich acknowledges, but he worked with both departments to ensure that they would have distinct curricula. Writing professor Marian MacCurdy cites Erlich’s support in initiating the writing department within H&S as crucial. “He understood [writing] to be a liberal arts degree, not a professional or preprofessional degree,” MacCurdy explains. The first writing majors graduated in 2001, and today it is one of the largest departments in the school, with more than 150 students in the major. Looking back on his administration, Erlich cites student learning as the core of all his endeavors. “Being intellectually alive is the most important thing, and I hope I helped our students realize that,” Erlich says. 

Others agree: “I think his commitment to student learning is really apparent by the emphasis [he] puts on advising,” says associate provost David Garcia. “The steps he has taken to see that academic advising is strong, and it’s stronger than any other school on campus, enhance the student experience.” Part of Erlich’s commitment to student learning can be seen in the rich educational opportunities that are available for students both in and out of the classroom, and his support in particular for undergraduate research. During Erlich’s tenure, the Fred L. Emerson Foundation endowed a Humanities Collaboration Award program for meritorious, financial aid-eligible humanities students to work one-on-one with a faculty member on a research project. Since 2001, more than 20 students have benefited from this unique opportunity. Erlich also made the decision to dedicate most of the resources of the H&S Ithaca Fund to a grant program that supports special projects by faculty and students.

Recently renamed the H&S Educational Grant Initiative, this competitive award program supports course-based activities that enhance teaching and learning, student-faculty collaborations, student presentations at academic conferences, and individual student projects. Some of these opportunities occur in the context of a class, as when assistant professor Elizabeth Bleicher took students in her Victorian Literature class to a special exhibit on Victorian books in New York City. Others occur in the laboratory or the library, as individual students pursue honors research topics requiring expensive materials or travel. Erlich also threw his support behind the development of a new “performance based” physics classroom that physics faculty and administration developed during the 2004–5 academic year. The “studio” physics classroom is physically organized differently from the standard lecture model; instead of rows of desks, there are round tables, facilitating discussions and inquiries, with the faculty members acting as consultants, not lecturers. “We think students learn better and more actively in that setting,” Erlich says. Luke Keller, assistant professor of physics, who teaches introductory physics in the new classroom, noted that the dean “was supportive and enthusiastic about recommending the new classroom to the College administration. He saw this as a way to enhance the liberal arts and offer students the best physics experience possible.”

At the May celebration in honor of Erlich’s 20 years of service as dean, Jerry Mirskin, associate professor of writing, had this to say about Erlich’s contribution: “The traits of a leader are many, but basically they come down to two: you have to have talent (intelligence) and energy. But it’s not simply enough to have energy. One must be willing to give their energy, their life’s energy, to their mission, their institution. [Dean Erlich has] done that, and that’s one of the main things we’re grateful for.”