Exclusive interview with CAS’s new dean Gabrielle Starr

Courtesy of NYU

By Michael Domanico

For being the leader of a school with over 7,000 undergraduates, newly appointed College of Arts and Science Dean G. Gabrielle Starr seemed anything but haughty.

Stepping into her office, she took the time to talk about family, specific students and living in the city. She’s humble as she claims that the challenges she faced during her stint as the college’s acting dean caught her completely off guard. She’s self-deprecating as she mentions unpredictable emergencies that can ruin a dean’s plans.

But looking at her resumé, Starr has every right to be a bit presumptuous. Ending up at NYU was by no means an accident — Starr was always set on landing a job in Manhattan, her eyes on NYU since obtaining her Ph.D. in English from Harvard University.

“That year that I graduated with my Ph.D., there was no job [at NYU],” Starr said. “[Then], I got an email from my old adviser at Harvard, who said that [NYU’s] English department was looking for someone … I came here and fell in love.”

Since then, many at NYU have fallen in love with her. Professor Elaine Freedgood, who worked with Starr in the English department, lamented the department’s loss light-heartedly.

“In unselfish moments, I’m thrilled for her, for NYU and for our students that she has been appointed to the deanship of CAS,” Freedgood said. “Perhaps she will visit us occasionally. We miss her very much.”

Although a highly respected member of the English department faculty, Starr also has a passion for science — she is a researcher in neuroaesthetics, a new discipline that explores the brain’s responses to aesthetic experience. As dean, Starr hopes to raise the college’s prestige in the sciences.

“I’m really interested in focusing on … making sure we keep the science [and] technology pipeline going,” she said. “There are a lot of national figures about STEM education that show that there is a really leaky pipeline.”

To combat the “leaky pipeline,” Starr recognized several key issues to address.

“Can we train people in the sciences as a way of thinking that’s not just about wanting to go on and do research?” Starr said. “How can we make sure that the robust scientific inquiry is really developed here in the college, and that’s something I’m working with our science departments on.”

The university’s controversial expansion plan NYU 2031 is another major hurdle. But the dean agrees the college needs room to grow.

“The fact of the matter is that they’re not making any more of Manhattan,” she said. “Manhattan is its size, and we need space. We certainly need classroom space. We need office space. We need space for student activities.”

She praised NYU President John Sexton’s role in the project, and she thinks he understands the faculty’s vocal concerns about the planned construction.

“I have friends who are colleagues on both sides of the issue, and I think the job of deans is to listen to what my colleagues have to say, to try and make sure that we have debates that are rooted in fact,” she said. “But [deans must also] make sure that the concerns that my colleagues have are not dismissed, that they’re heard.”

Starr remained optimistic about the future of NYU 2031 and the opinions of the CAS faculty.

“They’re getting the information that they need, and they’re smart people who already came in with differing opinions and I think will come to a good resting place,” she said.

Notwithstanding NYU 2031, financial aid and student debt have become contentious topics not only at the university but on a national level. According to Starr, financial aid requires a delicate balance between “cost and quality.”

“That means not just helping to make the tuition and fees and all that affordable but enabling students to access the global network,” she said.

Indeed, Starr intends to build that strong liberal arts program.

“Everyone wonders, ‘What am I going to do with an English degree? What am I going to do with a history degree?’ And [universities] have historically been pretty bad at explaining it,” she said. “We keep saying it, and the proof is there because we know that our graduates do wonderful things, but how is it that we can make those connections for students really visible?”

Looking ahead, Starr hopes her time as dean will set a new standard of academic excellence.

“I would like to see us within the top five in just about every discipline in which we teach,” she said. “I think that would be amazing.”

Michael Domanico is copy chief. Additional reporting by Veronica Carchedi. Email them at university@nyunews.com.

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