Carla Freeman, former executive associate dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences (ECAS), Goodrich C. White Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) and associated faculty in Anthropology and Latin American and Caribbean Studies, assumed the role of interim dean of ECAS.  She replaced Michael Elliott, who assumed his new role as president of Amherst College (Mass.) on Aug. 1 after leaving his position as dean of ECAS.

In an interview with The Emory Wheel, Freeman shared her thoughts on a wide array of topics, including diversity and student engagement. Responses have been edited by the Wheel for clarity.

Emory College of Arts and Sciences Interim Dean Carla Freeman. Photo courtesy of Emory University

Emory Wheel: What about your past roles at Emory, as executive associate dean and Goodrich C. White WGSS professor, have prepared you for this new role?

Carla Freeman: That’s an easy one and a fun one to answer. Fundamentally, if you were to ask me who you are, I am an anthropologist. That is the lens with which I navigate the world. In many ways, I have discovered that being an anthropologist gives you a really good toolkit for being a dean. I love to teach, and I really love working with undergraduate students. Like most professors, one never imagines the life of a dean when you’re enjoying that beautiful combination between research and teaching. The nature of my work focuses on the meaning and structures of work in people’s everyday lives. You occupy this really wonderful position of combining the creativity and curiosity that you can bring to the classroom, to the research. It’s incredibly meaningful to be able to support and work with some of the world’s greatest scholars and teachers.

EW: What are your plans as interim dean of ECAS?

CF: There are three main goals or promises that I have set for myself in this role. One is that the spotlight is on the undergraduate experience. It’s really exciting for me to be able to turn my energies toward partnerships with campus life to ensure that we are offering undergraduates a fully integrated educational experience. It also means promising and ensuring a connection between what happens in the classroom and the experiences students have beyond the classroom, whether it’s in study abroad, internships or engagements with the new Pathways Center. The second is to continue to support and accelerate our research mission and seize opportunities to inspire our faculty to produce path-breaking research with real impact. The third is to advance our campaign strategic plan, our capital campaign and engage deeply and closely with our alumni and other supporters to help fuel the engine of the University.

EW: Former Dean Michael Elliott “made major strides in faculty diversity and eminence, undergraduate liberal arts education, philanthropic support and recruitment of top students,” according to the Emory News Center. How will you continue Elliott’s legacy as interim dean?

CF: One of the greatest things about Elliott’s leadership was that he recruited and supported his team to be leaders in their own right. He invested a lot of his energy in faculty diversity, for example, and he let me take that ball and run with it in some exciting new directions. In the six years I served in the senior associate dean of faculty role, I helped us hire hundreds of new faculty, many of whom are faculty of underrepresented groups. Elliott empowered me to be creative.

EW: You have been directly involved in efforts to bring in new faculty hires belonging to identities historically underrepresented in academia. Where do you see the current state of faculty diversity and how will you continue this work?

CF: In my executive role, I have had the opportunity to work really proactively with a more interesting and a more diverse array of faculty and then see moments of opportunity to support them in distinctive ways. I’ve been able to work with incredible faculty like Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies Carol Anderson, who I have watched first-hand transform the lives of her students in addition to creating a whole new discourse in the American context for examining the history of race and racism in America. We are on an upward trajectory, and there is always more work for us to do. The goal here is that we bring new faculty to campus, and they are going to help chart a new vision for our future.

EW: How do you see Emory implementing more diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on campus? 

CF: All of our affinity groups, I hope and expect, will be fully engaged in a wide array of cultural events, around the election, academic gatherings on campus and art events in the city of Atlanta. I think there are lots of opportunities for our most diverse array of students to engage on campus and beyond that enrich us in totality as a community. I love meeting people in the dining hall, in the Carlos Museum or on the quad, who come from very different backgrounds. I would love to hear from students more about how we can support those kinds of interchanges among our very diverse groups of students. One of the things I would really like to hear more from students about is how we are doing as far as creating opportunities that not only enhance our diversity but enhance opportunities for interchange.

EW: What parts of the student experience do you hope to improve as dean?

CF: My first goal in working with students is this sweet spot of helping students connect their academic experience with other domains of the experiences we want them to have beyond the classes, to see that relationship as completely entangled with each other. For me, the important message is that all of this is part of student flourishing. The experience in the classroom and beyond the classroom has to be understood as completely intertwined, and that’s what produces a meaningful education and helps the students learn as much about the world and the disciplines as about themselves.

EW: How do you plan to interact with students, and how do you plan to implement student input in your policies?

CF: I want to form my own dean’s working group, a kind of roundtable of students, and hear what’s on people’s minds. I would like to try to tap students who are not already visible leaders but students who are interested in contributing their ideas, experiences and vision. I’m interested in putting together a diverse group of students as one source of input. I really like spending time with students. I’d like to be invited to the dining hall and have lunch with students on a regular basis. I’d like to have an open-door table at the student center and have a chance to engage students who would like to sit down with me.

EW: I know a lot of students have raised concerns about mental health on campus in the last year. What are your plans to address this as dean?

CF: This is a struggle that every campus, every nation, every community is struggling with. The challenge is real. We now have a new Associate Vice President for Health, Well-Being, Access and Prevention, James Raper, and I think this is his single greatest challenge and opportunity: to more systematically meet the needs of our students. We recognize that this is a widespread and profound challenge. It’s hard for me to say more than that — we see that it’s a struggle and a challenge. All of us feel a really deep sense of compassion and concern for our students in their whole selves.

EW: The last woman to serve as ECAS dean was Eleanor Main in 1987, when she served for seven months. What is it like to be the first female dean in a few decades?

CF: I have to begin my response to that by saying that I would not be here were it not for Eleanor Main and a handful of powerful, strong, brave and generous Emory women leaders. I stand on the shoulders of those women. Not only am I a new woman leader for the College, but my senior associate dean of faculty, my senior associate of research and my senior associate dean of the undergraduate program are all women leaders. I think it is quite remarkable, if not unique, that Emory College has in its top leadership positions all serious women scholars, teachers and leaders. There are ways in which I think and I hope we bring a particular kind of spirit and mode of engagement that will feel fresh and new and inspiring.

EW: Along with your appointment, other dean positions have been recently filled at Oxford and in the schools of public health and business. What is it like to be part of a new era of leadership at Emory and what do you anticipate this new leadership will bring to the community?

CF: I think new leadership brings new experiences and new ideas. What excites me is that I bring both a deep familiarity and a profound love of Emory to this new role, so I feel both like an insider and an outsider. I feel I can support all of the other new deans, and I am really excited about building closer relationships. They are all pretty new to Emory, and in many ways, I feel I have an opportunity to engage their new ideas and their fresh perspectives while also marshaling a deep knowledge and a profound love for this place as a member of the faculty and as a parent.

EW: If there is one thing you could change at ECAS regardless of the feasibility, what would it be and why?

CF: I would like for the intellectual heartbeat of this campus to be even more of a socially engaged, academically engaged and civically engaged place. It could mean that all of our faculty could easily afford to live in the neighborhood. Or that all of our students could live on this campus. If I could build enough housing, I would want students here for all four years.

EW: What do you want Emory students to know about you?

CF: I want them to know how passionately I care about the full educational experience.