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Hanging in her office is a sign that reads, “People who say it can’t be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” Mary McGee, Albright’s new provost and vice president for academic affairs, and professor of  religious studies, has already made an impression on campus as someone who is not afraid to put on as many hats as possible—literally and figuratively—to get the job done.

McGee last served as professor of religious studies at Alfred University, where she also spent six years as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Studies. Prior to her time at Alfred, she held administrative and teaching positions at Columbia University, Vassar College and Harvard University.

As Albright’s chief academic officer, McGee is responsible for the faculty and related administrative departments that support the academic program of the College, such as the Library, Information Technology Services and Center for the Arts.

Since her arrival in February, McGee has immersed herself in the student experience and says she has enjoyed getting to know faculty, staff and the greater Reading community. We had a chance to talk with her to learn more about her views on the liberal arts and undergraduate research, what she’s learned since arriving on campus, and what she sees as Albright’s biggest challenges.

Albright Reporter: What have you learned about Albright that you didn’t know when you arrived?

Mary McGee: I didn’t know that the library used the Dewey Decimal System. Apparently, a lot of people who have been here a long time didn’t know that either. But it leads us to the discussion of whether we should transition to the Library of Congress and to finding out what that involves. I’ve been going out and asking a lot of questions and uncovering things. I learned last week that we don’t have classes between 4 and 6 because that’s student time and athletics time. Part of my role as provost is to be committed to the revitalization of Reading and to look for ways for the city and the college to grow together, so I am learning a lot about Berks County. In my first week I was at the Berks County Foundation for a meeting and found that many people identify themselves by county, rather than by town or city. While I have been told that it takes a long time to be considered a Berks County resident, I am committed to being part of this county and growing Albright’s partnerships in the region.

AR: What was your first impression of Albright?

MM: I came to the December graduation, even before I was on the job. As the graduates processed in to the bagpipe music, I found my eyes brimming with tears. The diversity of the students—there were mothers, daughters, all age groups—you just saw the pride. The fact that I was already tearing up told me I was in the right place.

AR: How are you getting to know the students?

MM: Our students are required to do 16 Experience events throughout their four years here, preferably by the end of their sophomore year. One of the challenges I’ve given myself is to complete this requirement within my first limited semester here. In my very first week I went to an interfaith panel with a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian. I was very impressed with their questions and comments of  our students as they engaged the panelists. They’re very articulate. That same week I went to a student-directed play and was told that three actors were first-year students. They had amazing talent. I’m living in the student housing in the Albright Woods; people think I am courageous for doing this, but I am really enjoying it. It is surprisingly quiet. The only time I meet students up there is during a fire alarm or when I am doing laundry. I also leave pretty early in the morning and get home late at night, but I’m living in their midst.

AR: What is Albright’s most pressing issue?

MM: The two most pressing issues aren’t really unique to Albright. One is articulating the purpose and  value of a liberal arts education and its importance in our world today. We want students and their parents  to understand how a liberal arts education prepares one not only for multiple careers, but a life of learning and purpose. The other concern I see relates to innovation: how do we evolve, change with our world, and be creative with limited resources, and how do we model this for our students? We will always have limited resources, but how do we use these resources well and responsibly related to our mission? What informs our choices and how do we make tough decisions?

AR: Why is a liberal arts education important?

MM: The liberal education model is about educating people for a democracy, learning how individuals are participating in and shaping our world; it gives one the tools and knowledge-base to make a difference, to keep growing and to keep learning. There are of course hard and soft skills that go with that. There’s the communicating, reading, writing, analyzing, and putting all those together to solve problems creatively and adapt to the environment around you. So many people are focused on the kind of job they are going to get with a liberal arts degree. I’m concerned that there’s an over-focus on the major. It’s not about the major, it’s about educating the whole person. A major helps develop some skills in an area one may be passionate about, but a number of majors are not designed to land a specific job. Employers are looking to hire individuals who have strong communication skills, are nimble thinkers, and can connect with diverse populations: a liberal arts education provides a strong foundation for many different jobs and careers, including jobs that do not even exist in our world today. The Department of Labor shows us that there are jobs now that didn’t exist five, ten years ago. How do we prepare students for that? If we prepare students with very limited kinds of technical skills, those are going to be obsolete. A liberal arts education gives students the foundation to keep learning, to be adaptable, to be flexible, and when confronted with diversity, how to be open to it, learn from it and respond to it. Those are the hallmarks of a liberal education.

AR: How did you become interested in South Asian religious traditions, the focus of your field research?

MM: I went to college planning to be an environmental lawyer, but that was before anything like that really existed. They didn’t know what to do with me, so they put me on a pre-med track. I had gone to all-girls schools my whole life and now all of a sudden I was on a campus that was coed and in the lab on a Friday afternoon, when almost everyone else was outside on the playing fields. Through an on-campus job, I ended up on a study abroad program to India my junior year. I went into it knowing nothing about India. I went terrified, but once I arrived I felt very at home; that study abroad experience transformed my trajectory and my worldview. When I returned I began my academic study of India, with a focus on the religious and ritual traditions of Hindus, with particular attention to women’s roles. I found that what was being said in many of the textbooks did not correspond to my experience on the ground in India. My scholarship has evolved to address this gap. Much of my research has been building bridges of understanding between traditional Sanskrit texts from the 12th to the 18th century and field work, highlighting the experiences of women as religious and ritual leaders within the domestic sphere. My research involves much inference, trying to read between the lines of traditional texts written by men, as I work to document the significant religious roles of women in the culture. India is a country of diverse and complex communities. My experiences have opened my heart and mind in many ways.

AR: How does undergraduate research play a role in a liberal arts education?

MM: Hands-on learning and experiential learning can be transformative. At Albright, students are working side-by-side with faculty, collaborating on research, experiments and art work. Undergraduate research gives them something to dig their teeth into and see their learning at work, often generating that “aha” moment. To me, the more we can support such kinds of learning experiences the better. The ACRE program is a great example of how to institutionalize this kind of experience and build it into the  curriculum. Many of these undergraduate research and creative projects are based on ideas initiated by students, with faculty serving as partners, mentors or supervisors. These opportunities are not only great learning experiences, but they are significant resume builders for jobs and graduate school  applications. One of the things I love about Albright’s program is that it supports undergraduate research across all disciplinary fields.

AR: What do you want faculty, administrators and alumni to know about you?

MM: I’m a multitasker, a list maker, and I wear many different hats, literally and figuratively, which I love. I’ve been on teams most of my life–volleyball and swimming–and I sing in choirs. I like being a part of an effort that engages people of all different abilities as we create something special together.

 

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