New Graduate School dean to address incoming students at Convocation

Longtime professor of medical science Andrew G. Campbell previews his keynote, titled “Can You Imagine,” and shares insights from his early days as dean.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On Tuesday, Sept. 6, more than 2,500 new undergraduate, graduate and medical students will process through the famed Van Wickle Gates en route to the College Green for Brown’s 253rd Opening Convocation ceremony.

Along with President Christina Paxson and faculty and staff from across the University, there to greet the newest students on College Hill will be keynote speaker Andrew G. Campbell, a longtime professor of medical science who began a new role as dean of the Graduate School on July 1. The event will be live-streamed here beginning at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

In advance of Opening Convocation and the official start to the 2016-17 academic year, we asked Campbell for a sneak peek on what he might share with incoming students as well as some insights from his early days as dean.  

Addressing a few thousand new students during their first week on campus is not exactly a low-pressure assignment — how have you approached thinking about what you’d like to convey in your keynote?

The way I have approached this has been to remind myself that the things I would like to say to one student would be the same things that I would say to thousands of students. Convocation is a wonderful opportunity to reach many students all at once. In terms of approach — I reflect back on my undergraduate and postgraduate experiences for inspiration in what I hope to convey at Convocation.

What advice can you recall receiving early in your own experience as a student or in your career as a scientist and educator that proved particularly influential?

I was encouraged to ask questions and to develop the skill of asking questions. I was told not to be afraid to challenge theories if I felt that other possibilities existed. I was told that as a newcomer or an outsider, you can ask the questions that people already in a field — those who embrace the theories of the field —often don’t see. Finally, I was told that writing is a skill that should not be overlooked. The problem is, it’s always overlooked. Writing is about communicating — it’s one of the best means of communicating and you just have to develop that skill.

Your address is titled, “Can You Imagine.” Without giving too much away, can you preview for us what you might share with this year’s incoming Brown students?

You might say that my talk is really about why it is important to imagine. Imagination is the common denominator among us all. It transcends race, gender, gender identity, class, ability and age. We’ve been doing it since before we began to walk or talk, and we’ve shared it with friends in our pre-adolescent, adolescent and even adult years. It’s a really powerful thing.

With your background in medical science at Brown and your research focus on microbial disease, what prompted your interest in leading the Graduate School?

I had remarkable experiences in graduate school with remarkable people. To me, my graduate experience was the most interesting, exciting and satisfying intellectual experience of my life. I want our graduate students to emerge with their degrees and that kind of feeling. I really grew and matured in graduate school. I engaged in my passion (research) and shared my passion as a teaching assistant. On top of all of this, I earned a doctorate in the end. I often say that the graduate educational system is the system that made me. I’m proud of that and of what I do for the academy. For years, my work has been graduate student-centered in the Division of BioMed. Now I get to look at graduate education even more broadly.

You’ve been a Brown faculty member since 1994, so you’re not new to campus — in your first weeks as dean, has anything surprised you as you have viewed graduate education and the University through a new lens?

I’ve been impressed by the dedication of the administration to the mission of this institution — there is a level of dedication that is not easily recognized by a lot of people, even me once upon a time. Prior to becoming dean, I did have some service roles at the University and was able to see this dedication firsthand. But having spent just a few short weeks as dean, the level of dedication is even higher than I had previously seen.

You have played the lead role in developing the Initiative to Maximize Student Development (IMSD), which has markedly increased enrollment and academic achievement among historically underrepresented students in life sciences doctoral programs — how will that work inform your perspective as dean?

IMSD program practices are model practices for what can be done in other disciplines — in the physical sciences, humanities and social sciences — and with other groups beyond just underrepresented students. If you look at the suite of activities offered by IMSD, you’ll realize that they are open to all students. Students who are designated as IMSD trainees cannot opt out of the programs activities, while students who are not designated as IMSD trainees can opt in or out. We know that any student who opts in tends to do better than students who opt out. What IMSD practices and outcomes have told us to date is that student success is all about increasing opportunities, access and support. Students don’t do well if they don’t have the opportunity to acquire the skills they need, don’t have access to invested mentors and don’t have the material and non-material support that they need. The Graduate School can focus more on addressing these needs. I see many of the IMSD practices as turnkey practices that can be adapted by many disciplines and programs — the Graduate School can play a vital role in this.

As you look toward your first semester as dean, what do you most want current and prospective graduate students to know about your aspirations for the Graduate School and your hopes for their experience at Brown?

I really want them to know that we, the Graduate School staff, are here to support them as they enter their graduate programs, as they advance through those programs and as they progress onto their post-training careers. We are here to support them through all phases of their graduate career.