Epstein Exits: A Conversation on Her Tenure as Provost and Dean of Faculty

In July, Catherine Epstein will step down from her position as Provost and Dean of the Faculty and return to teaching in the history department. In this exit interview with The Student, Epstein reflects on her tenure and legacy.

Epstein Exits: A Conversation on Her Tenure as Provost and Dean of Faculty
Epstein has been dean of faculty since 2014, and as provost and dean of faculty since 2019. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

June Dorsch: You began working at the college in 2000. How did you decide Amherst was the place you wanted to be? And why have you stuck around?

Catherine Epstein: Amherst was the place [where] I got a job. And it was fantastic that I got the job here because my husband has a job at UMass Amherst. And so it meant that we had two jobs in the same town or city, but at separate institutions, which is really good, because it means ‘I’m never his wife, he’s never my husband’ in a kind of work situation. And so that’s proven to be really good … Now, I … wish I had gone to a liberal arts college. I didn’t — I went to Brown, which I also loved — but I am jealous of students today and the relationships they have with professors. I actually had close relationships with professors, but I just think what we’re able to do here in this small community, and the kinds of research opportunities that students have, the kind of small classes that students have — it’s pretty amazing. Once I got here, I never left, partially because we would have always had to find a second job wherever … we would have gone. As my husband and I have said: we are stuck. But I’m happily stuck. It’s a good place to be.

JD: You’ve been serving as dean of faculty since 2014, and as provost and dean of faculty since 2019. So you’ve been doing it for a long time, and now you’re stepping down. How does it feel?

CE: It’s bittersweet … I still get up every day, every morning, and totally love what I do. But I also felt that it [was] time to make a change for me. So my youngest child is graduating from high school, and as a result, it’s now a good time to go on sabbatical. I can go away, I can do research, and come back and teach. So I’m looking forward to that. It’s very exciting. I think it will be challenging to be in the classroom after ten years away. But it’s [a] new learning curve for me. So this has been great and I totally love everything that I’ve learned doing the provost and dean of the faculty job, but now I’m also ready for personal challenges, which it will be.

JD: What are the responsibilities that your current job has?

CE: Oh my goodness, okay. So I prepared this [answer]. This is a big job. It is the number two at the college. It’s the chief academic officer of the college. I oversee a budget of roughly 90 million dollars because that’s all of the faculty salaries and all the departments that report to me. There are a large number of administrative departments like the library, the Career Center, athletics, Center for Teaching and Learning, all of the instructional teaching centers — all of those report to me. The museums — the [Mead] Art Museum, the Emily Dickinson Museum, the Beneski Museum — all those report to me. So it’s a really big portfolio. I have a fantastic team in the provost’s office, so I have three associate provosts. So it’s not like I’m doing all this work. They’re really supporting me. We have great office staff, as well, that has to do a lot of the work that goes into, you know, making sure that everything is working the way it’s supposed to … I often forget that it’s also very faculty-facing. So a lot of the job is actually staff-facing, but the job also is very faculty-facing. I oversee all the faculty hiring at the college and [make] sure that all of the departments have the staffing that they need. And then a lot of the job also involves a lot of academic policy. Working with the committee on educational policy to make sure that we have the policies in place that will help students be successful. So there’s a lot that goes into this. And it’s really fun to do. It’s working with tons of really fabulous people. But it’s … a lot.

JD: And so what does your typical day look like then?

CE: My typical day looks like I have meetings all day long. I come in around nine, and no one schedules anything after 5 [p.m.] unless they’re talks or dinners or things like that. So usually all day, during the day, I’m having meetings — either one-on-one meetings or sometimes they’re standing committee meetings. Like every Monday … the senior staff, the president’s cabinet, meets from 10 [a.m.] to 12 [p.m.], and then in the afternoon, the tenure promotion committee meets from 2:30 [p.m.] to 3:50 [p.m.], and the faculty executive committee meets from 4 [p.m.] to 5:30 [p.m]. So that’s a little bit different. Most of the other days, I’m meeting with people all day long, and in between, I do a little bit of email. And then usually there’s something in the later afternoon, either there’s a talk or dinner or event or something. And then I go home, and I do email all evening. So it is a lot and people really appreciate getting responses from a provost quick[ly] … We try to answer all the emails on the same day, or at least get back to people [about] why we can’t respond yet immediately. Sometimes it goes into the next day. But there [are] not a lot of emails that [don’t] get answered quickly. People tend to really appreciate that. And it’s important — the people don’t want to wait. And I understand that. I don’t like to wait.

JD: How did you manage a work-life balance with all that responsibility?

CE: I have three kids. And when I became dean [of faculty], they were all still at home and school-age … I’ve always worked a lot, and they’ve always appreciated having a mom who works. And so the way I describe it is unless I’m doing something else, I’m working. So whenever there’s something that … we’re doing as a family, we do that, and then [after] I get on email. I actually take a fair amount of vacation, but I never go off email. So I’m always looking at my email in the morning or the evening. But in between, that’s like [a] completely normal vacation. So I enjoy it. My kids seem fine. They’ve made peace with it. And it’s worked well for our family. We live very close to campus. I live in one of the houses right across from Five Colleges, Inc. so I don’t spend a lot of time commuting. There are a lot of things that I don’t spend a lot of time doing [to make] it possible to do all this.

JD: And how did your job change during and after Covid?

CE: So the job changed over the period of time that I was in it. It became a larger job. It doesn’t have to do with the provost title. That’s kind of a misunderstanding. The reason why we ended up giving the job also the provost title is that people [from other institutions] would ask me like, “What’s your job? What’s the dean of the faculty? Do you have a provost?” And so it made it really clear to outsiders what the job was. It made it a lot easier for me to describe what it is that I do. And so [it’s] the same job. The job didn’t change with the new title “provost.” What the job did do was change over time because a bunch of humans came to me. So initially, I didn’t have the Loeb Center for Career Exploration and Planning, I didn’t have the Center for Community Engagement. We didn’t have a Center for Teaching and Learning, we didn’t have a Center for Strategic Learning … Some of these have been founded by me, or established, and other parts of the college came to me. So [the Office of] Sustainability also came to me. And they come because the departments want to be more at the center of the academic mission of the college. That’s … where a lot of important decision-making happens. It’s at the heart of the academic mission. And so units, departments, want to be in the center. And it’s helpful. They have more access to the provost division, we have a lot of support.

Over Covid, that was not fun. Like that was the part of my job where I didn’t always wake up in the morning and say, “Oh, great, I get to be on Zoom every day.” Someone in I.T. figured out that I had the most Zoom meetings of anyone on campus. I told you my schedule, and so I was on Zoom all day, every day for like, two years. So it was a pretty long time. And that was not fun. I am a huge proponent of people being in-person. I really don’t care for Zoom meetings. I’m always trying to get people back on campus. I really want all meetings between students and professors, and committee meetings, and anything like that, to be in-person. Most things in the provost division are in-person, but there [are] still some people who prefer — whatever — to do otherwise. So the goal during Covid was trying to get back to normal as soon as possible. It just took a long time.

JD: What is one of the things you’re most proud of that you accomplished during your tenure?

CE: So there’s a bunch of stuff. I would say, I’m really proud of all the faculty that I have recruited at the college. I have a list here of recent strategic priorities. So we hired a ton of people … I think, 44 percent of the current faculty are people who were hired in the past 10 years. That’s a lot of new faculty. We also greatly enhanced the diversity of the faculty. I think it was around 14 to 17 percent before. Now it’s closer to 32 percent. I think the numbers are in the announcement that President Elliot sent out. So it’s a much more diverse faculty. It’s also a much younger faculty. Because so many people retired, we were able to hire so many new people. I did a lot in terms of what’s called faculty development. So when faculty come to the college, there’s now a lot more programming for them. So first of all, there’s a pretty robust orientation program … it’s two-and-a-half days, but now, it also stretches out over the academic year. We’ve done a lot of programming around faculty leadership. So how do faculty, especially once they have tenure, how do they become leaders and administrators on campus? How do you become a good chair? All sorts of questions like that. We instituted department chair meetings. That never happened before. So there’s the whole business around faculty development and what now we do so that faculty can be successful in college.

Then we did all this stuff around pedagogy. So the Center for Teaching and Learning is phenomenal. It started when I decided that we really need[ed] to have [a] Center for Teaching and Learning. We really need to get faculty to think about how they’re teaching students. And another way to think about everything that I’ve done is that we, as a college, decided … under [President Anthony] Marx to become a far more diverse campus. And that meant [we needed to figure out how to] make the college work for the students that we’re bringing in. And that meant having a different faculty and diversifying the faculty, but also getting faculty to teach in different ways. So that’s why … it’s challenging to go back to the classroom. I will have to learn new ways of teaching students than what I used to do because that was 10 years ago, and students learn differently, and teachers teach differently. So that will be different. But we did set up structures to help people that I hope will help me get back into the classroom. [I also] did a bunch of initiatives to promote student success. So [the] Meiklejohn [Fellows] Program, that’s a program that we founded. Similarly, the Center for Strategic Learning is one that I started to realize: we don’t have a place where students can learn how [to] study and how [to] learn. And so that’s what the Center for Strategic Learning does. So there [are] some real initiatives around making sure that students can make the most of the Amherst education. There’s long been a Summer Bridge program, but we didn’t have the STEM Incubator, we didn’t have the Summer Bridge Research Institute— that’s new. We’ve done a ton more with students’ research opportunities, and making sure that those programs really get moving. We’ve done a bunch of internship programs — really excited that The Common has a bunch of interns … [and] the different museums now have a little cohort internship program. So we’ve done a bunch of stuff around student success.

We’ve done a lot around staff on campus. So for example, … now — the head of the library, the head of the Mead Art Museum, the head of athletics — we all get together, once a month, and we didn’t used to do that at all and we didn’t use to have programs that worked with supervisors about how to do better, in terms of supervising staff. So I’ve done a lot of that work.

I’m a huge advocate of humanities. I think the humanities are fantastic … I think it’s really important for students to learn: how do you translate the skills that you get from humanities classes? How do you translate that to the career world? So there’s been that around the humanities. We now have a Center for Humanistic Inquiry. We didn’t have that before. We really do what we can to make sure the humanities are strong on campus. We have been careful to make sure that staffing levels in humanities departments are strong … Even if it’s hard[er] to get some students, we want to make sure that they’re offering the best possible curriculum that we can have. There are a couple of other things that we’ve done. One is to do more around internationalizing the campus. So we’ve created a bunch of partnerships with liberal arts institutions abroad. So we’ve long had a program with the Doshisha [International School]. That’s in Kyoto, Japan. But we’ve done more with Yale-NUS, which, unfortunately, now is going defunct. In South Korea [we partner] with Yonsei University and Underwood International College. We have a program with Ashoka University in India, where we have faculty coming over for three weeks each year, and our faculty go over there for three weeks each year … So we’re building some important international partnerships.

And then there’s the college’s history. I’m a historian. I love college history … First, there was all the Bicentennial stuff. And so we did a number of books around the Bicentennial. And then once the George Floyd murder happened, we got much more serious about the racial history of the college and [looked] to understand what is the college’s racial history as well. So that continues on.

JD: What do you hope your legacy will be?

CE: I hope that people think that in the years that I was provost, the provost’s office was there to facilitate their success. And I hope that the enduring legacy is that people continue to feel supported at the college, and that when they need something, either personally, or just to serve the faculty as a whole … When people ask me, “What does the provost’s office do?” The answer is: it facilitates success, primarily for faculty, but also for students and staff.

JD: Is there anything that you wish you could have gotten to, or wish you could have accomplished?

CE: Well, it took me 10 years to move the faculty meeting time from Tuesday evening to Friday afternoon, but we finally got that done. I would say we still need a new building for Woodside Children’s Center. We need a little bit more focus on the Children’s Center. It’s really important for faculty when they’re in a particular stage of their lives. When they have small children, and it’s often in the pre-tenure years, we do need to support faculty and make sure that the childcare needs are met. That’s hard. And the building is like held together by masking tape. So I would say that’s something I’m leaving and [I wish that I was] able to move that project forward. It is moving forward, but it’s still not 100 percent [certain] that [there will be] a new building or site or [even] 50 percent [certain]. But it’s in the conversation. But it’s not done.

JD: And do you have any words of advice for the next provost and dean of faculty?

CE: Well, first is [she’s] not doing it alone, [she’s] got a team. The team is there to support them. So that’s really important. Martha Umphrey is fantastic. And she’s got, not only a great team in the provost office, but some really good senior staff and a really excellent president. So she’s walking into a situation where I’m hoping she’ll be really well supported. And I hope she loves the job because it’s fun. It’s a great choice. We’re well served.

JD: Moving a little back in time, can you tell me a little bit about your educational background, and how you got interested in German history?

CE: So I am the daughter and granddaughter of refugee historians from Nazi Germany. My father came over when he was a child. And at the time, German history — it wasn’t really something that you studied. So we studied European history. But European history was not so specialized. So there wasn’t in the same way [as there is now] historians of France, historians of Germany, historians of the Czech Republic, or whatever study of European history. He was of the generation that established German history in the United States. He also died in a car accident when I was five years old, and his parents remigrated back to Germany, which is not so unusual. And so when I was a child, I was always going to Germany to visit my grandparents. I knew German as a child. And so I just fell into this path of being really interested in Germany. And at some level, I realized much later, I just [was] really interested in him, and [was]  trying to figure out what he did by becoming a historian of Germany. I also met many of his colleagues over the years. And so it’s really kind of a passion, and it’s a family passion at some level. I do history that’s very different than his history. But it is a fundamental obsession with what happened in Europe in the middle of the 20th century and what has been the impact of that over time … I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to be doing when I get back to history, but it will be very related to the 20th century and the Holocaust. I’m hoping to ultimately make it a bigger project than just legacies of the Holocaust, but we’ll see exactly where it comes down.

JD: And you’ve written books related to that topic. What is that process like? How do you approach writing?

CE: I think that writing is a discipline. You have to decide you’re going to do it. I think one’s daily schedule is actually really important. When I was working on my books, on my research, I [tried] every morning to work on my research, and then come into the college and teach my classes and office hours, committee meetings, everything like that. I don’t know if that’s going to be possible in quite the same way. But that is my goal — to write every day, to work on my research every day. I’m really excited about coming back to teaching, but I’m even more excited about coming back to research. That is definitely a priority. I will feel if I don’t write a book in the next 10 years that at some level, that I failed. I really want to write something. I’m really excited about doing that.

JD: Did you have any opportunities to [write] while you were provost?

CE: No. So I decided that I was not going to put that much pressure on myself. So I didn’t feel like I have to be the provost and dean of the faculty and have three kids and have a family life and write a book. Like that [was] just [un]reasonable. I was lucky in that I was asked to serve on a couple of boards that are relevant to German history. So I was on the …  the Governing Council of the American Historical Association, and [am]  now on the academic committee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I am also on the board of the American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. And I’ve also been involved with the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. So I was lucky that I was able to use some of the administrative stuff that I do here at the college to translate to my discipline. And we’ll see what happens on all of that.

JD: And you’re going on sabbatical?

CE: Yes.

JD: What are you planning to do during that?

CE: Different things. So my husband and I are going to Vietnam and Cambodia in August, but that’s just for vacation … and then after that, we’ll be in Maine. Sometime in the fall, I’ll be in Europe a bunch. I’ll probably be in Israel at some point. So it’s a combination of things that should be really good, really interesting. Mostly, what I’m going to be doing is reading all the time.

JD: What are some things that you’re keeping in mind from your tenure that you want to take with you as you return to teaching?

CE: Well, I think I have a much more global view of things. So seriously, with history, it’s thinking more about global history, and that comes from some of the international partnerships that we talked about. I was able to travel to a lot of different places over the course of the 10 years [of my tenure] that was not Europe. So it was like Latin America, Africa, Asia, all of those places, which really opened my eyes. I had never been to those places before, by and large. And so it really [was] interesting to think about them also in terms of history in Europe and colonialism, those kinds of issues. So there’s a lot of good stuff to be thinking about moving forward. So there’s that aspect. I think it’s really important that Amherst faculty work closely with students — and I always thought that — but I am looking forward to putting it back into practice. And so one of the things that is challenging about this job is that [it] doesn’t interact very much with students. I interact with students on committees, students come to me because they’re having problems with professors, that sort of thing. But it’s not a regular interaction, and so I look forward to getting back to that.