Former dean settles into life after administration


Evan Bell

Deborah Holdstein, a professor in the English Department and former dean of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences, said she is excited to return to teaching literature and film to undergraduates and graduates.


Deborah Holdstein, a professor in the English Department and former dean of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences, has returned to the campus after a year-long sabbatical during which she traveled the world and focused on scholarly projects.

Originally hired to serve a three-year term in 2007, Holdstein remained dean for seven years.

Holdstein has experienced two administrations since arriving at the college and observed Columbia’s development and changes throughout the years. She also created major college initiatives during her time as dean, such as forming the Honors Program, creating the Art + Materials Conservation program and helping the college achieve national accreditation for its American Sign Language – English Interpretation program. She also advocated for modern labs and studios for students. 

Holdstein is credited with unifying the Science & Mathematics Department—formerly divided into two—along with creating the Education Department, formerly known as the Department of Educational Studies and the Early Childhood Education program. 

The Chronicle sat down with Holdstein to discuss her life after serving as dean of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences and how she is adapting to being a full-time professor in the English Department.

THE CHRONICLE:What projects are you currently working on?

Deborah Holdstein: I am working on a book about the film musical “Bandwagon” from 1953. I have never been a huge fan of the movie, and then a colleague told me about it. His love persuaded me to give the movie another shot, and I developed a passion for the movie, too. As a result, the University of Rochester Press is very interested in me writing a book about it. I am also working on a book about the state of the field in writing and composition with a professor at Indiana University. I also continue to present at conferences and workshops and continue my work as a consultant to colleges and universities about the liberal arts and sciences.

What is your passions?

I love teaching literature and film. I loved being [a] dean at Columbia because I was hired with the mandate to raise the profile of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences, which is part of what makes Columbia the unique institution it is.

How have you seen the college change thoughout the years?

There are even more exciting opportunities for students. Columbia has always been an institution of opportunity and my husband, who is a graduate of Columbia, says the same. It is up to the student to seize the many opportunities that are Columbia. That has not changed. But what we do have in place now that we didn’t have before I came is the Honors Program—something I developed with my colleagues in the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences. It has become very successful and is just one of the many examples of exciting opportunities for students that did not exist before. It is important to remember that Columbia has always been a college of tremendous opportunity and richness.

What did you enjoy most about being a dean?

The deans are the academic leaders of their respected areas. They are responsible for curriculum, budget management and faculty development and promotions. We have fabulous faculty in the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences. They are tremendously accomplished faculty who are very dedicated to the students, no matter the major.

What was the most challenging part of being a dean?

One of the most necessary parts of being a dean is having to say “no.” But when you say “no” to some things, it means you can say “yes” to other things. Sometimes a challenge would be reminding people that the Liberal Arts & Sciences are really important to students in any major. Also, the Liberal Arts & Sciences core curriculum makes Columbia unique among other schools. You have a lot of places that call themselves art schools; We don’t call ourselves an art school. But we do emphasize the arts and media in our curriculum, and I think what makes the difference for our graduates going out and getting jobs is they are well educated because of the core curriculum [they received].

What did you do on your sabbatical?

I am the kind of person who is used to getting up and going to work everyday. It was a tremendous gift [to be on sabbatical]. I continued presenting at conferences even though I was technically “off.” Sometimes when people become administrators, they don’t have the time to continue their scholarly work, and I needed to make sure that I continued it as best I could. I had much more time to work on [my projects], which was wonderful. I also was very fortunate my husband and I were able to travel. We traveled all over to places like France, London and Cuba. I have been very fortunate because of work and because of the opportunities from the sabbatical.

How does it feel to return to campus as a full-time professor?

I am teaching undergraduate and graduate students. The graduate students are especially remarkable. I don’t think people realize that Columbia attracts graduate students from everywhere [including] highly prestigious undergraduate colleges. It has been a bit of an adjustment to come back to teaching but before I was dean, I taught for so many years that it is beginning to feel like something I am very familiar with again. 

Where do you think the college is headed in years to come?

I think Dr. [Kwang-Wu] Kim and Dr. [Stan] Wearden are smart, and they want what is best for our students and for the college in challenging times. I look forward to seeing what develops. We have to hope people do have the greater good in mind with any type of venture such as this one, and it is a complex venture and a very long one.

In what ways do you think the college could see an increase in enrollment?

Even though we are a media and arts institution, we lose nothing and gain a lot by making it clear that [LAS is] a big part of what we do. I know sometimes we do emphasize it, and sometimes we don’t. I feel like we need to make it clear that you can come to Columbia and know that you are getting a really outstanding, full education. I think it would be a good idea if we made more of [an emphasis on] it than we sometimes do.

Why is Columbia so special to you?

It is a place of infinite possibility. We have outstanding, interesting majors, and the fact thatwe couple that kind of important preparation with very deep work in accompanying areas is what makes Columbia unique. It is an exciting place to be, and I am in a wonderful department. A lot of times I think the people can make a very big difference in how you feel about a place.