Interview with the Dean

“One of our main priorities is to increase student success,” said Astrida Orle Tantillo, who was appointed Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Science in July, after serving as Interim Dean of the College since November 2010.

Dean Astrida Orle Tantillo

Dean Astrida Orle Tantillo. Photo by Matthew Kaplan

In 2013 the College will transition to a model of cohort advising in which each student will have an assigned academic advisor and the advisors will have specific groups of students with whom they will work. “From day one each freshman will know to whom to turn if he or she has a question, whether it is about academic programs, selecting a major, or securing internships, financial aid or counseling services,” explained Tantillo. “Studies have shown that one of the keys to academic success is to have one knowledgeable person to whom students are connected throughout their college career. So that is what we are going to do.”

Tantillo said that an improved graduation rate is an important goal, but that “we are also invested in the future success of our students. We will be increasing resources for our internship programs and advising in the professions. We also want more students to take advantage of undergraduate research opportunities. These are all experiences that really boost marketable skills.”

Tantillo has been at UIC since 1995, when she joined the faculty as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Germanic Studies. Her tenure at the university in both teaching and administrative roles has provided her with insight into the needs of both undergraduate and graduate students and experience in the business aspects of the university.

LAS is at the heart of the university....We are committed to providing an environment where our students can thrive and flourish, no matter what their background. 

A menu of freshman seminars is currently in development. “In five years I would like to have every freshman in a small-seminar setting. There will be a buffet of opportunities including general education courses and skill-building classes. Everything will be geared toward freshmen, with instructors specially trained to teach them. Such courses should enable students to connect more easily with faculty members or advisors.” The College is also creating an early-alert system in which advisors will notify and meet with students at mid-semester if they are in danger of a failing grade.

“LAS is at the heart of the university,” stated Tantillo. “Students from all colleges take many of their foundational liberal education courses here, and we continue to be committed to a diverse, urban population with varying levels of preparation—that comes with a big responsibility. Our Writing Center and the Science and Mathematics Learning Centers provide tutoring in the core disciplines, and we are increasing the number of tutors and expanding tutoring hours. We are also discussing moving some of the tutoring to the library’s IDEA commons so that we can move beyond a nine-to-five model for tutoring services. We are committed to providing an environment where our students can thrive and flourish, no matter what their background.”

“We are one of the most diverse colleges in the nation. We have no group that is a majority—none—and that is very exciting.

“Approximately 90 percent of the 2011 entering freshmen were accepted to other schools, but chose UIC—and three quarters of the students had taken AP courses in high school. What is really interesting is that we admit many highly-qualified, underrepresented students who ultimately choose to go elsewhere because they think they are going to a better place. Our external reputation does not do justice to the actual accomplishments—how highly our departments and the university are ranked. We have some of the best faculty—not only in Illinois, but in the world. We need to do a better job making people understand what we have to offer.

“Scholarship support continues to be a critical issue. Forty-two percent of UIC students pay nothing to attend because they receive enough in grants and awards, but there is still a great deal of need. We want to increase scholarship assistance so students do not have to work—or work as much—and can devote more of their time to their studies. A wonderful new initiative is the Access Illinois Scholarship in which individual donors commit to $10,000 over four years and the university matches that money, giving the student $5,000 per year toward their tuition.

“What is really important to remember is that for a student there is no amount that is not meaningful. A couple of hundred dollars will cover books and there are scholarships at the department, college and campus levels. Everything counts.”

“Support also goes beyond money in gifts of time,” said Tantillo, who noted the new LAS Mentoring LinkedIn Group, formed by several active alumni including Charles Dangelo and Gretchen Winter. In this online community, alumni at the top of their professional fields mentor young LAS alumni and students seeking career advice and networking opportunities. “Providing internship opportunities is another great way to make a difference in the life of a student or young alum. There is always a role to play.”

Tantillo is proud of the work that has been done to improve undergraduate education and she looks forward to implementing the new initiatives. “However, in many ways a university or college’s reputation resides in its graduate programs and we are looking strategically at ways to enhance those areas. We have a good beginning with several highly-ranked departments, but we need to assess the competitiveness of our student stipends and work to increase fellowships. It is going to be a large investment, and we want to make sure we do it the right way. There will be more to say in this area fairly soon.”

There is also great progress in faculty recruitment, as the College continues to hire “the best and brightest—scholars who have come from around the world to teach in LAS. This fall we welcomed 29 new faculty members. One-third of our new hires are individuals from underrepresented groups.”

The number of research awards and fellowships in a college is one measure of faculty quality, and Tantillo noted that “the amount of external research dollars we have brought in has gone up 63 percent in the last four years—phenomenal especially at a time when the federal government has been cutting back. We’re not only getting large grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute for the Humanities but from a wide range of foundations across the sciences, social sciences and humanities. Our strong research reputation makes us highly attractive to the kind of faculty who are also committed professionally to our diverse, urban student body. These factors make us a very special place to teach and learn.”

Tantillo acknowledges that one of the most exciting things happening across the campus is the growth of interdisciplinary work. “The sciences collaborate with the Colleges of Medicine and Engineering and the social sciences interact with the School of Public Health and the College of Urban Planning and Public Administration. While the disciplines are very strong there is also a very strong impetus across the campus to work in ways that transcend what is traditionally thought of as a department.”

Over the next five years, LAS will hire 26 new faculty members who will examine issues of diversity across a number of disciplines. The hiring bonanza was made possible because of successful proposals submitted under the Chancellor’s Cluster Initiative to Increase Diversity and the Interdisciplinary Culture at UIC.

This type of interdisciplinary thinking, which will continue to expand with the new hires, is already evident in the public programming offered by the Institute for the Humanities and several departments. Tantillo hopes these events will attract alumni back to campus to continue their education across the liberal arts and sciences.

“The recent symposium, Slavery and its Aftermath in the Atlantic World and the Rousseau conference, Inequality and Exclusion: Theory and Practice of Human Rights, as well as the upcoming Holy War and Food Justice conferences are just a few examples of programs that bring together scholars and social justice activists to break down academic silos and grapple with contemporary issues from a broad liberal arts perspective,” Tantillo said. “These kinds of opportunities allow one to step outside of oneself to analyze and better understand some of the complex events and conditions of our modern world. We want alumni to join us for these programs and to know that they are a vital part of the ongoing LAS community.”

Sincerely,

Astrida Orle Tantillo, PhD