Delivering the Arts

interview: new Dean at Bentley College

In a recent New York Times article, dated February 19th, the following passage appeared: “Liberal education is under siege. Critics, of whom there are many, call it an overpriced indulgence for the affluent few who do not have to worry about earning a living upon graduation. Fewer and fewer of today’s undergraduates are pursuing the liberal arts, with most of them studying practical subjects like finance, marketing, real estate and pharmacy.”

If the liberal arts are indeed on the defensive, then one might claim that so, too, are the vital cultural sensibilities that are central to the humanities. In this career-driven climate, is there a place for the arts in vocational and practical education? Bentley College is betting that there is. Located just west of Boston in Waltham, Massachusetts, Bentley has a longstanding tradition as a business school, but has recently established a groundbreaking arts initiative and appointed a new “academic leadership team” last fall in an effort to enhance its curriculum. One-third of this team, Catherine A. Davy, was brought in to fill the role of Dean of Arts and Sciences. With Kate’s intense focus on the arts, and her open invitation to the Boston arts community for participatory input, the decision to hire Kate is proving to be one of Bentley’s boldest—and wisest—choices yet in its ambitious growth plan.

Kate Davy is of that rare breed of intellectual in the stuffy world of academic administration that oozes both a friendly air and fresh approach. She talks about her new job with a keen, undeniable passion—the same passion, likely, that has driven her vast life experience, enriched by a focus on the arts and education. She’s written and edited dozens of essays and articles on theater and dance, covering such underground playwrights and performers as Richard Foreman (founder of the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre), Charles Ludlam (founder of Theatre of the Ridiculous), Five Lesbian Brothers, Holly Hughes, Carmelita Tropicana, plus musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson, and one of Kate’s idols, the late comedian George Burns, who she interviewed for a piece in Theatre Journal.

Growing up in Minneapolis, Kate was fascinated with the theater—despite the fact that she’d never been in a theatrical audience. As a child, her introduction to the stage came through her spectatorial relationship to old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies on television. Her eventual introduction to marginalized theater was liberating, as she felt it reflected a reality lacking from the cultural middle ground. The avant garde provided “an alternative way of looking at things,” and an approach that “seemed a lot more interesting than just reproducing life.” But as much as she appreciates this “high,” abstruse aesthetic, Kate insists she is as equally drawn to the other end of the cultural spectrum, where her love for vaudeville, clowns, and tap dance is held in a single embrace with her slant toward the postmodern and the cutting edge.

Kate’s continued involvement in esoteric theater, a realm that has also found her in the roles of director and performer, has led to scholarly ruminations of topics such as feminist theory and gay/lesbian issues. In her spare time (of which, lately, there has been little), Kate has been researching and writing a book, to be published by University of Michigan Press, on the WOW Café, a women’s theater collective in New York that, for 22 years, has managed to produce as many as 20 original shows per year, in addition to late-night cabarets and festivals, all within a $14K budget. Through an analysis of the WOW Café’s survival as an influential alternative venue with unconventional practices, Kate hopes to rethink the notion of “ingredients for successful coalition building.”

Kate has an extensive twenty-year background of academic employment. Serving most recently as Provost and Senior Vice President at Adelphi University in New York City, she has also held academic administration positions at the University of California at Irvine, Alverno College, and New York University. Having also taught courses on a variety of subjects in the arts, Kate has an acute awareness of an educator’s needs, but also the needs of the student.

When a headhunter first suggested the position at Bentley College to Kate, her reaction was dubious: “You want me to work at a business college?” “But when I came for the interview, I was really impressed.” She noticed Bentley was very student-oriented (as opposed to faculty-oriented), and unlike other schools she was looking at, Kate found that “the faculty at Bentley wasn’t demoralized. They had a really good sense of what they wanted to do and who they were looking for.” She was impressed with what the college had already managed to accomplish with its thriving arts and sciences program. “And because it’s a specialty institution, it seemed to me that there was an opportunity to do something in the arts and sciences that you wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else.” In addition, every other institution at which Kate had interviewed was delivering a traditional curriculum, and then trying to force an interdisciplinary standard into an existing model without first entering into a necessary process of restructure, and Kate found that Bentley College had already made huge strides in this direction.

Some of Kate’s academic colleagues have pointed out that graduates frequently come back for a Masters in liberal arts, to get what they missed the first time. There is the notion, however, that “they didn’t miss it, as the saying goes—it missed them. We’re trying to remedy that; that’s what we’re trying to accomplish in the arts and sciences.”

“Higher education used to be focused on educating citizens, not on educating professionals,” Kate relates. But in the context of recent world events, especially after the autumn of 2001 (at which time Kate was displaced from her apartment near “ground zero” in New York City), and the remarkably unchallenging public discourse that has followed, she says, “I felt like we, as educators, were utter failures. We’re delusional; we think we’re educating these well-rounded people, and clearly this just isn’t so.”

What Kate feels is called for, then, in education, and specifically at Bentley College, is “intellectual engagement.” She explains, “We want to be educating business students who can walk and chew gum at the same time, think critically, analyze, communicate, and look at issues from multiple perspectives. We’re looking at ways to connect the dots, so it’s not just students taking a bunch of classes, and asking how do we infuse through that a kind of logic of complexity and perspectives that aren’t just isolated to particular classes but make sense in a broader kind of way?” One part of the shift toward the humanities at Bentley is a freshman seminar that requires students to study a single book from numerous points of view (philosophical, ethical, scientific, historical, cultural, etc.). “The reason students come here is to get a business education, not liberal arts, [but] once you get them here, it’s that process of turning them on to something else.”

And once you get them there, presumably the challenge is to keep them there? “When I came for my first visit to Bentley, a student who was really sophisticated and well-spoken gave me a tour of the campus. He was leaving—he said this was his last semester. I asked, ‘You’re graduating?’ He said, ‘No, I’m transferring.’ Why? ‘There aren’t enough arts courses here I want to take.’ I just thought this was a crime—here’s a student good enough to be touring the prospective Dean around, and yet you’re losing him because you don’t have enough arts programs.”

The arts initiative at Bentley, tied to the overall humanities push, has taken many forms thus far, and student response has been extremely positive. (“The classes are packed,” relates Davy.) Tying into the college’s highly developed technology program, Bentley is offering courses in digital photography, graphic design, and video (including a course that combines screenwriting and film production). Meanwhile, arts appreciation classes cover the symphony and jazz. But Kate hopes for more “hands on” arts involvement that will “engage the student in the creative process.” Existing interests such as the school’s band and drama clubs show there is desire for that involvement; a next step will likely be cultivating interests to that end.

Bentley College has enacted arts-oriented partnerships with other universities, but these have been largely unsuccessful. Kate says she would prefer to incorporate working artists. “I think we ought to be hiring them; we ought to be integrating them into our community. And if this institution does anything (to aid the artists), it should be to help with strategies for marketing and fundraising.”

Kate is excited about being in the Boston area, with its rich metropolitan arts culture. “I read in the paper yesterday that there are more arts organizations per capita in Boston than in New York. I could go running around Boston introducing myself to people, and 97% of it would be fruitless, but if the people who are really interested contact me, we can get hooked into the [Boston area] arts community and form some partnerships.” Turning to another news media source, Kate embellishes, “I heard on NPR [National Public Radio] this morning that 65% of all the funding available for the arts goes to 2% of the arts organizations. 50% of the arts organizations have budgets under $500,000. Bentley is never going to be an arts school, but it seems to me that one of the things we can do is to partner with and support the arts people that are here, locally, at the same time we’re educating our students.” There’s already a thriving arts scene in Boston, she argues, so why redirect energies into, say, building an arts center on campus when the school can “integrate students into a culture that’s already here,” utilizing co-ops with local arts professionals?

But will those professionals really take interest in a business school? Certainly, says Kate. “At a party I had in New York just before I left, I was telling a choreographer that I was coming to a business school and she said, ‘I’d love to get my hands on some business students’—those are the kind of [arts] people you really want to be out here working. I want to let people know that I’m here, that Bentley College wants to do something in the arts and hopefully get people who are interested in partnering to get in touch with me.”

If Kate Davy’s own concepts sound distinctly forward thinking, it’s probably because she applies the same creative and imaginative philosophy to her personal and professional aspirations that she hopes to nurture in students. When asked how long she predicts to stay at Bentley, Kate says she plans to devote a minimum of five years to the school’s development. It differs from other academic administration positions Kate has held in that, at other schools, she was “cleaning up big messes,” then became bored after she was done, because the institutions never transcended the usual standards and practices of “what they do.” At Bentley, Kate finds “it’s permeable—the possibility for creativity is extraordinary.”

Part of the challenge, she says, is to “look at what we’ve already got here and see how we can use those tools to engage [students] in the creative process. We have to start creating opportunities for them without reinventing the wheel. I don’t want this just through arts initiatives, but part of the [general] curriculum.” Kate feels there should be a “value of creativity” in all classes offered, because “creative thinking is critical to any endeavor.”

Ideally, Bentley’s progressive humanities program will serve as an innovative model for other schools. “If we could figure out how to revalue the notion of liberal arts here,” she says, “we could make a contribution nationally.” Within the specialty school format, “That [humanities] component has to make sense, has to resonate with people’s intellectual life, intimate life, and work life. The older you get, you realize life is trickier than any job. No professional degree is going to help you in negotiating life. But the arts and sciences at least give you the resources to bring to the table.”