More Than a Blank Slate: New dean continues initiatives for humanities, student success


The new dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Kent state, James Blank, plans to tell the story of humanities through programs and conferences.

Audrey Fletcher

For biologist James Blank, becoming a dean was never part of the plan: He came to Kent State not anticipating to stay here.

More than 25 years later, Blank has moved from the faculty ranks to the director of the School of Biomedical Sciences to the chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences.

In November 2012, Blank had just agreed to a third term as chairman when Provost Todd Diacon asked Blank to be the interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Blank expected the appointment to only last six to eight months.

Now, after being named the permanent dean of the college, effective Jan. 1, Blank can continue the work he has already begun.

“It continually surprises me that I’ve ended up where I am,” Blank said.

When Blank became the interim dean, Diacon made it clear he would function as a full dean. Blank put several things in place, and they are initiatives he plans to continue.

Reestablishing the fact that the humanities traditionally form the basis of education as a reason for the existence of the College of Arts and Sciences was one of his focal points. He hopes to do so through telling the story of humanities.

“(Humanities) made me a better scientist. It makes a mathematician a better mathematician (and) makes a physician a better physician,” Blank said.

Blank describes the college as the place where tradition meets innovation and a place where students can explore intellectually and think creatively. Blank said he thinks over the years, the college experience has shifted away from that exploration toward focusing on getting credentials and a job.

“You’re really hardwired into something, or you think you are. What most of us all end up learning is life is a meander,” Blank said. “You like to plan as much as you can. I can guarantee you don’t know where you’re going to end up. But that’s exciting. And having those experiences out of those disciplines really helps.”

One of the ways Blank plans to tell the story of arts and sciences is by showcasing excellence in those areas through conferences, meetings and programs hosted by the college.

For example, this summer a conference titled “Why the Humanities: Answers from Cognitive and Neurosciences” will be hosted at Kent State.

English professor Mark Bracher is working with a group of faculty called the Social Cognition Research group to organize the conference. The group includes faculty from English, modern and classical languages, philosophy, history, psychology, sociology and biology.

The conference will investigate the ways in which study of the humanities can develop social cognition, which is the way people perceive, judge and understand other people and help people become more accurate and comprehensive in their perception and judgment of people.

Bracher said the conference will lay out compelling evidence for the importance of humanities, which aligns with Blank’s goal of telling the story of arts and sciences.

“In fact, the Social Cognition Research Group is aimed at doing precisely that for the humanities,” Bracher said. “Dean Blank is dean of the entire college, and he is also interested in the physical sciences and the human behavior and social sciences and so on, and they are involved in the project as well, so we’re really on the same page here. The point is to enhance the value of liberal arts education in the College of Arts and Sciences.”

Bracher also said Blank provided funding and support to the group to get its research off the ground and to put the conference together.

“It’s hard to imagine better support from the administration than we have received from Dean Blank and from the college,” Bracher said.

Another focus for Blank is expanding special opportunities for students, such as studying abroad.

In September 2013, Blank established an office dedicated to study abroad within the College of Arts and Sciences.

Kristin Stasiowski, Director of International Programs and Education Abroad, said that Blank created the office because he wanted to provide infrastructure within the college for study abroad opportunities.

“What makes Dean Blank very unique and very visionary in my mind is that he is really trying hard to offer structural support and for lack of a better word, spiritual support to the idea of this is really necessary for you, and it doesn’t matter where you go or what you study, it matters that you go and that you study,” said Stasiowski, an assistant professor of Italian language and literature.

She said part of the way to promote study abroad opportunities is to explain to students how studying abroad can be an integral part of their education, not just another thing they do while in college.

“Dean Blank really felt that on the college level, we could really help our students to connect the dots a little bit more thoroughly between the whys of study abroad and the hows of study abroad,” Stasiowski said.

On a practical level, Blank added nine courses at the Florence campus for both summer and semester programs and supported students who wish to study abroad through scholarships. He has also supported programs in Costa Rica, Poland and Spain.

Other goals of Blank’s are driving research in the college through providing resources for faculty and reorganizing offices in the college so students have access to the resources they need to succeed.

Faculty and student success is what Blank said he finds most gratifying about his job.

Blank said the timing of being named dean has been perfect.

“We’ve got a new president with a ton of energy and great ideas I happen to share. I think she is right on target in terms of her vision for the university. We have an excellent provost. I would say the same thing about him,” Blank said. “As a dean of a college, and it’s true for all colleges, we’re all part of academic affairs and focus on a singular mission for arts and sciences. It’s just a great time.”

Stasiowski said she thinks students should be encouraged by the fact that Blank is now the permanent dean.

“So I think if students (are) coming back, you know they’re overwhelmed with what’s new on campus and it’s just another administrator happening, who cares?” Stasiowski said. “I think instead they should care very much because he’s very willing to give back to the students and knows that’s the reason we’re all here.”

Contact Audrey Fletcher at [email protected].