The Deans of LAS
A variety of personalities have steered the college since 1913.
Few on campus at the University of Illinois have more responsibility than the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. As former Harry E. Preble Dean Ruth Watkins described it, managing LAS—with more than 60 academic units, roughly 600 faculty, and some 14,000 students in programs from history to biology—can feel like taking a bull by the horns.
Since 1913, 17 people have served the position of dean in either an interim or permanent basis. The college hasn’t always been as big and complex as it is today, but during the past 100 years, all the deans have strived to maintain the liberal arts and sciences as a cornerstone of higher education.
Here is a look back at who led LAS to where it is today:
Kendric Charles Babcock (1913-1931)
Several people on campus were qualified to be the first dean of the College of LAS when it formed in 1913, but the University opted for a new face to lead the college through its infancy. Dr. Kendric Charles Babcock would serve as dean for the next 18 years—which remains the longest term anyone has ever served in the position.
Babcock arrived on campus with impressive credentials. Born in 1864 in New York, he earned degrees at the University of Minnesota and Harvard before serving as an instructor at the University of Wisconsin, a professor of history and political science at the University of California, and president at the University of Arizona from 1903 to 1910. He was a specialist in higher education at the U.S. Bureau of Education when he became dean of LAS.
During his last six years as dean, the well-known educator also served as provost at the University of Illinois. He died a year after his retirement in 1931.
Arthur Daniels (1925-26; 1927-28; 1931-33)
While never appointed as a permanent dean of the College of LAS, Arthur Daniels served as acting dean when the post was vacant, including the trying times when Illinois was in the grips of the Great Depression. It was just one of many posts that Daniels served during his long career at Illinois.
After arriving at Illinois in 1893 as a philosophy instructor, Daniels became dean of the College of Literature and Arts from 1911 to 1913, when it merged with the College of Science to form LAS. He was later named dean of the graduate school, where he was a guiding influence in its early years. He served as dean of LAS during Dean Kendric Babcock’s leaves of absence, and Daniels also served as acting president of the University from 1933 to 1934.
Matthew McClure (1933-1948)
Born in Spottswood, Va., in 1883, Matthew McClure served as a professor of philosophy at Tulane University before joining the Department of Philosophy at Illinois in 1921. He rose quickly and became department head in 1926, and in 1933 he was appointed as dean of LAS.
Known as one of the most scholarly faculty members on campus, he is remembered for his “dignified and polished” writings and lectures. In 1945, he was renamed head of the Department of Philosophy and later resigned from his position as dean to devote all his time to the department.
Having served the college through World War II, McClure was recalled by former Illinois President George Stoddard for his “unfailing cooperation and courtesy.” Philosophy was Stoddard’s “first professional interest,” Stoddard added, upon McClure’s resignation as dean.
Henning Larsen (1949-1953)
After the resignation of Matthew McClure as dean of LAS, Henning Larsen chaired the committee to find his replacement. In the end, against his own suggestion, Larsen himself was named dean.
Born in 1889, Larsen served as an infantry officer in World War I and an English professor at the University of Iowa before arriving at Illinois in 1939. An authority on Scandinavian literature, he was named head of the Department of English in 1945, and he later became the dean of LAS. He would become provost of Illinois in 1953, and vice president in 1957.
“In this day of highly specialized training, it’s exceedingly important to have a good center of liberal education,” Larsen once said. “To make this possible, there must be freedom of speech and freedom of teaching.”
Joseph Smiley (1954-1958)
Texas native Joseph Smiley served in the U.S. Navy during World War II before arriving at Illinois in 1947 as a professor of French. In 1951, he became department head, and he was serving as dean of the Graduate College when he was named dean of LAS.
Smiley operated the college when it was a fraction of today’s size, at around 4,000 students. His Texas roots proved too hard to resist, however, and he left Illinois in 1958 to twice serve as president of Texas Western College at El Paso (1958-1960 and 1969-1972) and also vice president and provost at the University of Texas at Austin (1960). He served as president of the University of Texas at Austin (1961-1963), and president of the University of Colorado (1963-69).
Lyle Lanier (1959-1960)
Born and raised in Tennessee, Lyle Lanier’s education began in a one-room schoolhouse. Before his career ended, he would become one of the most influential figures at the Illinois, including a year spent as dean of the College of LAS.
Lanier was serving as head of the Department of Psychology when he was appointed dean of LAS. In 1960, he was appointed provost and executive vice president and became a central force in the academic development of the University’s Chicago campus and the University’s expansion in the health field.
He earned a master’s degree in 1924 and PhD in 1926 from George Peabody College in Nashville. He served on the faculty of Vanderbilt University and Vassar College before coming to Illinois. Lanier received an honorary degree from Illinois in 1977.
Jack Peltason (1960-1963)
Illinois President David Henry once told Jack Peltason that appointing him as dean of LAS was against “all my instincts,” because of Peltason’s relatively young age of 37. Just seven years later, however, Henry would appoint Peltason as the first chancellor in the Illinois’ new chancellor system (with the advent of the Chicago campus).
A political scientist, Peltason arrived at Illinois in 1951 as a professor. He wrote influential books in the field, such as Fifty-Eight Lonely Men, and Government by the People, before being named dean in 1960.
In 1964, he left for the University of California at Irvine, where, as a faculty member, dean, and vice chancellor, Peltason was influential in the new campus’s development. He returned to Illinois to serve as chancellor from 1967 to 1977. In 1984 he returned to UC-Irvine to serve as chancellor. Peltason served as president of the University of California from 1992 to 1995.
Robert Rogers (1964-1978)
Robert Rogers is remembered as a steadying hand throughout one of the most turbulent eras in history. Arriving at Illinois in 1948 to teach and study English literature, he was named dean of LAS in 1964 and became one of the more prominent campus figures during the unrest of the Vietnam era.
During the 14 years of his tenure as dean, Rogers became known for compromise without jeopardizing the teaching and research missions of the College of LAS.
“In my view, a university is not a church, a psychiatric clinic, a political enclave, a social welfare agency or a playpen for life adjustment,” Rogers told new faculty in 1970, in a speech that was quoted around the country. “It is a center of learning where the acquisition of knowledge and the transmission of knowledge takes place.”
Lloyd Humphreys (1979-1980)
Lloyd Humphreys arrived at Illinois in 1957 as a professor of psychology. He was named head of the Department of Psychology from 1959 to 1969, and he served as an assistant director of the National Science Foundation from 1970 to 1971, before assuming the dean’s post in 1979.
He received many awards for his research on intelligence. Prior to arriving at Illinois, he received his doctorate at Stanford, and he taught at Northwestern University, the University of Washington, and Stanford. Humphreys served as research director at the U.S. Air Force’s Personnel Laboratory from 1951 to 1957, before spending the rest of his career at Illinois. He retired in 1984.
William Prokasy (1980-1988)
William Prokasy earned a bachelor’s degree at Baldwin- Wallace College, a master’s degree in clinical psychology at Kent State University, and a doctoral degree in experimental psychology and statistics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison before launching his career. He worked at Penn State University and the University of Utah before arriving at Illinois, where he served as dean of LAS from 1980 to 1988.
He is the origin of the William Prokasy Award, the highest award for teaching in the College of LAS. After Illinois, Prokasy served as vice president for academic affairs at the University of Georgia from 1988 to 1998. That time included a stint as interim university president.
David Bright (1988-1989)
David Bright arrived at Illinois as faculty in 1970, and he went on to serve as chair of the Department of Classics, acting director of the School of Humanities, and director of the Program in Comparative Literature before being named dean of LAS in 1988.
Prior to Illinois, he earned degrees at the University of Manitoba and the University of Cincinnati before serving as a professor of classics at Williams College. After his tenure as dean at LAS, he served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University. He went on to serve as vice president for arts and sciences at Emory University, where he remains a professor emeritus of classics and comparative literature.
Larry Faulkner (1989-1994)
Larry Faulkner arrived at Illinois in 1973 as a chemistry professor. He quickly became known for his teaching and research, and after serving as department head in the mid-1980s, he was named dean of the College of LAS in 1989. He continued to teach and research in these positions, winning numerous awards and recognition. Few have had a wider impact on the many aspects of Illinois than Faulker—his service to the College of LAS continued when he left the post to serve as provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs from 1994 to 1998. He was instrumental in supporting the new Chemical and Life Sciences Laboratory, constructed in 1997, and the Japan House, dedicated in 1998.
He was also known for increasing diversity hires in faculty, improving environmental, international, and teaching programs, and improving computer technology on campus. After leaving Illinois, he went on to serve as president of the University of Texas at Austin.
Jesse Delia (1994-2004)
In his long career at Illinois, Delia has served as professor and head of the Department of Communication, dean of the College of LAS, interim provost, and an international ambassador for the University. He earned a reputation for excellence in all roles. From 1978 to 1994, Delia served as head of the Department of Speech Communication (now called Communication) and helped it become one of the country’s top programs. He served as dean of the College of LAS from 1994 to 2004, during which time he oversaw $170 million in renovation and construction projects (including Spurlock Museum), secured $200 million in private support and commitments for endowed chairs and professorships, and strengthened a wide array of programs.
Delia went on to serve as interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs from 2004 to 2007. Today, he serves as Illinois’ executive director for International Research Relations.
Sarah Mangelsdorf (2004-2008)
Sarah Mangelsdorf arrived at Illinois from the University of Michigan in 1992 as a professor of psychology. She served as head of the Department of Psychology and associate provost before being named acting dean of LAS in 2004. She was named permanent dean in 2006, becoming the first female dean of the college.
She received her BA in psychology at Oberlin College and her doctoral degree from the University of Minnesota in 1988. At Illinois, she received the William Prokasy Award, the highest award for teaching in the College of LAS. She is a member of the American Psychological Association and has served on the editorial boards for several journals.
In 2008, Mangelsdorf was named dean of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University.
Philip Best (2008-2009)
A graduate of Duke University and the University of Washington, Philip Best arrived at Illinois in 1979. He is a professor of molecular and integrative physiology, biophysics, bioengineering, and neuroscience, and associate dean for biological, physical, and social and behavioral sciences in the College of LAS. He served as interim dean of LAS from 2008 to 2009.
Best also served as head of the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology. His research focuses on understanding the regulation and function of voltage- dependent calcium channels, particularly those expressed in the heart.
Ruth Watkins (2009-2013)
Ruth Watkins arrived on campus in 1993 as an assistant professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences. She became an associate dean in the College of Applied Health Sciences in 2000. In 2003, she was named an associate provost, and then named vice provost in 2006. In 2009, she was named dean of the College of LAS.
Under Watkins, the college created new academic programs for interactive and interdisciplinary teaching, and she was instrumental in creating new scholarship programs, including the growing Lincoln Hall Fund for Scholarships. Watkins also oversaw the long-awaited renovation of Lincoln Hall.
Watkins earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Northern Iowa and her doctorate at the University of Kansas. She left LAS in 2013 to serve as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah.
Brian Ross (2013-2014)
Brian Ross joined the faculty in the top-ranked University of Illinois Department of Psychology in 1982 after earning his PhD from Stanford University. He served as an associate dean within LAS, working primarily with science departments to promote research, teaching, and public service. In 2013, Ross was named interim dean of LAS after the departure of Ruth Watkins.
Ross is also an original member of the Beckman Institute, the highly respected interdisciplinary research center at Illinois, where he joined the faculty in 1989. He is very active in his field, with his research focused on how people learn, reason, and understand in complex domains. He also has a background in mathematics and statistics, with undergraduate and graduate degrees from Brown, Yale, and Rutgers, in addition to Stanford.
By Dave Evensen