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Q and A with ... Patrice Rankine, UR's new arts dean

Q and A with ... Patrice Rankine, UR's new arts dean

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Patrice Rankine, dean since June 1 of the University of Richmond’s School of Arts and Sciences, is a classical scholar with a focus on black classicism.

He is the author of “Ulysses in Black: Ralph Ellison, Classicism, and African American Literature” (2006, University of Wisconsin Press) and “Aristotle and Black Drama: A Theater of Disobedience” (2013, Baylor University Press). Rankine graduated from Brooklyn College in 1992 and holds master’s degrees from Yale University, where he completed his doctorate in 1998.

Rankine comes to Richmond from Hope College in Michigan.

QUESTION: You left a similar position at Hope College to become UR’s arts and sciences dean. What attracted you to Richmond?

ANSWER: I really enjoyed working with my colleagues at Hope and am proud of the impact we had. I heard about the opening at the University of Richmond, and the more I learned, the more apparent was the fit. I was thrilled that the community concurred. UR is an exceptionally rich environment with a new leadership team poised for great contributions. Jacquelyn Fetrow is a skillful and creative provost. President Crutcher, who is currently leading a strategic planning process for the university, is experienced, eloquent and wise.

All of these facts combined to make this opportunity an unmatched one. The energy at UR right now is off the charts, and that level of activity drew me in. The colleagues are brilliant and at the top of their fields, and the opportunities that we offer students — “need-blind” admission meeting 100 percent of demonstrated need (in the company of only 1 percent of our nation’s institutions), the Richmond Promise, UR Downtown and the Center for Civic Engagement — are unique in higher education. The University of Richmond should be a destination for the world’s brightest students, faculty and staff.

QUESTION: With a doctorate from Yale in classical languages and literature, you have a strong foundation in the liberal arts. Would you recommend that course of study to young people now, given all the emphasis on STEM and degrees tied to jobs?

ANSWER: I would encourage students to pursue whatever studies they are passionate about and in which they can become proficient and, yes, make a good living. In the School of Arts & Sciences at UR, there are exciting opportunities in STEM. We have the Integrated Quantitative Science program, which along with its allied offerings is drawing young people from before college though their post-baccalaureate years to imagine the inherent possibilities when you combine biology, chemistry, physics, math and computer science in an interdisciplinary mode.

And there’s more. The world needs experts who approach problems from a variety of perspectives. I just came from Michigan, as you know, and addressing the water crisis in Flint will require biologists as well as political scientists, historians and people who study race and ethnicity, philosophers as well as artists.

By the way, I purchased a couple of works from a studio art major, Brianna Rodriguez, at our Arts & Sciences Student Symposium in April, where hundreds of students in the arts and sciences presented their projects, experiments and ideas. Brianna’s visual treatment of the Flint crisis is compelling and reframes a viewer’s sense of urgency regarding that issue.

Perhaps in some cases an art student might tool herself to learn the management side of her trade to make a living, given the market realities. We teach arts management at UR as well. We guide students throughout their years in Arts & Sciences at UR to consider their aptitudes and passions and to see where those align with career possibilities.

QUESTION: Your undergraduate degree from Brooklyn College is in ancient Greek. How did you choose that major?

ANSWER: To paraphrase a speaker I heard recently regarding choosing a major, I fell in love with it, quite simply. Ancient Greek was surprisingly an offer as one of the languages to fill a requirement at BC. I took it because while I sometimes resisted my parents’ insistence on church attendance, I was always intrigued with preachers who would say “the Greek says …” I wanted to see for myself. I fell in love with Greek and Latin and the literatures in those languages. I became obsessed with words and their roots. And the rest is history, as they say.

QUESTION: Tell us more about your background — where did you grow up and what led you to a career in academia?

ANSWER: I was a first-generation college student. My mom held a certificate in nursing in Jamaica. My dad was a photographer in Kingston and, as an immigrant to the U.S., had to give up his passion to sustain our family. My older sister also attended college and earned a degree in fashion merchandising.

I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but also spent some years in Jamaica as a boy. Less than a year into college, the adviser that I was assigned, Dean Kathleen Gover, asked me what I was going to do with a major in Ancient Greek. She introduced me to the possibility of academia and revealed some pathways for me throughout college. These included advanced programs in my field, classical languages and literatures, study abroad opportunities and graduate school preparation. Dean Gover and Professor Gail Smith, who was also black and a classicist, opened my eyes to many possibilities.

BC has a core curriculum so I think that from early on, I was forced to think about the importance of a liberal arts education that included everything from political sciences to physics and geology. A liberal arts education such as what we offer in the School of Arts & Sciences at UR exposes students to a breadth of subjects along with their chosen field. The process I underwent helps me to connect with our students’ “what” and “how.”

One student might be in love with the violin, as an example of the “what,” but he might not realize the breadth of possibilities in music (the “how”). He might not realize the skills and aptitudes he is gaining as he plays his instrument and collaborates with other musicians. I love to work with career services to make these connections for our students.

QUESTION: And your personal life and hobbies? What’s your favorite way to relax?

ANSWER: My major loves outside of academia are my family, my dogs and running. My family includes friends and colleagues that I’ve known over the years. My paternal granddad in Jamaica had dogs when I was a kid, and I just adore dogs. Dogs are outdoor creatures on the island. It was inconceivable to my parents to have dogs in apartments and houses in New York, so once I was on my own, I naturally had dogs. My eldest, Ghandi, is now 16. Because he’s a more aggressive breed, I named him Ghandi to cultivate quietude. It worked. (Shoutout to my dog Be as well!) I also love to run to keep in shape, mostly 5K to preserve my body for the long haul of aging.

QUESTION: Have you had a chance to explore the Richmond area? Anything about the city come as a surprise?

ANSWER: I have indeed explored Richmond a bit. I’ve been interviewing at UR since the end of January, so Richmond very much felt like home by the time I was appointed in March. The vibrant pockets of neighborhoods and variety of settings is a positive surprise, as are the restaurants. Richmond is a historic city with great promise, to paraphrase Ben Campbell.

The combination of old and new, with monuments to 19th-century figures alongside large, colorful murals, makes Richmond a preeminently (post)modern city. I appreciate a pace that allows walking, running, biking and canoeing, similar to the Midwest, and the vibe is friendly, upbeat and cosmopolitan. People are really friendly. Most people smile and say hello. Add to that a world-class museum that brings in the paintings and sculpture of Kehinde Wiley, and we have the makings for real creativity.

— Karin Kapsidelis


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