Q&A: Dean of Faculty Lori Kletzer


Vice president for academic affairs on labor economics, returning to liberal arts, and cheering for mules

By Stephen Collins '74
Photography by Chris Bennett

Lori G. Kletzer, the new vice president for academic affairs and dean of  faculty, arrived at Colby this summer and sat down with College Editor
Stephen Collins ’74 in August to field questions about her pre-Colby career, early impressions, and her interests.

Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Lori G. Kletzer
Where were you before Colby?
For me, coming to Colby is a wandering journey back to the liberal arts college. I was an undergraduate at Vassar, and my first academic job was at Williams. So this is not a transition to, this is a transition back. ... Within the University of California [system], Santa Cruz [where she taught 1992-2010] is the campus most oriented—or at least Santa Cruz likes to think—most oriented toward undergraduates. So, throughout both my studies and my professional career, teaching undergraduates and doing research in an environment that is focused on undergraduates has been just what I’ve done.

Did you discover economics in college?
I wandered into economics as a freshman. I needed another class, and I liked it. It was serendipitous, and I liked the policy relevance. I liked the aspect of understanding a problem, having a theoretical framework, trying to do the empirical work, and all of that with an eye toward, “Can policy help mitigate this problem?”. ... The kind of questions that pulled me in were about permanent job loss and what happens to people when the world structurally moves in a direction different from their set of skills. ... I was in college in 1975-76, in that very deep recession, but ’79 through ’81 was another very deep one. So it was the nature of structural unemployment in my first years of graduate school that pulled me in.

And it’s remained so relevant.
I often say, “When things are bad, that’s when my ship comes in.” Especially over the last thirty years.

Tell me about the transition from the classroom to the dean’s office.
From econ professor to administrator started with a stint as economics department chair at Santa Cruz for three and a half years. I was lucky; it was a time when the campus had resources. Over those three and a half years we hired eight people. So I was involved in finding good people, bringing them into the department, attaching them to mentors, and really working at that early-career faculty development. And I discovered I really liked it. I liked that engagement with people at the start of their careers.

And how does your economics background fit with that?
Economists are schooled to think about resource allocation. “If I put resources here, the cost is I don’t get an activity somewhere else.” ... Economics department chairs, in some senses, have it easier, because the people you’re dealing with—your colleagues—are schooled in the same ways.

But what really planted the seeds that became me as a full-time administrator/dean were at the end of being department chair. I knew there were aspects of administration I liked, but it’s kind of hard to figure out, “What do you do next?”. ... I became vice chair [of the Santa Cruz faculty senate], a two-year commitment, which led to another two-year commitment as chair. I only did one year because I came here. That brought me out of the economics department and it had me interacting with faculty and colleagues across all disciplines on the campus and also with faculty on the other campuses, because there’s this system-wide senate as well. That’s where I realized I really like this administration piece. I interacted with administrators on committees on planning and budget, on appointments and personnel, on admissions policy; I interacted with college relations too. ... It was really a great introduction to being a faculty administrator.

Do you have any plans to teach at Colby?
I do. When I feel I have a really steady grasp of the issues that come across my desk, then I will talk with my economics colleagues about what I’d like to teach and what they’d like me to teach, and my hope is that maybe in my third year here ... ?

What attracted you to come from what’s perceived by some as a paradise back to northern New England?
There certainly is a paradise nature to coastal California. Except for maybe this summer it has the most perfect weather one can imagine. But even though I’ve spent 25 years more or less living in California, I’ve never really said I’m a Californian. I grew up in Oregon. I grew up with more space and green and trees. Having spent six years at Williams, I really liked New England. The look of it is comfortable and very familiar, and after the years in California I like the sense of space here.

Was there anything particular to Waterville or Central Maine? The way it feels. And, as a labor economist ... there’s no question that the issues about education and employment opportunities for Maine are really interesting, really critical. But I will admit, Colby was the clear draw. To be able to come back to the liberal arts college setting was the clear draw.

What are your early impressions?
Overwhelmingly positive. To me, personally, people couldn’t be more welcoming. I’ve gotten this really enveloping, warm welcome to the place and confirmation of the feeling that, “We’re here because we’re dedicated to this undergraduate intellectual experience.” I’ve felt that from the outset. I also have a sense that’s still forming of palpable potential and opportunities to move forward and build something. A sense of commitment and strength and desire to see Colby advance. Very aspirational.

How about your life outside of academe?
I like winter sports—downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing. None of that in Santa Cruz; you have to drive five hours east to Lake Tahoe with everyone else from the Bay Area. So I’m looking forward to being closer to the mountains. I’m also a water person, so the idea of being on lakes and canoeing and kayaking and all that active outdoor stuff is very appealing to me. Also, to me, being three hours from Boston is really a positive. And I like to read and go to movies and museums. I’ve discovered Railroad Square [Cinema]. What a fabulous jewel. ...

My son is in his junior year at UC Santa Barbara and he is spending that year in China—half in Shanghai and half in Hong Kong. And my 17-year-old daughter is going to be a senior in high school and, by her choice, and it’s a choice that makes sense, she’s [spending] it in California. It’s her last year.

What about sports? Are you any more inclined to root for a mule than a banana slug?
Yeah. Talk about two mascots where you just go, “What?”

Yes, I can cheer for the mules. I am a sports fan from childhood. Football games, basketball games. I’m a swimmer, so I will go to every swim meet. I would travel to go to a swim meet. So I’m going to take in all of it.

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