Footing a pair of shiny black Dr. Martins, Clayton Koppes joked, "It's not the weather," that keeps him at Oberlin. "I have been happier at Oberlin both professionally and personally than I ever imagined," Koppes said. Koppes served as Acting dean of the college of Arts and Sciences beginning in July, and was selected to be the dean of the college in December. The Board of Trustees will approve the nomination at their March meeting.
Koppes has been here since 1978, when he was hired as Professor of History. "1978 was a terrible year in the history job department, but luckily [there was] a job at Oberlin." He arrived on April 17 of that year, and has been here ever since.
Koppes grew up in Newton, Kansas. After graduating from high school, he attended Bethel College, where he intended to major in economics. Koppes said, "I think I became a historian because of two people. My grandmother is a wonderful storyteller who regaled me with tales of the Dust Bowl and other historical periods she had lived through." Also an outstanding teacher, Kieth Sprunger, "made history come alive."
Koppes was a reporter and middle-level editor for the Wichita Eagle while he was in college. "In the end, there wasn't much room for ideas in the average newspaper business. I wanted something more intellectually challenging," Koppes said.
This call to challenge took him through a masters program at Emory University in Atlanta and the doctoral program at the University of Kansas at Lawrence.
After getting his Ph.D., Koppes took a temporary position at CalTech in Pasadena as a senior research fellow of history and did some teaching there. After his contract was up, he applied for the history position at Oberlin. He got the job and began teaching in 1978.
As well as academic rewards, Koppes found personal rewards in his move to Oberlin. "When I came in 1978, I met my companion Bill Norris [Professor of Sociology] at a new faculty luncheon. We've been together since 1979. His daughter, Faryl, went to Oberlin, so family dimension has been a very rewarding part of my life at Oberlin."
Koppes wrote a book on the history of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1982 and another in 1987, on the ways in which World War II affected Hollywood movies.
Koppes became interested in administrative work while he was chair of the Department of History from 1987 to 1991. Koppes said he found he enjoyed the creative aspects of the job involving hiring and curricular change.
Koppes entered the national search for a permanent new dean and "had to run the gauntlet of other administrators and faculty members," he said. On being hired, Koppes said, "I think this is a point in Oberlin's history when the college can achieve a great deal. I'm eager to be a part of that."
Nancy Dye, president of the College said, "I think Clayton is extraordinarily imaginative and he sees the big picture in matters involving the curriculum and faculty. He is also a very caring person, which is enormously important for the Dean."
Koppes said having been in different social and geographical backgrounds enforced the sense of Oberlin being open to all kinds of students and faculty members. "It reinforced that we should always strive to create a community where everyone's talents are recognized and celebrated," Koppes said. "Academic excellence is central to a place like Oberlin, but it is only part of what we stand for," Koppes said.
As an administrator, Koppes said he misses teaching and contact with students. He will team teach a course next fall on the history of World War II, however, with Professor of History Len Smith.
Koppes enjoys a number of hobbies in the time he spends away from work. But the time-consuming nature of his job does place new limitations on him. "One thing I like to do is cook," Koppes said, "but I could count the dishes of spaghetti I've cooked, on one hand, since I became dean."
Regardless of the difficult transitions Koppes has had to make, he is passionate about his new position. "In this job I like people and negotiating with people and finding a way to forge a common purpose among people who feel they have divergent interests." He spoke of the monumental change the ethnic make-up of the country is going through, saying, "Liberal arts colleges like Oberlin have to move swiftly to reflect the changing society and prepare students for it."
Clayton Koppes chosen as dean of the college
- December 13, 1996
Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 14; February 14, 1997
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