Clayton R. Koppes, dean of Oberlin's College of Arts and Sciences, is a man who is accessible, relaxed, engaging, an attentive listener, and a stimulating conversationalist. He's also an excellent cook and a homeowner in the midst of extensive renovations of the 1909 Oberlin house he shares with Professor of Sociology Bill Norris, his partner of 18 years. Koppes was, at one time, an ardent gardener, although Norris now does the lion's share of that while Koppes is deaning. Koppes could readily be mistaken for the American prototype of a beloved college professor.
However this professor is hardly typical. Since his appointment as dean last December, preceded by several months as acting dean, he has spent his days and most evenings sorting out and resolving the concerns of 185 tenure-track faculty members and scores of temporary and adjunct professors and staff members, supervising tenure-track hiring, finding the right people for temporary positions, adjudicating thorny issues, overseeing the delicate balance of the curriculum, and working closely with the College Faculty Council.
His personal passion for travel has recently been limited to public appearances as spokesperson for the College's programs, and, as with every key administrator, his responsibility for keeping the bottom line in the black is a paramount challenge.
Does Koppes object to this abrupt revision of his home life and free time-pleasures he had routinely enjoyed since 1978 as Houck Professor of Humanities and chair of the history department? "Not at all," he said briskly. "The fun part of my job is dealing with people with such wide-ranging interests. The satisfaction I take from my day-to-day activities really makes the difference." Another aspect of his new job he especially enjoys is time spent with President Dye. "Nancy is fun to work with," he said, "and I enjoy her genuine vision and her informality."
Koppes grew up in Kansas and in high school distinguished himself in speech and debate-an achievement that continues to serve him well today. He also studied bassoon and clarinet, but modestly notes that he is "not very good" at playing either instrument. "Actually," he claims, "my contribution to the arts was putting my instruments away." He attributes his unwavering regard for classical music to his early music training. He holds season tickets to the Cleveland Orchestra and rarely misses an on-campus musical event.
Harvard University Press patiently awaits delivery of the manuscript for his third book, a history of film, and he hopes to find time to complete it soon. His first book, published by the Yale University Press in 1982, was JPL and the American Space Program; it utilized the knowledge and expertise he had gained as a senior research fellow in history at the California Institute of Technology. The book was awarded the Dexter Prize from the Society for the History of Technology. In 1987 he and Gregory Black of Missouri University at Kansas City coauthored Hollywood Goes to War-How Politics, Profits & Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies, an exploration of the intimate relationship between Washington and Hollywood during the war years.
A summer getaway to Point Reyes, California, will help him unwind and put the cares of Oberlin on hold for a while. Then it's back to the deanship, and planning the course on World War II he will team-teach with Len Smith, associate professor of history, next semester. "Staying in touch with the students is very important to me," he said. The history students who feared they would be deprived of his lectures when he was tapped for his new role are delighted.
Will the renovations in the dining room ever be done? Will the garden flourish as it used to? Will there ever again be another gourmet meal prepared by Clayton Koppes? Probably, some day. This man of many mantles appears to maintain his composure and his contagious sense of humor while managing to touch all the bases at a steady, easy pace.
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