Weissman Leaves Legacy of Interdisciplinary Education and Lifelong Learning

After 21 years at Dickinson, Provost and Dean of the College Neil Weissman will step down at the end of this academic year, leaving behind revolutionary global and sustainable initiatives that will propel the college into the future while continuing the college’s mission to engage students in lifelong learning.

Trained as a Russian historian, Weissman decided he wanted to be a history professor during his freshman year orientation in college, and he never looked back. At various times, Weissman specialized in the study of Russian, Asian, and European history. He has taught in a multitude of disciplines including sociology and international studies, as well  multiple first-year seminars at Dickinson.

Weissman came to Dickinson in 1975 and rose through the professor ranks while holding numerous leadership positions. He has been dean of the college since 1998 and provost since 2002. Weissman was valedictorian at Colgate University where he received his bachelor’s degree and holds master’s and doctoral degrees in Russian history from Princeton University.

Although his duties in the classroom and research were suspended when he accepted the provost position, he has always had a focus on higher education and Dickinson’s initiatives of a well-rounded education. 

“I’d say the motivator was love of learning and the realization that I could make a living doing it,” said Weissman, when asked about why he pursued a career in education.

Interaction with students is what teaching is all about to Weissman. 

“I enjoy working with Dickinson students, and as provost, I have less contact with students as I did as a faculty member,” said Weissman. “The provost meets and works primarily with faculty and staff. Beyond being very capable and very ambitious, in my experience, Dickinson students have a lot of heart.”.

It is very common for Dickinson faculty to teach across disciplines, and Weissman’s tenure as a professor exemplifies the interdisciplinary learning that happens at Dickinson. 

“About half of our students graduate with interdisciplinary majors, and over time the interdisciplinary programs have become an equally important part of what we do,” said Weissman.

Not only do more students tend to graduate with interdisciplinary studies, but many also complete two majors or additional minors. This is in part due to  changes that Weissman has implemented to make it easier to study more than one area. 

Jack Corkum ‘24 is an international business major with minors in Spanish and economics, and he credits his paths to these minors to Dickinson’s overlapping and interdisciplinary curriculum. “A lot of the majors here have a lot of overlapping and it’s good because it allows you to study a lot of different things and the opportunity cost of obtaining minors is relatively low,” said Corkum.

The value of a liberal arts education is priceless, as it teaches young adults to engage in lifelong learning and exposes students to a breadth of subjects and ideas, said Weissman.

“Developing the capabilities to thrive in a rapidly changing, complex world, inculcating engaged citizenship, and offering the opportunity to explore what it means to be human allows us to offer an education without an expiration date,” said Weissman.

Over Weissman’s long tenure at Dickinson, the college has faced some challenges but also has made a name for itself with signature programs including sustainability initiatives, global education programs, and dynamic higher education learning strategies.

“Our understanding of the liberal arts is much more engaged than before I came, [and] the emphasis on global education and sustainability are two examples of that. I think the way teaching occurs is very different, it’s much more active, and I think students are getting a better educational experience because of the way we teach,” said Weissman.

This educational experience that Weissman has worked on highlights the reasons why he loves to be provost of Dickinson in the first place. “Watching our very creative faculty do their work, particularly through discussion meetings with them in review processes is rewarding,” said Weissman.

Weissman is also proud of the image Dickinson has created for itself.

 “The idea that Dickinson could do certain things very well: global education is one of them, sustainability is another. In 1975, we weren’t thinking that Dickinson would be a national leader in anything in particular. And now I would argue that we have the strongest global program of any liberal arts college in America,” said Weissman.

One particular element of improvement that Weissman is proud of is the recent diversification of the student body. 

“The campus is definitely more diverse, and that’s a major accomplishment, both in terms of representation of students of color and international students of campus, but there is still much more to do,” said Weissman.

Weissman partially credits diversity at Dickinson due to the innovative global study programs that the college offers. When Weissman arrived, there was only one study abroad program in Bologna, but now study abroad is a key aspect of a Dickinson education. 

“It’s more than it was, and for all the years I’ve been here we’ve developed these wonderful programs abroad and just under two-thirds of our students study abroad. We were exporting, so to say, and we only had one percent international students, we weren’t importing anybody, which was kind of crazy,” said Weissman.

And diversity is just one thing that Weissman thinks makes this community great. 

“The close interaction between students and faculty has always been there. The strong sense of community has always been there. A culture of niceness where people treat each other well and are direct and honest with each other has always been a characteristic of Dickinson. It’s in the college’s DNA,” said Weissman.

The culture of a kind and caring community is experienced by many students too. “The small class sizes have helped me to produce a lot of good relationships around campus and also has allowed me to get to know the people in my classes and then I see them outside of class hours and say hello. I think that definitely contributes to the tight knit community here,” said Joe Smythe ’26, an international student from New Zealand.

The strong sense of community that Weissman has called home for many years has also provided him with some notable memories. Weissman recalled the fond memory of driving down to Baltimore to meet with then president-elect Bill Durden amid a terrible snowstorm to talk about the college’s future plans of development Dickinson’s signature initiatives that Durden had come up with.

One of his more unusual memories was when one of Dickinson’s librarians was arrested in China by local authorities. The librarian was conducting research and he and his wife disappeared from their hotel after being charged with spying. “We launched an international campaign to get him free, there was a resolution in Congress, and we got him out. That was pretty exciting,” said Weissman.

Although Weissman’s legendary tenure as provost will conclude on July 1, 2023, he plans on returning as a professor of the liberal arts with a focus on higher education learning. “I’m going back to the faculty, pure and simple,” said Weissman.

Weissman’s final remark was for the students to really make Dickinson their own and take advantage of the great opportunities this school provides. 

“We have a really rich and dynamic academic program, and we have really high-quality faculty and staff that are committed to students, and so my hope would be that students appreciate that and I think students do and will continue to appreciate it into the future,” said Weissman.