University of Vermont

University Communications

Interview: Antonio Cepeda-Benito

"I want to incentivize faculty to create high-impact learning opportunities," Dean Cepeda-Benito says, "students working in groups outside the classroom, involved in service learning, engaged in research, studying abroad -- all these things that we know makes learning a deeper and more pleasurable experience." (Photo: Sally McCay)

The new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Antonio Cepeda-Benito, has been flying a bit under the radar since he started work on July 16, the same day as the new president – timing, he jokes, that works to his advantage. “I don’t have to worry about being the center of attention...and I’m not the newest kid on the block.” So with less fanfare and fewer photographers, the psychology professor, who came to UVM after 18 years at Texas A&M University where he served as dean of faculties and associate provost, has been quietly taking the measure of his college.

“He was impressive on paper,” says William Falls, professor and chair of psychology and a member of the search committee, “and even more impressive when he arrived. When you sit with him you immediately recognize, one, he’s a really nice guy. He is soft-spoken, thoughtful, not shooting from the hip but asking really good questions. He’s very perceptive.”

The wheels are turning, as Falls says, including the ones on the bicycle the dean rides to work most mornings, demonstrating a Vermont ethos (though one he also carried through blazing days in College Station, Texas). He’s glad to be here.

After a couple of months letting him lie low and listen, UVM Today asked Cepeda-Benito to step briefly into the spotlight and tell us what’s on his mind for CAS.

UVM TODAY: We understand that you’ve already met individually with each of your department chairs – and that it was important to you to go to them. Why were these things a priority?

Antonio Cepeda-Benito: I believe I’ve met with most of them, yes – next I’m meeting with faculty. The chairs have one of the most difficult jobs in the university because they have to advocate for the faculty and at the same time they’re the ones who have to make faculty accountable. They have an advantaged point of view, too. They have a good sense of how their faculty feel, of the issues their students face – and they also have good ideas for solving problems. So it’s a way of telling them, look, I believe you’re very important, I need you and I count on you for help. And if you have requests or needs or wants, I need to know what those are so I can give you those things if they are within my reach and, if not, I can start looking at ways to find those things for you. I consider my job to be one of service.

I need to work for the college to find the resources and create the infrastructure that will allow the faculty to be successful because if they are successful, the university is successful. That’s how I feel. I will seek their input for almost anything I do so we can find common ground and move forward. If our faculty are working well and they are productive and happy, we can attract better students, we can provide a better quality education. Our professors are the heart that pumps the blood to the university year after year.

Could you describe your vision for the college and who you want to be for faculty and students?

In my previous job one of the things I did was help my provost evaluate the performance of deans – I learned a lot of things that I should not do. I do have ideas though sometimes I keep them to myself because I don’t want to inhibit anyone who has an opinion. If somebody has a better idea than my idea I hope I can recognize that. I would rather do the right thing than my thing.

But I do have a vision for the college. I have high expectations for UVM and I want to become known as a place where you can get a liberal arts education that is second to none. And to me that means we need to be leading the way in terms of giving our students an education that is engaging, that is fulfilling – not because of the ancillary benefits of being in college – but education that is part of the adventure. I want them dreaming big and wanting to do something for the benefit of humanity because of the inspiration and the skills they get here. So I want to incentivize faculty to create high-impact learning opportunities: students working in groups outside the classroom, involved in service learning, engaged in research, studying abroad -- all these things that we know makes learning a deeper and more pleasurable experience.

On the other hand, UVM believes in the scholar-teacher, the assumption that if you are research-active (and I include areas like the performing arts), then you are going to offer a teaching experience that adds value because you are engaged in that creative dissemination process. I want to make sure that we not only say that but we can demonstrate that, and the place to start is by being at the forefront of scholarship, discovering and contributing to the advancement of knowledge so that the rest of the world is looking and noticing us.

Therefore my intention is also to find ways to allow the faculty to be successful in those endeavors. There are two ways to do that. One is obviously by hiring good faculty and providing them with the resources they need to do the work and creating that intellectual environment where they can thrive. You also have to give them time to do that. Right now our faculty are teaching very heavy loads, and it’s difficult to demand something from people who are already taxed. So part of what I’m working on is finding ways to reduce teaching loads so faculty can focus more on quality rather than quantity.

You have faculty lines open?

We have a few searches that precede me, and I have five new lines that I need to look at how I’m going to allocate in ways that will give us the best return on our investment, by which I mean academic prestige when measured against other universities. There will be a process of assessing strengths and needs so these lines will go to places that would make a huge impact, maybe take us from having a pretty good program to a nationally recognized program or fill a gap that’s needed because it might help more than one area in terms of interdisciplinary initiatives, obviously in line with the priorities of SIP and the spires.

We’ve heard you have ideas you want to take to other deans. Can you talk about that?

Yes, I’m trying to meet with the deans and tell them about my plans, and I want to encourage them or invite them to play – or if they have initiatives that they are working on and they’ll let me play, I’ll play. I want this to be a team effort all the way. I want to be truly global.

In terms of teaching, one of the things that we’re going to do is encourage faculty to create new curriculum or enhance already existing courses with interdisciplinary experiences. As long as there’s one faculty member from the College of Arts and Sciences, they can partner with faculty from any college and they will be considered with equal weight. If somebody gets a course release partnering with a different unit that’s okay, we can finance that. Resources from this college would go to another college, which would mean the ones who win are the students. It’s not a big deal.

And the same with research. I will find ways to encourage faculty to work with investigators from other disciplines, and some ideas are going to be of higher quality if they go outside the college. Some may be very good within the college because we are so diverse and we have so many departments. I truly believe that we are moving into an era where problems are better addressed when you take into consideration many different perspectives, and you tackle problems with integrated solutions.

It sounds like the ALANA U.S. Ethnic Studies Program is a priority for you. What are you thinking about that?

It fulfills a very important role within our curriculum. Our students need to learn about group identity and how it impacts day-to-day life, how it permeates every aspect of what we do, be it politics, economics, labor, health, entertainment, you name it. So race relations is a very important part of this country and now I think every other country because globalization has basically made societies more heterogeneous than ever before. I came from a very homogenous society in Spain, but in the 21st century it’s no longer that way. Much of its population is from South America, Africa and Eastern Europe. Students need access to courses taught by a diverse cadre of faculty with different worldviews because where we come from influences the way we teach -- there’s no way around it. I think that’s a good experience for everyone.

What I’m going to do is invite all faculty who are affiliated with the ALANA U.S. Ethnic Studies Program – and any other faculty who might have an interest in globalization; culture and society; diversity and society; women and gender studies; sexual orientation; anything that relates to group identity and how that plays a role in history and in our daily lives – to nominate a committee that is going to examine the role the program plays at UVM. I want them to go in with an open mind and look at all sorts of possibilities, to look at, as a point of reference, what other universities are doing, and I want them to provide a recommendation to me about what direction we should take.

But they need to make a convincing argument, and the test is that I need them to identify where our current strengths are in terms of both expertise and interest and what we can build by pulling together those areas to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. We need a disciplinary or interdisciplinary topic where we have clear strength and can build something that will have national or international prominence. It’s very possible (that this is how we’ll use a new faculty line) and I hope I can be convinced that that’s the way to go for reasons that go above and beyond the curriculum, as important as the curriculum is. Because we are a research-intensive university, that component has to be an essential piece of how the program is defined.

Do you mind sharing some personal background? You are from the Salamanca area of Madrid?

Yes, I met my wife (Lisa Cepeda) there when she was studying abroad (as a student at Bennington College). And here I am. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that. My wife spoke Spanish well before I spoke English so our relationship is in Spanish. We have four children – one is no longer a child, he is 24, an architecture graduate from the University of Texas, in Barcelona looking for a job. I have a daughter at William and Mary, an international relations major who plays NCAA tennis, another daughter who just started at Ithaca College as a musical theater major and my youngest, 14, is at South Burlington High School. He plays tennis and cello. 

I speak Spanish with my children almost all the time, but my wife speaks both with them. They’ll speak English to me at home but if they call me they only speak Spanish because there are no other cues to distract them. Because I am a psychologist I take note of those automatic phenomena.

Is psychology helpful as a parent?

My wife is a psychologist also, but we don’t practice on them. We are just regular Mom and Dad with our kids. I hope.