By Michelle Simmons
The first thing you notice about Nancy Roseman is that she looks right at you.
Since taking the helm in July as Dickinson’s 28th president, Roseman has been busy meeting with members of the faculty, student organizations and the Carlisle community. She’s been shaking hands with Dickinsonians up and down the East Coast (she heads west in November). And through-out all those conversations, her warm gaze never wavers. She doesn’t look over your shoulder; she doesn’t check her watch. Roseman is paying attention — always.
It’s a quality that those close to her repeatedly mention. They also use words such as inclusive, empathetic, direct, decisive. “She has great instincts,” says Mort Schapiro, former president of Williams College and current president of Northwestern University. “She’s really good at intuiting what students need, what motivates them.”
“Her office was just inside the front door of the main house, and her door was always open,” recalls Williams alumna Hilary Ledwell ’12 of her experience in the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford (WEPO). Roseman was the program director from 2010 to ’12. “I would come back from a class or lectures and sit down in her office — to check in, describe how a class was going, vent anxieties about post-senior-year plans, chat about the news. Her advice was always frank and seemingly effortless.”
Roseman counts among her top achievements at Williams College not her publications in prestigious journals (though she has those, such as in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), but, as dean of the college from 2000 to ’07, building a new student center. On a quintessentially sunny spring day in May, Roseman took two visitors on an informal tour of the Williams campus and nearby environs, culminating on the steps of the Paresky Center, a project that she shepherded from idea to bricks and mortar. A modern and elegant blend of New England charm and Adirondack rusticity (its grand hall is known as the campus living room) it sits atop the college’s geographic center.
“Nancy was the reason we built it,” says Schapiro. “We had a very modest plan when I came in 2000. We tried to fix up the old building, but Nancy said the best thing was to start over. We designed it with lots of student input, and it’s become the centerpiece for life on campus.”
There are different dining areas spread throughout the building, expanded office space for student organizations and a new Academic Resource Center. Tucked into the corner of the center’s second floor is a sumptuous study room. The only designated “quiet space” in the building, it’s paneled in rich, dark wood and furnished with leather club chairs. “The furniture is the highest quality,” says Roseman. “We did that purposefully. This is the intellectual space, and we’re showing you that we value it.”
Roseman also launched a new residential-life program, added support for the multicultural and interfaith offices and oversaw improvements to residence halls. She’s chaired and served on a wide variety of college committees, and it was that depth and breadth of experience that led to another signature accomplishment — fixing a well-intentioned but archaic financial-aid program that provided funds for textbooks.
“The amount wasn’t calibrated to meet actual cost and need,” recalls Bill Wagner, former dean of faculty and professor of history at Williams. “Nancy uncovered this, and in particular, that the student demographics were changing. Some of the students were using the grant money to defray family expenses.”
Further, students receiving the grants were corralled into a different section of the bookstore. “It was immediately obvious who was on financial aid and who wasn’t,” he says.
Roseman’s team recognized not only the financial impact but also how the program affected campus dynamics and worked with several departments to change the policy. “When you change the demographics of the institution, you can be reactive and wonder why things aren’t working,” Roseman says. “Or you can be proactive and acknowledge that these students will need support, and let’s figure out what they need.”
At the time, “we were just doing what we always did,” she adds. “There hadn’t been much self-examination: ‘Is this as good as it can be? Can we do better?’ That’s one thing I appreciate about Dickinson, that people ask that question every day as a normal course of doing business. It’s ingrained in Dickinson’s culture.”
That questioning nature and an eye for details that others miss is part personality, part scientific training. The younger daughter of Leonard and Gwen Roseman, Nancy grew up in the classic middle-class suburb of Metuchen, N.J., self-dubbed “The Brainy Borough” for producing a disproportionately high concentration of writers, artists, inventors and other notables.
Leonard, who attended Harvard University on a scholarship, owned a commercial stationery store — “he was Staples before there was a Staples,” quips Roseman. Now retired, he chairs the Metuchen Parking Authority and the Middlesex County Improvement Authority. Gwen, after raising her two girls — Nancy and older sister Lynda — became a real-estate agent and volunteers at the Metuchen Senior Citizens Center.
“They still live in the same house we grew up in,” says Roseman, recalling her childhood. “We’d go to New York, to a movie and then dinner. We loved film and food.”
Roseman readily admits that high school bored her, and when she arrived at Smith College in 1976, “it was like food,” she says. “I was so happy to learn. A lot of women in my class went to various prep schools, and they were so exhausted they stopped working. I did the opposite.”
She earned an A.B. in biology at Smith and a Ph.D. in microbiology from Oregon State University, where she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics for four years. In 1991, she joined the Williams -faculty, teaching courses in -immunology, -biochemistry, -molecular biology of HIV, cell biology and virology.
“When people find out you’re a biologist, they ask you all sorts of questions [about nature],” she says. “I always say, ‘If you can see it, I don’t know anything about it.’ It’s more about systems and how things fit together, how things are coordinated.”
Roseman sees her discipline in three dimensions: “When I’m teaching and talking about a cell, enzyme or process, I try to get the students to imagine a three-dimensional object,” she explains. “It actually occupies space; it has architecture and moving parts. They’re these amazing machines, and it’s how these machines work and how they’re regulated that I always found interesting.”
“My work originally was very unpredictable,” she continues. “When you infect a cell, you never know what’s going to happen. Then I began to do more biochemistry, and it became more predictable, and I realized I didn’t like that. I like having to interpret something that isn’t straightforward. The kind of biology I did is really messy.”
In 1998, Roseman received a National Science Foundation grant to support her research on the vaccinia virus, the original source for the smallpox vaccine. For three years, she ran the lab, continued to teach and, in 2000, agreed to take on the role of dean of the college.
“Being a lab scientist prepares you well for administrative work,” Roseman says. “As a scientist, you’re constantly making decisions and problem solving, and you get really used to things not working. You do experiments — sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. Even when they don’t work, you learn something from them. As a scientist, I was always asking, ‘What’s the question?’ I got really good at drilling down to the actual problem.”
“She’s strong-minded and direct,” says Peter Murphy, professor of English at Williams and current dean of faculty. “That’s a great quality in a person. You have to work to resolve conflict. There are times when people need to be told things they don’t want to hear, but Nancy does it in a way that results in a positive outcome. You have to have strong values — personal and liberal-arts values.”
One of the courses Roseman was teaching at the time was Society, Culture and Disease, an interdisciplinary course she designed and team-taught with Schapiro and Murphy. They brought that same spirit of experimentation to the classroom. Beginning with the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s as a case study, they examined biological, cultural and economic aspects of disease. They taught the class three times, and each experience was a revelation.
“It’s fun to find the intersection between disciplines,” she says. “That’s why the teaching I did with Morty and Peter was the most challenging teaching I ever did, and the most rewarding. We were teaching one year when SARS hit. The cover of Time magazine was red with a masked woman with Asian eyes. Students looked at that and said, ‘Here we are, stereotyping yet another disease.’ They will never look at another magazine article or imagery the same way.”
In 2010, Roseman took a two-year appointment as director of WEPO, where she again used her keen eye for details and increased opportunities for science students to study and research at Oxford.
Shortly after returning to the U.S., Roseman was preparing to return to the classroom when she heard about Dickinson’s presidential search.
During the interview process, she posed as the aunt of a prospective student, surreptitiously visited the campus and discovered a community — on and off campus — that gelled with her values. “What you’re instantly struck by when you come to Carlisle is this incredibly friendly community,” Roseman says. “I had a tour of the campus, of the farmer’s market, which was going on at the time, and of the historic church behind the market.”
She and her wife, Lori van Handel, are veteran hikers, and they’re eager to get out and about on the numerous trails surrounding Carlisle. In mid-September, they led a hike through King’s Gap State Park with students, faculty and staff — many of whom brought along family members.
In her new role, Roseman’s priorities include improving access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. “We have to talk in very blunt ways about economic stratification,” she says, noting the importance of growing the endowment to -support more scholarships and grants.
She also points to Strategic Plan III, which emphasizes the residential experience, most notably housing. It’s not about luxury, she says, but about creating a physical environment that encourages serendipitous encounters and intellectual cross-pollination. “The bottom line is, if you look at our dorms, there’s no place for that to happen, literally,” she says. “When you talk to the students, the buildings they see as desirable are the ones that have social spaces. We really have to create opportunities for students to meet each other.”
As she meets more alumni, faculty and students, Roseman recognizes how far Dickinson has come in just over a decade — it’s what drew her to leave Williams, her professional home for more than 20 years — and she looks forward to continuing that momentum. “People are starting to understand that this is an institution that means what it says,” she says. “It’s a fantastic success story, and I’m eager to tell that story.”
Published October 28, 2013