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Transformational Leadership

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Honoring a game-changing professor, provost and dean

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

Neil Weissman doesn’t want this article to be, in his words, a “me-fest.” He stresses that he didn’t accomplish anything alone. But it’s tough to overestimate the influence of the college’s longest-serving provost and dean, who’s partnered with five presidents to shepherd Dickinson in becoming a leading liberal-arts institution.

Weissman came as a young scholar in Russian history—a focus he chose his first week as a Colgate freshman, hearkening to his Russian-Jewish roots. He earned a master’s and Ph.D. in history at Princeton, Benjamin Rush’s alma mater, and in 1975 Dickinson offered him a two-year terminal position.

Hoping for the tenure track, Weissman was initially uninterested. Luckily, his graduate advisor persuaded him to accept. During his first year, Weissman taught six courses—in Russian, European and Asian history—an unheard-of load at the college today. When a junior faculty caucus drafted a resolution that would not be welcomed by the college president, the group chose Weissman as “least likely to have a future at Dickinson” to present it. He outlasted them all.

Weissman moved into administration as department chair, directing Dickinson’s National Endowment for the Humanities grant in global education, and as head of the Clarke Forum. He’s been dean since 1998, with the provost title added in 2002. Over the years, he’s partnered with faculty and staff to foster a culture of innovation, notes former President Bill Durden ’71.

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“Neil is a leader who has high standards, is tenacious in defense of the liberal arts and the faculty who teach them and recognizes and seizes opportunity for the good of the college community,” says Durden, who partnered with Weissman in the 2000s to shift the college’s balanced, discipline-based approach to a more interdisciplinary, innovative curriculum emphasizing distinctive areas of strength. This work helped transform Dickinson from a well-respected, mostly regional institution to a national leader in such areas as global education, sustainability, interdisciplinarity and active learning.

In 2016-17, Weissman served as interim president, a steady hand at the wheel. He enjoyed connecting more deeply with students and alumni but happily focused again on Dickinson’s faculty and curriculum at year’s end.

Among the highlights of Weissman’s career:

  • $3.1 million in successful grant proposals for the academic program, with a $1.2 million match
  • Student-faculty ratio reduced from 12:1 to 9:1, faculty teaching load reduced to five courses and the sabbatical cycle to six years, allowing professors to focus more deeply on students and research
  • New interdisciplinary majors, such as Africana studies, neuroscience, data analytics and quantitative economics, and minors including creative writing and ethics
  • Joint authorship of the college’s 2000 strategic plan, revitalizing Dickinson’s mission of engaged liberal learning
  • Expansion of global education, including programs in Beijing, Bremen, Málaga, Moscow, Nagoya, Toulouse and Yaoundé
  • $1.4 million Mellon Foundation grant for the Center for Sustainability Education, launching Dickinson’s rise as a top college for sustainability
  • An international campaign to free a Dickinson librarian falsely imprisoned as a spy while researching in China
  • Introduction of arts and sustainability graduation requirements
  • Rector Science Complex construction; renovation of Kaufman and Althouse halls
  • Mellon Foundation grant creating the Center for Civic Learning & Action
  • A successful transition to online/hybrid instruction during COVID-19 pandemic • Establishment of graduate program in managing complex disasters
  • Native American studies initiative and Center for the Futures of Native American Peoples

As this record shows, Weissman has the vision and skills to move people forward together, and relatively quickly. That’s no small feat in academia, where change is often slow and politics are complex.

“I’ve never worked with a colleague or administrator who better understands how to get things done in an academic environment,” notes Professor of History Matthew Pinsker, who collaborated with Weissman on the Dickinson & Slavery project. “He’s truly become the Wizard of Old West.”

An academic at heart, Weissman relishes a lively debate—a necessity for creative disruption, says Durden, who often hashed it out with his friend during their 14 years of collaboration. Colleagues are quick to note the humility, empathy and humor behind those lively exchanges. And the respect: Although he had authority to overrule the faculty personnel committee, Weissman almost never exercised it.

“My philosophy is, if I can’t persuade the committee to move in my direction, I’m probably wrong,” he says.

And Weissman is generous, says President John E. Jones ’77, P’11. “The wise counsel and broad institutional knowledge he imparted have assisted me in myriad ways,” Jones wrote in announcing Weissman’s retirement last spring.

“He’s also the smartest person I know,” says Catrina Hamilton-Drager, senior associate provost.

Faculty—and, by extension, students—reap the benefits of Weissman’s leadership, says Professor of Political Science and International Studies Russell Bova, who served alongside Weissman on several committees.

“Most current faculty arrived after the teaching load was reduced from six to five courses per year and after the sabbatical cycle was shortened. That would not have happened without Neil’s support and advocacy,” Bova says. “Those changes paved the way for faculty successes in publishing, grant applications and other areas that have heightened the college’s visibility and reputation.”

In May, Dickinson launched the Neil B. Weissman Fund for Faculty Research, established by former history major Greg Zimmerman ’83 and his wife, Mira. The first grant will be bestowed next March. On July 1, the college welcomed Renée Ann Cramer as the new dean and provost and Weissman began a sabbatical, studying the evolution of Dickinson’s curriculum and pedagogy. Thereafter, he’ll help prepare a new generation of educators as a professor in educational studies.

“I’ve been in this job a long time,” Weissman said during a ceremony in his honor. “People sometimes ask me, ‘How is this possible?’ The short answer is: When you’re working with faculty like this, it’s a privilege and a piece of cake.”

To contribute to the Weissman faculty research fund, visit and choose “Neil B. Weissman Fund for Faculty Research” under “Designation.”

Read more from the summer 2023 issue of Dickinson Magazine.


Published August 21, 2023