Mark Roche: Lessons from the dean's desk



After 11 years as the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of Arts and Letters, Mark W. Roche stepped down at the end of the academic year, turning over the leadership of Notre Dame’s largest college to historian John McGreevy. Roche, pictured at right talking with a student, met with Susan M. Guibert ‘87, ’93MCA to talk about his tenure as dean, life at home with his wife, Barbara, and what lies ahead. Here’s some of what he had to say:

In many ways, Notre Dame is ideal for me because it’s a synthesis of my past. I went to Boston College High School, which was a Jesuit High School—my predecessor, Harry Attridge, went there, as did [local] Bishop [John] D’Arcy—so I had experienced Catholic education; then Williams, a small, liberal arts college. Notre Dame has echoes of a liberal arts college, with its core curriculum, its residential life, its sense of community. And Princeton, where I experienced a combination research university/undergraduate institution—Father Hesburgh once suggested that Notre Dame should become the “Catholic Princeton.” Then I taught at Ohio State, which is a comprehensive research institution, which Notre Dame is increasingly becoming. I draw on those different experiences.

I juggled in the band at Williams. I could juggle five balls and also clubs, rings and torches. When I lived in Germany, I used to juggle on the street and earn a little money. I wore clown make-up and used to eat an apple while I juggled. I lived in a little room. We didn’t have a shower in the building. We really didn’t need one because there was a swimming pool two miles away. The one great convenience, however, was that I had cases of beer delivered to the house. That’s Germany in 1979 for you—no shower but beer delivered to your door.

One of the advantages John McGreevy will have is that he can spend more time leading and less time managing. I had to do a bit of both.

The college needed to mature in many ways. We needed policies and procedures, enrollment management, better mentoring, annual faculty evaluations. . . . My suggestion that we introduce merit raises was met with some consternation—over 50 people contacted the Faculty Senate the day after I outlined the policy. People lamented that this was unCatholic, et cetera. We nonetheless went ahead, and seven years later the policy was unanimously approved by the College Council.

I have always enjoyed thinking out loud, and I realized that you can’t think out loud so easily as dean because your thoughts are taken much more seriously than you intended them to be. It was one of my first shocks as dean . . . that people really listened to what you had to say.

Contemplation is something I haven’t had sufficient time for, and I know when I’m at my computer reading or writing, I feel better in my soul. Contemplation is something I’m very much looking forward to.

I’m very hard on the students. I’m very critical of grade inflation, not because of fairness or our resulting dependence on GRE scores and recommendation letters, but because easy grades tell students they’re already good enough and so fail to encourage them to stretch.

You become the role you play. That’s a way in which you grow. I say to my students, “You have to play the role of an articulate intellectual, and you become increasingly articulate and intellectual.” And as dean I played the role of the extrovert who increasingly enjoyed other people’s company.

I do a lot of work at home, and it’s a different world there. We have two indoor cats, an indoor/outdoor cat, an outdoor cat and a dog. And we have four horses. They’re outdoors. It’s a little bit like Green Acres. But Barbara does all the farm work. Occasionally, I muck out the stalls.

It’s a funny thought in some ways. I ask myself “What were my mistakes as dean?” There were two, and they’re contradictory. Well, there were more than two, but in this context I’ll mention just two: Conventional wisdom is that you come into an administrative position and you listen for a year, then you slowly make some modest reforms. I pushed ahead very hard and very quickly, but it’s important to layer a new vision into the fabric of the past. Perhaps I pushed too quickly.
The other mistake I made was not pushing hard enough. If I look back, what did I do wrong? I went up on some tenure and promotion decisions that should have gone down. Departments did not always make the tough calls, and a few times I trusted them too much. Now these are the two contradictory things, and there’s no way to balance them perfectly. You push too hard, and you’re not tough enough.

I’m close to both my parents, although like every young person I went through stages. I remember at B.C. High, there was an event, and I was receiving an award—sportsmanship or something—for swimming and tennis. I went up to receive the award and said, “I want to especially thank my parents, whom I love very much.” My mother turned to the person next to her and said, “I didn’t even think he liked us.”

This is my favorite April Fool’s joke: Barbara and I had gone out to eat. . . . I waited until we were halfway through with dinner and said, “I have some great news. I didn’t say anything earlier because I didn’t know if I would be accepted, but Ringling Brothers has a program for people who have full-time jobs but want to go to clown school, and they’ve accepted me. It’s for one month each summer for three summers. Then you go on the road for a month each summer after that.” She believed me but was in shock. Then I said, “My major, of course, is juggling, and my first minor is dogs, and my second minor is horses.” I don’t know what was greater—her exasperation that I would go to clown school or her indignation that I was minoring in horses when I hadn’t shown much interest in our horses.

My father grew up in Nebraska and has the traits of a Nebraskan that I hugely admire. I call it being charmingly irreflective. It would never occur to my father to ask “What does someone else think of me?” That would not occur to him. It’s just not a category he has. He’s just graciously congenial and friendly. I think John Jenkins has that—it’s a wonderful sense of identity. And our students have that to some degree. They’re not tortured by self-reflective doubts about who they are.

One of my goals as dean was to institutionalize changes so that I would become superfluous. . . . Much of what I’ve done is now part of the fabric of the college. And it’s going to be great now that someone else will come in with new ideas and fresh perspectives. I’m not needed, and that’s exactly what I want.

_Photo of Mark Roche by Matt Cashore _

The magazine welcomes comments, but we do ask that they be on topic and civil. Read our full comment policy.