Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity      September 2001 • Volume XXIV, Number 2


In Love with the Learning
by Lauren J. Bryant

Sharon Brehm, former provost at Ohio University, became Indiana University’s vice president for academic affairs and chancellor of the Bloomington campus on July 1. She succeeds Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis, who retired after holding the position of vice president and Bloomington chancellor for 21 years. After a year including a lot of travel, Gros Louis will return to IUB to teach in the Honors College. Brehm joined Ohio University as provost in 1996. She was dean of the Harpur College of Arts and Sciences at State University of New York Binghamton from 1990 to 1996 and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Kansas from 1987 to 1990. Brehm holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Duke University and a master’s degree in social relations (clinical psychology) from Harvard University. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Duke University, where she graduated magna cum laude. In May, Brehm answered questions in a brief interview with Research & Creative Activity’s associate editor.

Before you started up the ladder of higher education administration, you had an active life as a researcher and professor with appointments in places like Rome and Paris. Why did you make the switch to administration?

Sharon Brehm is Indiana University vice president for academic affairs and chancellor of the IU Bloomington campus. Photo © 2001 Tyagan Miller

You know that wonderful book The Accidental Tourist? Sometimes I feel like “The Accidental Administrator.” If you had asked in the early 1980s if I would become an academic administrator, I would have been completely nonplussed by the question. When I did go into administration, my faculty friends thought it was quite a strange choice! For the most part, it was my interest in having more involvement with undergraduates that led me into administration. In the mid-’80s, when I had just finished my book Intimate Relationships, I was looking to do new things. I saw an ad in the University of Kansas newspaper for the directorship of the College Honors Program, which interested me because I had worked with honors students and enjoyed those interactions. So I applied and got the job. When I look back over my career, I realize that was one of the most interesting and satisfying positions I’ve ever had.

What has kept you in academic administration?
There are many things about being an administrator that are similar to what one does as an academic. One similarity is the need to digest a great deal of information, then find the principles in that information, and be able to apply those principles in meaningful and useful ways. When I’m working on a project, I’m constantly going back and forth between what, as a scholar, I would call theory—the institution as a whole—and data, the facts, what’s actually happening. The whole process involves trying to deeply understand how programs and issues fit into and affect the larger whole. To me, there is an enormous intellectual challenge in administration. I love going into an unfamiliar institution; I love the learning phase. I’m happiest, actually, when I have very complicated problems to solve. I’m not good at repetition.

Your area of scholarly expertise is social psychology and the psychology of relationships. How does that expertise affect your approach as a university administrator?
I was initially trained as clinician, and many people have said, “Well, being trained to do psychotherapy must be useful as administrator.” I’m always careful to say that I don’t practice without a license! Seriously, I think my training plays an enormous role. In the view of social psychology, fundamental human behavior is a function of the interaction between the person and the environment. That sounds simple, but actually, it’s a profoundly meaningful insight. All of the issues we encounter, in the university or any other setting, are connected somehow, some way, with specific individuals. So in order to address the issues, first we need to understand the individual involved and also understand each person’s specific situation. The mistake is to believe that it’s all a personal matter, or that it’s entirely the outcome of situational factors. It’s both. More generally, I think having a social scientific background has been very helpful to me as an administrator. As a social scientist, I’m comfortable with data— actually, you could say I’m uncomfortable with it!—theory, and application, all of which are necessary for administrative work. My own field of psychology has also been particularly useful. Psychology is an incredibly diverse field. I’ve always felt comfortable with the full range of disciplines because psychology has some piece of almost all of them.

You were the first woman provost at Ohio University, and you are the first woman chancellor at IU Bloomington. You’ve edited a book about women’s roles, including professional roles. What are your thoughts on being the “first woman” in these positions and your observations about women in the academy today?
It’s a highly desirable development in our society that more and more positions, occupations, and activities are not seen as gender-segregated. They are open to men and women with the appropriate skills and talents. I’m very pleased that the positions I’ve held have constituted another step toward gender equality. In the university, as in all organizations and throughout society, the fact that women can now be free participants in world of work is a truly revolutionary change. We’re still struggling with many issues that are raised by this transformation, particularly how these changes affect traditional notions of family life. How do we build a society that is both gender-equal and family-friendly? How do we support individuals (in couples) who both aspire to careers? Is the tenure clock appropriate for women, who have a reproductive activity that men do not? Obviously, these sorts of issues really deserve the full attention of not just the academy but society as whole.

As the new head of the IUB campus, you’re undoubtedly being inundated with advice from all quarters, much of it likely contradictory. What principles or strategies do you use to navigate among competing suggestions?
Basically, I follow a relatively casual form of the scientific method. I’m always testing hypotheses. As data begin to come in, you have to form some sort of hypothesis. You begin to see some general patterns and inferences. But it’s really critical to see it as a hypothesis, not a proven fact. That’s a struggle, because all of us like to solve problems quickly. But whenever you’re in a new environment, it’s especially important to suspend judgment and stay in a hypothesis-testing mode, to get as much input as possible and then gradually begin to make judgments and draw conclusions. Sometimes, of course, you’re going to make a mistake. And because we’re all fallible, the ability to be open to disconfirming feedback is important. Human beings don’t like disconfirming feedback, but the mark of a true scholar—and good administrator—is when that feedback is taken seriously.

You’re living at 1321 E. 10th Street, a residence that IU Bloomington faculty, staff, students, and alumni associate strongly with the late Herman B Wells, IU’s University Chancellor. What are your thoughts about living in Wells’s former home?
I want to make sure that the spirit of Herman B Wells, as best I understand it, is manifest in the way that I live
in the house. The chancellor’s house should be seen as truly a part of the life of the campus, not just a place where an individual lives. It should be a busy, active place, with many events held there, open to students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the community. I hope making
it possible for people to feel at home in the chancellor’s house will be consistent with Wells’s love of community and conviviality.

I’ve read that you like Harry Potter, Bob Dylan, opera, and very fast planes. What does this say about you?
I’m not sure. . . . That’s an interesting array, but I’m not a good enough psychologist to put all those things together!

Return to Table of Contents