A Pitch-Perfect Career

by Anne Reynolds

A Pitch-Perfect Career

The end of an era. It is a dramatic statement, almost always uttered hyperbolically. But this very assertion has been heard more than once in the halls of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, in the face of the resignation of its senior associate dean, Dee Holisky. 

Holisky has long been a familiar face throughout the departments and units of the college. She served as associate dean for academic programs and became senior associate dean in 2002. In those roles, her duties have included supervision of the college curriculum, keeping track of the enrollment, and generally ensuring the orderly operation of college activities. However, the fulfillment of those tasks barely outlines the impact she has made.

Holisky did not start out in an administrative role. Her 32-year sojourn at Mason began in the English Department, working as a part-time adjunct professor. After one year, she joined the faculty full time, teaching courses in her specialty, linguistics. She eventually went on to serve as director of the Linguistics program.

Holisky and linguistics found each other as her academic career began at the University of Chicago. “I happened to major in linguistics through an odd fluke,” she acknowledges. “I had no idea what I was going to major in, and I was coming up on the end of my second year. One day, I was sitting around flipping through the catalog. Literally, the catalog flipped open to linguistics, and there was so little I had to do to major in linguistics so I chose linguistics.” This happy accident resulted in Holisky earning a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and PhD in the field, all from the University of Chicago.

“I never saw myself as an administrator,” Holisky admits. “My chair at the time asked me to run for college council. [I] ran for the position in English and served for one year. Daniele Struppa [now the chancellor at Chapman University] was also on the council. We worked on the first ever Celebration of Scholarship together. He later encouraged me to apply for the position in the dean’s office.”

Though the field of administration might have come unexpectedly to Holisky, by all accounts she has handled its challenges with exemplary diplomacy and skill. The college’s current associate dean, Deborah Boehm-Davis, explains the position is, at its essence, bureaucratic. “It’s a lot of dotting I’s and crossing T’s.” Much of the role has to do with developing curriculum and making sure that enrollment levels sustain the continuation of course offerings. Boehm-Davis also stresses that the person in this position must be concerned with keeping things running for the departments and ensuring that their needs are met, such as with space allocation and supporting the departments’ web presence via a content management system constructed jointly by Holisky and the college’s director of information technology and web development, Daniel Collier.

These roles could be contentious at times, but Holisky seemed to  rise above the friction that could have resulted in making difficult decisions. “It’s challenging, just in that we have to calibrate what we do to accord with reality,” notes Theodore Kinnaman, Philosophy Department chair. “We might offer courses and students don’t show up for them, and we need to make tough moves to close a course students aren’t signing up for. Dee is always very personable, and even when things were very difficult, she didn’t take them personally.” 

Indeed, Holisky has shown a real gift for building respect among those with whom she has worked. Mentioning her name among her colleagues unavoidably results in a similar theme. “She’s very smart, she’s very fair, has a lot of integrity. She cuts through to the core issues on any matter,” says Deborah Kaplan, professor of English, who worked with Holisky in the English Department and in Holisky’s capacity as associate dean. “It’s one of the things I really love about her and about having worked with her. You weren’t always on the edges of the problem, you got right to it. She’s a very quick study and has a directness.”

Holisky’s work ethic is also a fundamental part of any conversation about her contributions to the college. Jack Censer, dean of the college, commends her hard work and conscientiousness. Censer relates that when he became dean in 2006, Holisky was the senior associate dean. She had set a date for leaving the dean’s office for one year in the future, but Censer dedicated himself to keeping her on board because of the “unbelievable amount of responsibility” she handled. “She did more to help us just by doing her job than most anybody else could do by actually trying directly to help,” he observes. “In doing her job so incredibly well, everyone else could do theirs.” 

Other colleagues note Holisky’s overall command of her role. Provost Peter Stearns sums it up: “I think she’s a consummate professional, she has tremendous mastery over detail, she is deeply concerned about advancing student welfare, and protecting the rights of the institution, she’s been the major force for a long time in helping to extend and define basic aspects of how we deal with students at all levels.” 

Boehm-Davis is looking forward to continuing the college’s coordination of the work within the various departments and programs within the college, and she appreciates the goodwill that has been established, largely by Holisky’s contributions. As she began as associate dean in January, Boehm-Davis began visiting the departments, and she observed that “by and large, people are very happy with the college, which speaks to Dee’s work.” They are happy with how things are run, she notes, but they seem glad that “we haven’t over-bureaucratized things.” 

Fortunately for the college, Holisky is not planning to go far. After some travel (at the time this article was being written, she was touring Japan), she will return to Mason teaching and researching as a faculty member in the English Department; her main focus will be research in linguistics. With her administrative duties accomplished, she looks forward to furthering this research: “I have one major project,” she explains. “When I was in Georgia last, I collected original texts from speakers of a dying language. My last major research project is to make those texts available on a website as original texts in Georgian, Batsbi, or English. It will hopefully be [done in] a lively and interactive way.” 

Holisky interprets her field thusly: “Linguistics is a complicated discipline, but there are two basic things about it—lots of details and generalizing this detail. Sounds, words, phrases. You always have to see the big picture, and you always have to have a handle on the detail.” She herself observes, “that skill translates very well from linguistics to administration. How does it fit together to achieve your goals and accomplishments? Everything has to work together at all times.”