Q&A with Tim Cresswell

Trinity’s new dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs

Photo: John Marinelli
Photo: John Marinelli

Tim Cresswell came to Trinity College as the new dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs in July 2016 after serving at Northeastern University as associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, professor of history and international affairs, and associate director for public humanities at the Northeastern Humanities Center.

Prior to his time at Northeastern, Cresswell served in the administration and on the faculties of Royal Holloway, University of London; the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and Lampeter; and the University of Connecticut. He has held honorary faculty positions at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland and at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Cresswell earned a B.A. in geography from University College London in the United Kingdom; an M.S. in geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; a Ph.D. in geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and a second Ph.D. in English–creative writing from Royal Holloway, University of London.

He recently took the time to answer questions from The Trinity Reporter.

What attracted you to Trinity College?
I have family nearby and have been visiting the Hartford area for over 25 years, so I was familiar with Trinity College and often admired the Chapel from the highway. I was also familiar with Trinity’s standing as a leading liberal arts college for nearly 200 years. I was attracted to all the good things about a traditional liberal arts education in a small residential college as well as the things that make Trinity stand out — its location in a state capital with its own unique challenges, a strong tradition of study away, good connections to local communities, and a truly excellent faculty engaging with an academically strong student body.

Why is a liberal arts education important in today’s world?
Liberal arts education continues to provide the tools necessary for global citizenship — a questioning mind, problem-solving skills, critical capacities, a tolerance for ambiguity and subtlety. In addition, liberal arts education prepares people for a job market where very few people have a single career or job throughout their lives. Liberal arts students graduate as flexible thinkers with the ability to adapt to fast-changing economies and societies — they know how to learn. The general nature of a broad education is a definite bonus here. We teach people in such a way that they are best equipped to do precisely those jobs that robots can never do. It is insurance against the future.

What do you consider your immediate priorities in your role as dean of the faculty?
My immediate priority is to get to know the faculty as best I can. I am a scholar myself and am interested in just about everything. So I look forward to conversations about the scholarly interests of my new colleagues in order to understand what makes them tick individually and collectively. I will provide some stability that has been lacking in the dean’s office, and I trust that will help to support good morale. In the long term — several years down the line — I want to use what is already here to develop a cohesive and mindful Trinity model of engaged liberal arts education that is visible nationally. I am working as part of the leadership team on a strategic plan for the College that involves all of the President’s Cabinet, as well as faculty, staff, students, alumni, and trustees. This is another reason I took this job — the ability to make a difference through involvement in a planning process that will make a mark on the College over the next decade.

What do you feel are Trinity’s greatest strengths?
The main strength of Trinity from an academic affairs perspective is the strength of the faculty — incredibly smart and dedicated teacher-scholars. This is the foundation that is already in place. Second, there are all the traditional strengths of liberal arts education that Trinity exemplifies — serious scholarship on a beautiful campus in small classes. What makes Trinity stand out is a unique constellation of attributes that give us the potential to really differentiate ourselves from the competition. These are our urban location, connections between our academic program and a diverse urban community, a well-established study-away program with our own campuses abroad, a strong internship program, and a commitment to interdisciplinarity reflected in our Gateway Programs and elsewhere. If these can all be strengthened and brought into alignment in an intentional way, then we have every chance of producing a model of liberal arts education in and for the real world that combines the traditional strengths of small classes and intense engagement with scholarship on the one hand and with experiential opportunities on the other.

Tim Cresswell, Trinity’s dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs, at Matriculation 2016. Photo: John Atashian

What do you see as your biggest challenges here, and how do you plan to face them?
All of the things I list as strengths are also challenges. Not everyone subscribes to all of these as necessarily positive, so I have to convince people of their utility and value. They all need resources, and resources are not limitless. We have to make choices with finances and time. It is also the case that these strengths have not always been thoughtfully integrated into an overall curriculum, so there is work to be done on linking each of our strengths to the other strengths. It is not my role to simply present a vision and hope it is shared but to produce a vision from what is already here in cooperation with as many people as possible.

You’ve lived all over the world. What about the Greater Hartford area excites you the most?
It is true that I have lived and worked in a diverse array of contexts from the heart of the most global of global cities (London, with apologies to readers from New York) to a small university in rural Wales. Hartford embodies a great deal of what I love about cities. It has great cultural institutions befitting a state capital, it has an incredibly diverse population (and the wonderful food that entails), and it is small enough to be able to escape into the breathtaking landscapes that surround it. I am also fascinated by the problems that Hartford faces, many of which originate in political and planning decisions that are hard to undo. I am thinking here of the disastrous placement of highways circling the downtown and cutting off the city from the river as well as the political division of municipal districts that creates a “donut” effect of fairly extreme wealth surrounding equally extreme poverty. There are problems that need solving, and, as a geographer, I would like to be part of that process.

How do you think the relationship between Trinity and Hartford will continue to evolve?
There are already many exciting sources of connection between Trinity and Hartford. I am thinking of a diverse array of Trinity activities, including the Community Learning Initiative, Trinfo.Café, our Academy of Lifelong Learning courses, seminars taught in local prisons, Samba Fest, and much more. Not all of these are just with Hartford but with the Greater Hartford area. I want to see these connections multiplied and strengthened both in the classroom and in social activities. I would like to see Trinity become part of the solution to the problems Hartford faces without being a force of gentrification — a role which is often sadly played by colleges and universities. Perhaps we can develop a model for college involvement in more just and equitable forms of development that benefit local residents. We have an extremely smart faculty who work alongside equally smart students who increasingly want to make a positive difference in the world. I would like to see us work with that.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I have been lucky enough to travel extensively both as work and with my family. I partake of the usual array of bourgeois activities centered on delicious food. I go to the theater and concerts frequently and am looking forward to exploring the riches Hartford has to offer. Every now and then, I run enough to get to the stage where I actually enjoy it. Moderate walks and hikes in the landscapes of New England are also fun, as are aimless meanders around cities. Most of these activities can be encapsulated by a sense of exploration and adventure that motivates me. I also read fiction and poetry extensively and write and publish poetry. It should be added that many evenings are simply spent at home watching House of Cards or listening to “dad music” (i.e., Bob Dylan mostly, much to my daughter’s disdain).

Read an article featuring Tim Cresswell in HartfordBusiness.com or watch his video from the Mobile Lives Forum.