Lieber Leaves Dean Position After 25 Years
By Ethan Gates '12, Arts & Living Section Editor
It was an auspicious year. While the bleak, dystopian vision of author George Orwell perhaps proved unfounded, 1984 certainly did not pass without making its mark on the world: the Soviet Union boycotted the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles; the space shuttle Discovery made its first voyage; Ronald Reagan swept his way past Walter Mondale into a second term as President of the United States. Apple introduced the first Macintosh computer. Newborns LeBron James, Scarlett Johansson and Kid Cudi patiently waited for their time to come. And a small Massachusetts liberal arts college hired a new Dean of Students.

Though he would be the last person to ever boast of his own influence, there is no doubt that Ben Lieber has touched the lives of any number of students and faculty members that have passed through Amherst College during his 25-year tenure as Dean of Students. And while he stepped down this semester from his long-held post, the College can take heart in the fact that Lieber’s enthusiasm and dedication will merely be moving across campus, from Converse Hall to his new office in Charles Pratt Dormitory as Dean of Student Research and Academic Support. For Lieber, the journey to this point has been a challenging but rewarding one, and he clearly would not have had it any other way.

Born in New York City in 1950, Lieber instantly felt an attraction to academic settings: as the child of immigrant refugees, school provided the most powerful means of assimilation into American culture. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, he prepared to become an English professor, hoping to remain where he so thrived — in academia. Continuing as a student of English literature at Columbia’s graduate school, Lieber arrived at the point of writing his dissertation before the solitude of his research began to affect his plans. “What I hadn’t realized,” explained Lieber, “and I think many people don’t realize it before they start graduate school, was how much time a serious scholar has to spend alone. Except for the teaching, it can be a very, very solitary profession. I understand this only in retrospect, but it turned out I was pretty unhappy in graduate school, and I think a lot of the reason was that kind of scholarship just didn’t suit my temperament.”

Lieber made the decision to drop out of graduate school temporarily, finding a job at the university as an Assistant Dean of Students. He soon found the work pleasantly surprising. “I thought I would do that until I found out what I really wanted to do, and then it turned out to be what I enjoyed doing,” he said.

Lieber ended up staying in that job until July 1, 1984, when the College appointed him Dean of Students; he joined the administration at the same time as former College President Peter Pouncey. His arrival came at a tumultuous moment in the school’s history: just earlier that year, the College had decided to abolish fraternities on campus. The mood of the College was strained, to say the least (the outgoing President and Dean of Students had both been burned in effigy in demonstrations that spring).

While this polarizing issue made his first year at Amherst among the most difficult of his career, it did at least provide Lieber with one of his most memorable tales from his tenure: the story of how he and his wife Ella first learned their daughter was able to read. Having enrolled the four-year-old in the Little Red Schoolhouse located in the Social Quad, Lieber’s wife would wheel their daughter every day in her carriage to school. “This was November, our first fall, students are furious, there’s all kinds of animosity towards the administration,” recalled Lieber, “so Ella’s pushing the carriage, and she’s walking by the music building and all of a sudden, she hears our daughter cry out, ‘Mommy, Mommy, I see our name, I see our name!’ She turns around, and there in huge, black, spray-painted letters is: ‘Lieber is a dick.’”

Luckily for Amherst, Lieber’s sense of humor allowed him to take such incidents in stride, and he soon settled into the job. He found the daily routine of a Dean of Students in particular to be very agreeable: “A friend of mine who was a professor here described the job as short-term problem solving, and there’s something gratifying about that. A scholar may have to wait years and years to see the result of his or her scholarship. Outside of exceptional cases, it takes a very long time for scholarship to filter through the academic world and make a real difference. In this kind of work, you see tangible results very quickly. You make decisions on a day-to-day basis that affect people’s lives, often for the better.” Of course, as any student could tell you, a college can be a rather unpredictable place. For Lieber, that is just part of the fun: “There’s a huge variety; what I enjoyed about it was that you never knew what you were going to be dealing with.”

After living in the New York area for so long, Amherst’s size and focus on undergraduate studies provided even more opportunity for fulfilling, productive work. Amherst provided Lieber a welcome change from the stressful conditions in the administration of a much larger university like Columbia. “The bureaucracy that one deals with on a daily basis can be an enormous impediment to accomplishing anything,” said Lieber. “I think one of the huge attractions was not only the quality of the students and faculty here, but the scale; that it was a place that had both the resources and the capacity, by virtue of its scale, to accomplish things with relatively little fuss.”

If Lieber enjoyed working with the Amherst administration, the feeling was certainly mutual. For Dean Allen Hart ’82, who worked with Lieber for six years as Dean of New Students and who has succeeded Lieber as Dean of Students, Lieber has been an ideal model and mentor. “He has commanded the respect of all corners of the community, but still embraces students and the demands and needs of students, and does that in a way that it doesn’t compromise the academic integrity of why students are here,” explained Hart. “He’s been able to walk that fine line balancing between the different constituencies of student life, academic life, residential life, all the other offices that are touched by the Dean of Student’s office.” Ariadne DeSimone ’10, who worked with Lieber throughout her involvement on the Disciplinary Committee and the Trustee Advisory Committee on Student Life, adds that Lieber’s “ability to be an attentive listener and thoughtful guide for students — he is always willing to meet with students in his office — makes him such a great dean. Whenever students meet with him, he is calm, focused and able to devote his full attention to them.”

Lieber certainly earned his title as Dean of Students, gaining the respect and admiration of countless numbers of students passing through the College, and not just those who dealt with him directly through participation in the Association of Amherst Students’ various student committees. Robyn Bahr ’10 admits, “I’ve probably confessed more about myself to him more than I have to any other faculty member. He’s given me some great advice and many pearls of wisdom. He even helped arrange for me to have Thanksgiving at an alum’s house when my other plans fell through this past year. He’s got my back.” Jessica Mestre ’10 also praises Lieber’s accessability, emphasizing that his “caring, calm nature” makes him very approachable and has been “an important source of support in my four years here.”

As Dean of Student Research and Academic Support, these qualities should continue to prove indispensable. Lieber looks forward to helping the Dean of Faculty’s office in its plans to enhance student research opportunities, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. “There’s always been a pretty solid research program for students in the sciences,” Lieber clarifies, “but the issues are very different in the social sciences and the humanities.” The College president Anthony Marx, meanwhile, is glad that the College’s increased efforts are in safe hands: “We recognized the need to coordinate these efforts that have been expanding and we had an opportunity to have someone with great knowledge of the College provide leadership. Ben will use all of his great skills to provide that coordination.”

In addition to working for the Dean of Faculty, Lieber will teach one intensive writing course per semester, returning at last to a long-delayed goal: “I taught when I was in graduate school, and that was the most pleasurable part of graduate school for me, so I’m looking forward to going back to that.” Dean Hart fully expects Lieber to be as successful a professor as he has been an administrator: “He’s a great writer [and] a fantastic story-teller. I think the students are really going to benefit from him devoting himself to teaching.”

Whatever his role, Amherst is lucky to have Lieber around; his spirit, energy and good humor have been a blessing to academia. It is a sign of his humility that he still feels the good fortune has been all his: “It was a world in which I felt, and still feel, quite at home. So having the ability to remain in that world for your entire life is a gift, at least for me.”

Issue 12, Submitted 2010-01-27 02:16:04