Dean drives progress

Ashanka Kumari

As dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Robert F. Olin oversees the administrative and academic management of the University’s largest and oldest academic division with 418 faculty members and 9,000 students, said Rebecca Florence, director of relations for the College of Arts and Sciences.

“I thought being a dean of a high quality, liberal arts college like UA’s College of Arts and Sciences would be a lot of fun and it is,” Olin said. “I wanted to continue doing what I always did as a teacher – making a difference in students’ lives and their learning – but on a larger scale.”

Under his leadership, the  College of Arts and Sciences has launched initiatives in educational technology, undergraduate learning communities, international programs for undergraduates, undergraduate research and creative activity and faculty and staff diversity, Florence said.

Olin places great emphasis on getting freshmen off to a good start in college, not only through learning communities, but also with freshmen learning experiences and the College’s participation in administration of the University’s Emerging Scholars program, which encourages students to begin conducting research and scholarship in their freshman year, Florence said.

A native of Evanston, Ill., Olin received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1970 from Ottawa University in Kansas and a doctorate in mathematics in 1975 from Indiana University, Florence said. For 25 years, Olin served on the faculty of Virginia Tech University, and for six of those years, he was chair of Virginia Tech’s Department of Mathematics. In the summer of 2000, Olin was appointed dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Alabama.

“As a dean of a large, liberal arts college, you are able to put into place really interesting, worthwhile programs that can change the lives of many students,” Olin said. “From international semesters abroad, to the opportunity to work with a world-famous art collection, to having faculty mentors who are at the top of their field, to strategies that make students enjoy math and be more successful in their math courses. How can you pass up a job like that?”

As a result of budget cuts, some institutions are limiting admissions and canceling improvements of residence halls and academic buildings, but for the University of Alabama, this is not the case, Olin said.

“We are hiring more faculty, building state of the art academic buildings and residence halls and growing our programs,” Olin said. “The ultimate goal is to give our students the most memorable, influential and academically rewarding educational experience we possibly can.”

Jimmy J. Williams, associate dean for multicultural affairs, said Olin has advocated and strongly encouraged the diversification of the faculty as well as the graduate school population.

“Under his leadership, for the past several years, in collaboration with the graduate school, the College has hosted the Bama Grad Expo,” Williams said. “This event is used to recruit prospective graduate students to the University. McNair Scholars, who are from underrepresented groups, are included and invited to attend the Bama Grad Expo.”

Olin often sponsors or co-sponsors, in collaboration with other colleges and campus organizations, diversity and multicultural related events on campus, Williams said.

“Olin has been a visionary in making undergraduate research and creative activity an integral part of our students’ education here at UA,” Williams said. “In 2004, it was Dean Olin who first established an undergraduate research and creative activity conference. As a result of its success, this conference is now campus-wide, currently in its fifth year.”

Carmen Burkhalter, senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said Olin puts the needs of the students and the mission of the College of Arts and Sciences first.

“[Olin’s] standards are high for academic excellence,” Burkhalter said. “He loves to think outside the box and tackle challenges in new and creative ways. He works with incredible energy and enthusiasm and is in his office early, works late at night, on weekends and whenever he needs to get the job done.”

Olin is always assessing future opportunities long before most people see them and has a tremendous sense of humor, Burkhalter said. He can be tweeted at @bobthedean.