‘The Garden of Education’--New CLAS dean Chaden Djalali relishes the diversity of the liberal arts

Chaden Djalali may not be an international man of mystery, but he’s certainly lived an international life.

Born in Morocco to Iranian parents fleeing religious persecution, Djalali has also lived in Algeria, the Canary Islands, Spain, France, Michigan, and South Carolina. He speaks four languages fluently. (He used to speak five, but didn’t practice, so he forgot one.) His wife, Marta, is from Colombia. They met while at the same university in France. His research on intermediate energy nuclear physics and hadronic physics has taken him all over the world.

But Djalali, who took over as dean of the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in August, thinks Iowa City’s a pretty good stopping place.

“It has the feeling of a small city, which is nice. At the same time, because it’s a university city, you have the cultural advantages of a large city,” he says.

“Everything you hear about the Midwest is true—you think it’s a stereotype, but people are nice, they speak their minds, they don’t have a hidden agenda, they are delighted to help. It’s true.”

Djalali earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Paris XI and a doctorate from Institut de Physique Nucléaire (IPN-Orsay) in Paris. He joined the physics faculty of the University of South Carolina in 1989 and served as the chair of the department from 2004 to 2012. At Iowa, he succeeds Linda Maxson.

What attracted you to the University of Iowa?

The University of Iowa is one of the top public universities and has a fantastic reputation. What attracted me specifically was the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It’s one of the most comprehensive colleges of liberal arts and sciences. It has music, it has performing arts, it has the whole spectrum of what I call foundational courses and opportunities for students to have a very well-rounded liberal arts education. That is extremely attractive and is, to a certain extent, not that widespread. Many places have science and math separated from arts and social sciences. Other places don’t have performing arts and music in the college of arts and sciences.

The fact that we have everything, of course, makes it tough to manage, but at the same time the students in this college have everything they need—a well-rounded education under one roof. That is precious. It’s a challenge to manage, but at the same time it’s something really unique.

What’s first on your agenda as dean?

It’s a large college. As soon as possible I plan to visit all of the departments, get to know their concerns, where they see themselves, where are they right now, what they see for the future. That will help me see where CLAS fits into the strategic plan of the university. And as soon as we define that collectively, we’ll move ahead. With limited resources, we have to make strategic decisions, but we will move ahead, not leaving anybody behind. When you do strategic development, it doesn’t mean ‘here are the haves’ and ‘here are the have-nots.’ That’s not the goal. The goal is, here are our areas and strengths that we need to maintain because we are known for it, but let’s maintain those and look at potentially other areas where we can excel and have many more programs in the top 25 in the country. It’s a long process, but we can work at it collectively.

What are some of your largest challenges?

The larger challenges, I think, are not going to be specific only to the University of Iowa, but specific to liberal arts education in general: How do you balance?

The original goal of education has always been that you want people to know how to think critically, how to express themselves, how to be able to appreciate beauty, music, art. This is what you want in a well-rounded citizen. On the other hand, there is a pull toward students wanting jobs once they’ve graduated. To some extent, some institutions see these two things as mutually exclusive, but I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. We can actually achieve both goals by tweaking the way we do business. It’s not giving up on the fundamental things like writing or the sciences without regard to them getting a good job or vice versa. The biggest challenge is to convince ourselves and the public that we can do both. Yes, a liberal arts education is fundamental to the future of the state, of the country, of the planet, because well-rounded citizens are the ones who solve problems, care about others, and do things.

You’re a physicist by training. How do you see your background in the hard sciences melding with the arts and humanities aspects of CLAS?

We talk a lot about diversity in society; we need to look at diversity in human achievement. My parents always said something about diversity that I think applies to CLAS. The diversity of human beings is like entering a garden. If you have only one kind of flower or plant, it’s not that beautiful, but when you have all the different kinds of plants, that’s beautiful. That’s what we need.

This is a fantastic college to be dean because it’s like walking in a garden with roses, white and green flowers, cacti, and they’re all in harmony. They’re all showing the beauty of the garden, and that garden is the garden of education.

What do you do for fun?

I travel a lot for research. I would like to travel more for fun. I love science fiction movies and my daughters love them too, so we sit and watch them. If I have time I would like to play music. I play all kinds of guitar—from classical to electric. I have many of them, but I don’t have time.

What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?

If I had time I would be in a rock band playing a guitar, or heavy metal. Or maybe actually country music. The thing people might be surprised about is that I really love every kind of music, from the classical—Bach, Mozart—all the way to some, not all, heavy metal. Everything in between.

So, do you have an iPod?

I have three iPods. I was known at South Carolina as the iPerson. My colleagues got me an iPod Nano when I left; they said, “Everything else that starts with an ‘i,’ you have.”

Kelli Andresen
photo by Tom Jorgensen

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© The University of Iowa 2009