Provost names Neal Lester dean of humanities

August 31, 2010

ASU Executive Vice President and Provost Elizabeth D. Capaldi announced that English department chair and literary scholar Neal A. Lester has been appointed dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He assumes the leadership role held since 2004 by Deborah Losse, a scholar in French literature who will be retiring from ASU. 

“The humanities at ASU in the past six years under Deborah Losse have made tremendous strides in scholarship, publication and innovative programs,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “Neal Lester brings leadership and academic rigor to a very important area for ASU to evolve and develop at the next level.”  Download Full Image

Lester, whose teaching and scholarship focus on African American literary and cultural studies, including children’s literature, drama, folklore and popular culture, has been a professor of English at ASU since 1997, serving as chair of the department since 2004. This past February, Lester was elected to a two-year term as chair of the Arizona Humanities Council board of directors. 

“The humanities are a core set of disciplines at ASU and of increasing importance in understanding our world. Dr. Lester will lead our effort to continue to strengthen and grow this core part of our academic enterprise,” said Capaldi. 

“In selecting Dr. Lester as dean of humanities, we considered his outstanding contributions in leading and advancing the development of the Department of English and look forward to having him use those talents to support the central role of the humanities,” she said. 

As chair, Lester led the department in carrying out an ambitious strategic plan that has brought more than 20 new talented faculty to the department to strengthen an already robust faculty core, noted Losse. 

“Dr. Lester is a gifted mentor of students and faculty. He has been honored for his accomplishments in teaching, research and outreach to the community,” Losse said. 

Lester, who has doctoral and master’s degrees in English from Vanderbilt University, said: “The humanities are critical to all that people do, what we are, and how we live our lives. We humanists must do a much better job in making the range, diversity, and importance of humanities at ASU more visible and critical to creating and being global citizens.” 

In his role as dean, Lester will oversee two of ASU’s new transformational schools, as well as other academic units and centers that focus on humanities scholarship. Reporting to Dean Lester will be: School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies; School of International Letters and Cultures; Department of English; Jewish Studies program; Film and Media Studies program; and Master of Liberal Studies program. In addition, the following ASU centers report to the dean of humanities: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies; Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture; Hispanic Research Center; Institute for Humanities Research; Center for Jewish Studies; Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics; Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict; and Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. 

“Dean Losse has served ASU for many years including service as senate president, chair of the former department of languages and literature (now School of International Letters and Cultures), associate dean of academic programs in Graduate College, and since 2004 as dean of humanities,” said Capaldi. “Her contributions have been exemplary and she will be deeply missed for the leadership she has brought to the humanities, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and ASU. We wish her the very best.” 

Losse, a professor of French, joined ASU in 1973. Among her many achievements, she was awarded the Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes Académiques by the French Government in 2004 in recognition of her contribution to French language teaching over many years. Losse is internationally recognized for her publications on the French Renaissance, and served as council member and representative for Renaissance French literature for the Renaissance Society of America. 

“The humanities are an essential and integral part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ vision for a future of leadership, exemplifying the best of the liberal arts for the 21st century and a continued evolution toward programs that transcend the traditional academic disciplines,” said Quentin Wheeler, ASU vice president and dean of the college. “Debby Losse has been a champion of that vision and her ideas and energy will be missed. 

“Neal Lester brings just the right balance of a collaborative spirit, broad understanding of the humanities, and creative openness to innovation to the senior leadership team of the college,” Wheeler said. “Dr. Lester has done a superb job as chair of English, administering a large and remarkably diverse unit, imparting foundational writing skills to thousands of students each year, and attaining national and international reputations for excellence among his faculty and programs.” 

Sally Kitch, Foundation Professor and director of ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research, said she has “known Neal primarily in his administrative capacity, where he has impressed me as a thoughtful, incisive, and committed department chair and reliable colleague. I use ‘reliable’ as a compliment, since it indicates that Neal does what he says he will do and supports the events and activities he values. That's a good quality in a dean, a colleague, and a friend.” 

“Neal Lester successfully chaired a large and complex unit for several years and during that time, he raised the visibility of English and brought new resources to the department. I’m sure he will be a strong advocate for the humanities at ASU. Although we’re all sorry to lose Debby Losse to retirement, Neal is a natural choice as her replacement,” said Joe Cutter, professor of Chinese and founding director of the School of International Letters and Cultures. 

Jane Maienschein, a Regents’ and President’s Professor noted that “Neal Lester always tries to do things the right way, even when that’s harder, and he works to be sure others understand why that’s the best thing to do.” 

For more than a decade, according to Maienschein, Lester has worked with leaders like Margaret “Peggy” Nelson, vice dean of Barrett, the Honor College, to develop a Distinguished Teaching Academy and to make quality teaching front and center at ASU. 

“Neal, Ron Roedel and I were asked to talk with the group of graduate students in ‘Preparing Future Faculty’ about how to teach,” Nelson said. “That is the first time I experienced Neal’s powerful, engaging style. He did not talk about teaching, he engaged the group in a lesson. Neal is creative, empathic, brilliant and a wonderful colleague and leader. I have learned much from him since this first lesson.” 

Simon Ortiz, a professor in English and American Indian Studies, said of Lester: “Neal has one of the world’s most solid, warm, personable, passionate personalities I have ever encountered, a person meant to be the dean of humanities.”

Katrina in a historical climate context

August 31, 2010

By Randy Cerveny

Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina created a massive path of destruction throughout the Gulf States from Texas to Florida, hitting with particular vengeance in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It killed more than 1,200 people and continues to have a lasting impact on the region. Without a doubt, it was a very bad hurricane. Download Full Image

However, as a historical climatologist working with the World Meteorological Organization in accurately assessing and verifying weather extremes, I have noticed, particularly among the media, a tendency to overdramatize the event. I had heard directly and through a number of my students, media reports of Katrina even still today being referred to as the “worst natural disaster of all time.” While without a doubt, Katrina was very bad, it also without question has hardly been the worst natural disaster of all time.

Even in the United States, we have experienced stronger and deadlier hurricanes during the course of our 200-plus years of history. In 1900, for example, an unnamed hurricane (we didn’t start naming these tropical cyclones until the 1950s) slammed into the defenseless island of Galveston, Texas. That hurricane has been made famous by the excellent book “Isaac’s Storm” – the telling of the trials and tribulations of one of the leading forecasters of the time, Isaac Cline. But the critical feature with "Isaac’s Storm" is that the hurricane killed perhaps as many as 8,000 people and led to the creation of a 17-foot storm wall on the seaward side of the island.

And in terms of strength, many others hurricanes must take precedent over Katrina. When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, Katrina ranked as a strong Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 130 mph. Thirty-six years earlier in 1969, in almost the same exact location, the strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in the United States was the storm Hurricane Camille, which created a massive 25 storm surge of flooding and had sustained winds of more than 155 mph – a rare Category 5 hurricane.

But those storms don’t compare to the death toll associated with the deadliest tropical cyclone of all time. In 1972, a tropical cyclone traveled directly northward through the Bay of Bengal and slammed into the vulnerable land that was at that time called East Pakistan on the eastern side of India. The storm’s massive flooding though the swampy exposed lowlands killed perhaps as many as 300,000 people. Afterwards, the nation of Pakistan which controlled the region was slow in getting relief supplies to the area and the inhabitants revolted creating the country of Bangladesh. This was an incident when a horrific natural disaster of a tropical cyclone actually created an entirely new country.

So as we look back and remember the great tragedies associated with Hurricane Katrina, let’s be sure to also place the undoubtedly deadly hurricane in its correct place in the global history of such massive storms.

Cerveny is an ASU President’s Professor and World Meterological Organization Rapporteur of Climate Extremes.

Britt Lewis

Communications Specialist, ASU Library