Behind the nameplate of WU’s new vice chancellor for students

| News Editor

Sharon Stahl, dean of the First Year Center, was recently announced as the new vice chancellor for students by Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton.

When she isn’t spending time with her eight grandchildren, traveling with her husband, or hosting dinners for Danforth Scholars at her home, Sharon Stahl is running the First Year Center and helping to lead the College of Arts & Sciences at Washington University.

And beginning in July, the Italian- and French-cuisine enthusiast who loves to garden, reminisce about her old Neapolitan Mastiff dog named Rosco, and stay close with her four-year advisees will be taking on even more responsibility as Washington University’s next vice chancellor for students.

She will be taking over for the late James E. McLeod, whom she worked closely with for nearly twenty years and whom she considers a mentor.

“He used to say our job is to see that the faculty and the students can do their job. And that was his philosophy about everything: creating an environment, creating an atmosphere for undergraduate students so that they could be successful not only in the classroom but they could take that success out into the community,” Stahl said.

“That was his mantra,” she said. “And all of us who were fortunate enough to spend that early time with him and then be part of his vision of developing the college—it really gave us tremendous growth, both intellectually and personally.”

Stahl has been with Washington University since 1988, first working part-time as director of the Honorary Scholars Program before taking on advising duties in 1992. McLeod named her an assistant dean of the College of Arts & Sciences in 1995.

She met her husband as an undergraduate at the University of Missouri. They met at the school’s nuclear reactor facility, where he was doing postdoctoral training and she was giving tours. He teaches cell biology and physiology at the Washington University School of Medicine.

“I was an undergraduate English literature major, and they wanted me to be the tour guide because they didn’t want me talking over the heads of people who were getting a tour of the reactor facility,” she said. “And there was no chance of that.”

She said one of the perks of having a husband who works in the sciences is that they get to do a significant amount of traveling—more than compensating for her inability to fit a study abroad experience into her own undergraduate career.

The year before starting work at the University, she and her husband spent a year on sabbatical at the University of Oxford.

“I would love to bring back the idea of the Common Room at Oxford, which is really a fun thing, but it won’t work here; I tried talking to people about that. College Hall is kind of the closest thing we have to the common eating room in an Oxford college, so it really is kind of Harry Potter,” she said.

But overall, she said that Washington University’s lack of interest in copying other schools is one of its greatest strengths.

“I think that what makes us so special is that we don’t really worry about being like anybody else; we’re just who we are,” she said. “And a lot of who we are, are the people who built Washington University.”

“People [here] are genuine; they’re committed; they’re authentic; they love students, and they’re committed to undergraduates,” she said. “A lot of the places that people would think about as a place we might want to be like don’t have the kind of commitment to undergraduate education that we do. They have wonderful undergraduates, but I don’t think undergraduates are treasured the way they’re treasured at Washington University.”

In addition to continuing to continuing McLeod’s legacy of acting as a seamless transition between the administration and students, she hopes to expand on many of the programs she has worked on through the First Year Center.

“I’m hoping that one of the things I can do in my position is to create more and more ways for faculty to be interacting with students in small groups,” Stahl said. “We have Lunch by the Dozen…and now we’ve started this St. Louis by the Dozen series.”

Lunch by the Dozen brings professors of large courses such as Calculus or General Chemistry together with 12 students to eat and spend time together in a more close-knit setting. In St. Louis by the Dozen, launched last fall, professors take a group of students to attractions in the surrounding area, such as baseball games or Cahokia Mounds.

She also hopes to spend more time with students and further integrate the undergraduate community.

“One of the things that I hope we can do is make exchange students who come to us, who bring a real richness to the community, is to get more people engaged with them,” Stahl said. “I also want to have a lot of interaction directly with students, telling me what they think and how they feel and the things that they would hope that they would be doing.”

And although her workload has dramatically increased this year as she has taken on half the responsibilities of dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, students who interact with her said she has continued to be available for them.

“She keeps telling us, all of her advisees, that she’s really, really busy but she still will make time for us no matter what,” freshman Sarah Plovnick said. “She gives us her home phone number so we can call her anytime…no matter how busy she is.”

“Every time I see her, she’ll come up and ask me how I am and give me a hug or something,” Plovnick said.

“She’s so sweet, she’s kind of like a grandmother or aunt,” freshman and Danforth Scholar Cristina Clow said.

Check out the Monday, March 26 issue of Student Life to read a profile about Professor Jennifer Smith, the new Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

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