By: Yechiel Schwab  | 

Featured Faculty: Dean Karen Bacon

Dean Karen Bacon reflects fondly upon her undergraduate days at Stern College for Women. Growing up in the Los Angeles area, she was part of a very small Jewish community, attended a public high school, and often felt like an outsider. Arriving at Stern, she found a welcoming and warm community that finally made her feel like an insider. The kosher Caf was a particularly pleasant change; there were no kosher restaurants in LA when she grew up. Dean Bacon speaks highly of the academic community and the faculty she encountered during her undergraduate days, whom she found heavily invested in her and her success. From a broader values perspective, Yeshiva University’s philosophy of Torah u’Madda resonated deeply with Dean Bacon, and continues to do so. All these factors influenced Dean Bacon in her recent decision to accept the role of Dean of Undergraduate Arts and Sciences.

Dean Bacon describes Yeshiva University’s current situation as a time of “soul-searching,” when the University must seek efficiencies across all departments and branches. Establishing one dean for both Stern and Yeshiva College is one example. When President Joel asked Dean Bacon to fill the position, she recognized that she had the unique qualifications to create the smoothest transition to the new system, having taught briefly at Yeshiva College in addition to her many years of experience as Dean of Stern. Though she would have been happy to remain Dean of Stern alone (a position she has occupied for 37 years), due to the tremendous gratitude and loyalty she continues to feel towards this university, she accepted the new role.

Despite her long-time position, Dean Bacon never envisioned or planned on becoming dean. She greatly enjoyed studying biology at Stern, and wished to pursue this field further. However,  graduate research in biology involves dealing extensively with dead or suffering animals, and Dean Bacon decided she couldn’t handle the pained expressions of these animals. She instead pursued a P.h.D. in Microbiology at UCLA, since in Microbiology the samples and lab work look “like chicken-broth.”

After UCLA, Dean Bacon continued research in this field at Indiana University, before returning to Yeshiva University to teach biology at Yeshiva College. Comparing Indiana and Yeshiva, Dean Bacon immediately points to size: at Indiana, going from her car to her office “was a mehalech,” although the beautiful suburban campus made it a very enjoyable one. Dean Bacon also found differences among the students. The students in her lab at Indiana were knowledgeable about their field, but their powers of critical thinking and analysis were not as strong as the students she taught in YC.

Looking back on her accomplishments as Dean, Dean Bacon proudly points to Stern’s strong Jewish Studies program. When she started her deanship,  Stern’s Jewish Studies program and its requirements were very weak, something which she found troubling for a university founded on the principles of Torah u’Madda. She strove to enhance and strengthen this program, even though a small group of students were loudly opposed to these changes. Dean Bacon organized all the students together (“this was back when all the students could fit together in one room”) to discuss these changes openly with them. Though Dean Bacon prepared for contingencies involving large percentages of students leaving Stern due to these changes, in the end “the students didn’t abandon the University.” Dean Bacon explains this based on a distinction of two types of happiness: experienced, and remembered. Experienced happiness is something you enjoy in the moment, while remembered happiness is something you look back upon and recall pleasurably. While sometimes they overlap, they don’t have to, and Dean Bacon believes that a large part of college is remembered happiness. She remembers the stress and anxiety she had over each test in college, but she nonetheless thinks of the time happily, and she believes most students feel the same way because of the sense of accomplishment engendered, often specifically through tougher courses.

When asked to offer advice to undergraduates, Dean Bacon mentions this approach to education, telling students to not shy away “from taking intellectual risks.” Looking back on life, she explains, “you are proud not of what you didn’t accomplish, but what you did accomplish.” She urges students to invest more in their education, even taking courses that don’t fulfill requirements, since these courses can help fill the broader picture students develop of the world around them. Unlike every other resource, she explains, education is something that never gets thrown out, and can never be taken away from you. It stays in your head forever, and you should take advantage to fill your “arsenals” with education. Dean Bacon also urges students to seek advice, not only from peers, but from experts, whether on or off campus.

For interests outside of her job, Dean Bacon immediately points to her family. She knows that many applaud men who say their main interest is family, but frown when women say it is their main interest. Nonetheless, she maintains that “there is nothing more important to me than my family.” After her family, she mentions that she enjoys reading, mainly for escapist purposes. She singles-out Quiet by Susan Cain, which she recently read and found particularly enlightening toward understanding introverts and the individual differences among people.

Looking towards her new role, Dean Bacon wants to inform Yeshiva College students about her approach to deanship. She keeps an “open-door policy,” and though currently she is not sure where that door will be, she hopes it will be open. She wants to speak with students, and no problem or concern is too trivial. Working with students, motivating them, and problem-solving with them are her favorite parts of being dean. She particularly enjoys watching people grow and seeing them feel empowered, and is looking forward to doing that here on the Wilf Campus.

Though the exact details of her new job remain up in the air, Dean Bacon is hoping to move forward swiftly. Her preferred method in this, she explained, which might not be favored by all academics, is to analyze a problem or concern, solve it, and move on to the next one. She doesn’t shy away from telling people her view, but she won’t impose her plans upon anyone. Though Dean Bacon maintains that the faculties and cultures of the two colleges will remain largely intact and separate, she does foresee some changes from this unified faculty. For specific examples, she mentions the possibility of sharing information between the writing programs, now that they are both one semester, and cross-listing courses within the YC Core. But like many aspects of this new job, these changes are still in the preliminary planning stage.

Even Dean Bacon’s daily schedule remains undecided. President Joel envisions Dean Bacon working two days a week at the Beren Campus, and two days at the Wilf Campus. Dean Bacon herself has considered traveling every day between campuses, starting each day at Beren and traveling uptown in the early-afternoon (when traffic is usually light), since the Yeshiva College schedule only begins in the afternoon. Commenting on the title often granted her by President Joel of “Super-Dean,” Dean Bacon said that if she could have one superpower, it would be flight, in order to be able to hover above everything, look down, and see how it all fits together. And this would also make her commute simpler.