Artistic Flair

Renewal of the arts seen as one of Fr. Barth's legacies after 11 years as A&S dean

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Throughout his 11 years as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, J. Robert Barth, SJ, has made no secret of his flair for the dramatic. He has appeared in the occasional Robsham Theater production, concluded administrative meetings with poetry recitals, and, in the midst of casual conversation, offered dead-on impersonations of Barry Fitzgerald and Bela Lugosi with the same enthusiasm he musters in appraising British romantic poets.

So it was hardly surprising that when the Boston College Symphony Orchestra performed last month's spring concert in dedication to him, Fr. Barth did not simply sit in the audience: He served as narrator for the orchestra's rendition of Aaron Copland's "Portrait of Lincoln."

As a climax to his tenure as A&S dean, the event was more than fitting - especially since he presided over the orchestra's founding. For Fr. Barth, the art of expression and performance has been integral to his vocation as a Jesuit and as an academic. Preparing to leave his deanship at the end of this academic year, Fr. Barth hopes that his efforts to emphasize the arts have helped Boston College enjoy the benefits of that relationship.

A&S Dean J. Robert Barth, SJ-"The Jesuit tradition has always included a high interest and regard for the arts." (Photo by Justin Knight)

"The Jesuit tradition has always included a high interest and regard for the arts," said Fr. Barth. "So as a Jesuit institution, one which places such a high premium on formation of the individual, it is natural that Boston College reflect that tradition. That was a priority right from the beginning."

"Boston College has enjoyed a tremendous period of growth in the last decade," said Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculties David R. Burgess, "and as head of its largest undergraduate school, Fr. Barth certainly deserves a great deal of credit for this success. The emergence of the arts at Boston College in particular owes its significant presence to his leadership and stewardship."

While colleagues say Fr. Barth's foremost legacy will be his contribution to the arts - such as the establishment of the Music and Theater departments and the University's Arts Council - they say his track record in the sciences is equally impressive. They point to a strengthened Physics Department, for example, and to the regular arrival of major fellowships and awards in the Chemistry, Geology and Biology departments.

"He may not be a scientist, but he always wanted to know what was going on in our department," said Prof. Kevin Bedell (Physics). "He's been a real force for us, providing support for our recruitment and other resources needed to be a competitive department."

His administration also saw a revision of the University's core curriculum, new undergraduate programs such as Capstone and Environmental Studies, and an improvement in faculty hiring which included an emphasis on AHANA candidates - seven of the 16 A&S faculty positions filled for this academic year were AHANA appointments.

"Bob has placed his distinctive mark on Boston College in many ways, especially in the fine and performing arts," said Vice President and Special Assistant to the President William B. Neenan, SJ, who was AVP when Fr. Barth became dean. "But he has ably fulfilled his commitment to the other responsibilities that go along with being A&S dean, from working with architects on the Higgins and Devlin hall renovations to making improvements in policies and procedures and reorganizing the Board of Chairs."

After getting an early and favorable impression of A&S as the 1985-86 Gasson Professor, Fr. Barth - who at the time was a professor of English at University of Missouri-Columbia - felt the opportunity to become dean three years later was too good to pass up. In the first five years of his administration, Fr. Barth began the process of elevating Music to departmental status, separating the Communication and Theater Department into discreet entities, and helping plan a new campus art museum.

In addition, Fr. Barth played a role in the broad-based effort to revise the University's core curriculum. That initiative, which was completed in 1991, resulted in an expanded core that put a greater emphasis on cultural diversity, writing and the arts, and the creation of a University Core Development Committee.

"That was one of the most important things that happened, not only to A&S but the University as a whole," said Fr. Barth of the core revision, which was implemented in 1993. "Over the two years the study took place, we were able to bring the core to the forefront in a way it hadn't for some time. We were able to determine that, on the whole, the core was sound but needed strengthening in some areas. The faculty responded very well, and have continued to do so.

"In many ways, the core set a positive tone for our relationship," he added. "I've very much enjoyed working with this talented faculty. This generation of scholars may not have the same familiarity with the Jesuit-Catholic legacy as previous ones, but they demonstrate an openness and an interest in exploring that legacy which will serve Boston College well."

Once he completes a sabbatical next year, Fr. Barth will become part of that faculty when he joins the English Department. He looks forward to once again using his dramatic qualities in the classroom, and hopes to share his enthusiasm for the arts, and BC's Jesuit tradition, with its newest students.

"I'd really like to teach Introduction to Literature for freshmen," said Fr. Barth. "I've always loved teaching at that level. I think it's important to challenge these students right away and get them focused on the academic side of college. These young men and women come here eager and ready to learn, about themselves as well as the subjects they study, and I enjoy helping them to do that."

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