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By Emily Gold Boutilier
Neal Abraham, a laser physicist specializing in nonlinear dynamics and chaos who hired more than half of the faculty members at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., arrived in August as the new executive director of Five Colleges, Inc., the consortium that includes Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith and UMass Amherst.
Abraham spent 11 years in the senior administration at DePauw, where, thanks to a vast increase in the endowment, he worked to dramatically increase the size of the faculty, hiring 60 percent of the school’s 228 faculty members (including one Amherst alumnus, historian David Gellman ’88). In addition, he oversaw expansion of the school’s interdisciplinary programs, expanded faculty diversity, shepherded building projects and nurtured collaborations with a nearby college. He has also been a leader in recruiting women and members of other underrepresented groups to pursue careers in the sciences, particularly physics.
At DePauw, Abraham was executive vice president, vice president for academic affairs, dean of faculty and professor of physics and astronomy. He previously taught for 18 years at Bryn Mawr College, which is part of a consortium with Haverford and Swarthmore colleges.
Amherst President Anthony W. Marx headed the national search that resulted in Abraham’s appointment. Marx says that Abraham’s experience will allow the new director to “build on the consortium’s many strengths and help our institutions collaborate even more productively in coming years.”
Abraham says he’ll spend the next several months trying to learn which aspects of the consortium are working well and which are not. He expects to ask a lot of questions: What are the impediments to students cross-registering for classes? What barriers are there to faculty collaboration across the schools? What obstacles do professors at one college face when they want to teach a course at another? Seeking answers to such questions will be part of a year-long strategic planning process he will lead.
Abraham will also look to facilitate further sharing of resources among the colleges. The Five Colleges are positioned “rather uniquely to weather the economic downturn,” he says. “Particularly in these economic times, thoughtful collaboration offers efficiencies in operations and opportunities in academic, cultural and social programs.”
Another major goal is to help build rich communities of faculty members who work in ultra-specialized fields. Abraham is also interested in improving technology for teaching and learning. Perhaps, he suggests, a student studying abroad in Ecuador could gather with friends from that country to virtually communicate with a Spanish class in the Five Colleges.