Sheila Hassell Hughes—the new dean of the School of Liberal Arts—is a tall, enthusiastic people person with a big smile. As the youngest child who grew up in a deeply religious family in western Canada, Hughes describes herself as a sincere optimist. And she is passionate about the liberal arts.
“A liberal arts education fosters critical thinking, innovation, creativity, and imagination,” she said, adding that while STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and other professional fields have grown in popularity, “the liberal arts give us the ability to understand the history, culture, language, and all the aspects of our lives in which science and technology are embedded.”
After spending a year at the Baptist Leadership Training School (BLTS), in Calgary, Alberta, Hughes earned her bachelor of arts degree in English, with honors, from the University of British Columbia, a master of arts degree in English from the University of Toronto, and a Ph.D. in women’s studies from Emory University in Atlanta. Her research focuses on gender and religion in American women’s literature, feminist theory, pedagogy, and curriculum and girls’ studies.
During her 17 years teaching at University of Dayton, a Catholic Marianist institution in southwest Ohio, Hughes increasingly took on responsibilities for administration. To her surprise, she really liked it. “I kind of went into it reluctantly, as I think many faculty do, thinking it was just administrative paperwork,” Hughes said. “But then I discovered that it’s far more about leadership and vision, change and making things better for faculty and students.” And she also realized that she was good at it.
Hughes served as chair of the English Department at Dayton, the largest at the university, with approximately 40 full-time faculty. The department saw considerable growth under Hughes’ leadership. She also was the director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, helping to create a new academic major and playing a key role in the establishment of a new university-wide first-year humanities program. Hughes became a campus leader on issues related to internationalization, diversity, and gender equity.
In the relative quiet of her office in Dante Hall, with the animated traffic of a busy campus outside, Hughes reflected on the tasks that lie before her as dean, especially the College’s intention to provide stronger support for faculty research.
“I’ve been really impressed with the level of faculty scholarship, both in terms of productivity and excellence,” Hughes observed. “We have some real stars across the disciplines.” She pointed to the humble, highly collaborative interdisciplinary culture at Saint Mary’s that resists spotlighting the work of individuals.
“With the kind of education we provide here, that requires really versatile teaching, service, advising, and one-on-one relationships with students, it’s truly impressive that faculty do such stellar research.” Hughes wants to support and promote this creativity and help faculty find external funding for their work.
Hughes is likewise impressed by Saint Mary’s students. “They do the reading!” Hughes exclaimed. In every class the dean has observed, the students have come to class having read the text, ready to actively discuss “and in some cases grab the reins of the discussion away from the professor,” she said, smiling broadly. “In my 20 years in higher ed, it’s been a common faculty lament, especially in the humanities, that the students don’t do the reading,” she said. “In the liberal arts, students need to engage with substantial texts in a careful and critical way, and it’s really frustrating when they don’t do the reading.” Hughes said, only half in jest, that she would like to get t-shirts printed with “Saint Mary’s Students Do the Reading.”
Hughes recognizes that she still has much more to learn about the campus and the community’s particular gifts and challenges. “But I bring to this work my passion for diversity and inclusion, and for supporting our faculty and students, making their experiences richer and better.”