Charles Salas: Director of Strategic Initiatives Explores New Ideas

Charles Salas, director of strategic initiatives in the President's Office, is looking into the possibility of a Summer Session for Wesleyan.

Charles G. Salas, director of strategic initiatives in the President's Office, works with President Roth and senior staff on issues and initiatives that involve the institution broadly.

Q: Charles, your title is Director of Strategic Initiatives and you work in the President’s Office. When did you begin?

A: I retired from the Getty in Los Angeles last fall and began here on Dec. 1, 2008.

Q: This is a new, temporary position. What is the objective of your role and with whom do you work?

A: Where other members of Cabinet are responsible for particular parts of the university, I work mostly with President Roth and senior staff on issues and initiatives that involve the institution broadly.

Q: Can you say a bit about these issues and initiatives?

A: I began with the initiatives launched by President Roth and explored by faculty task forces: Civic Engagement, Creative Campus, College of the Environment, Internationalization and Strengthening the Undergraduate Experience. Unsurprisingly, I quickly found that these task forces had done excellent work already, and my contribution so far has mainly been to facilitate implementation of their ideas. For instance, it now looks as if the College of the Environment will be in place by Fall 2010.

Q: There has been mention of a potential summer session at Wesleyan. Is this something you’re exploring, and if so, what are the pros and cons of having such a program?

A: Yes, the President asked me to look into the possibility of a Summer Session for Wesleyan. The current academic calendar appears “inefficient” in the sense that campus remains relatively idle over the summer, generating expenses without generating revenue. A summer session could result in increased revenue for the university and more curricular flexibility for students. At the same time, it would likely mean more work for some staff and less research time for faculty who choose to teach. What I’ve tried to do is to create a university-wide conversation about the pros and cons of all this and to help frame a pilot session for next summer.

Q: Prior to Wesleyan, you worked as the head of research and education at the Getty Research Institute where you ran the international scholars program. How was that role similar to working on strategic initiatives at Wesleyan?

A: At the Research Institute I worked with the director in creating a theme for the institute and brought in scholars to work on projects bearing upon that theme. Those decisions had ramifications for the institute and the Getty as a whole, so my work there involved both stimulating scholarship and building bridges between different parts of the Getty and between the Getty and other institutions. In that institutional sense, I suppose, my role here is somewhat similar. At the Getty I was more involved in scholarly research, but in the next years at Wesleyan I hope to offer a class or two and keep my hand in scholarship, so, yes, the roles have some similarities.

Q: What was your role in developing Wesleyan’s new mission statement?

A: The last accreditation committee indicated that Wesleyan should have an official mission statement, and the President asked me to take charge of coming up with one. Actually it was fun, thanks to the good-naturedness of the faculty whom I cajoled into drafting it. We sent our draft out to the larger community – faculty, staff, students – and then revised it based upon their comments. It is now in the hands of the President and trustees. It is hard to write something brief that will please everyone, but I do feel that the statement has emerged as organically from the Wesleyan community as could reasonably be expected.

Q: I’ve been told that you’re the one who’s helping President Roth think “down-the road.” You’ve been here nine months now. What are your thoughts on Wesleyan’s future?

A: President Roth does not need a lot of help thinking about much (except perhaps his forehand in tennis), and in Cabinet and amongst the faculty he has many valued interlocutors. At present, he, the Cabinet, and the trustees, led by Joshua Boger ’73, are all thinking about a strategic plan for the university, and I am involved in this as well. Eventually, I expect, the university as a whole will have the opportunity to weigh in.

Q: Are you a go-to individual for dealing with the institution’s economic crisis?

A: Again, I try to be helpful wherever I can be, but other members of Cabinet and their staff are more important in this regard than I. None of the things I am working on – not even the Summer program – are panaceas for the budgetary problems here.

Q: What are typical issues that members of the administration would contact you about?

A: Anything that does not obviously fall into an area for which another Cabinet member is responsible could reach my desk. I suppose the Mission Statement is as good an example as any.

Q: Do you interact with students or the Wesleyan Student Assembly?

A: Yes, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with members of the WSA on several matters, including the Mission Statement and Pilot Summer Program. I am very impressed by how thoughtful they are and how much they care about the university – not just its present but also its future.

Q: Where did you attend college? What is your academic interest?

A: I have a B.A. from the University of California-Berkley, a M.A. in intellectual history from Wesleyan and a Ph.D in Modern European history from the Claremont Graduate University. I have a particular interest in antiquity and its cultural and political legacies in France and Britain.

Q: You’re a published author on several subjects including mathematics, history, art and antiquity. What are your recent works?

Q: My article titled “Elements of A Ribera” was published a few months ago and combines my interests in early-modern art and mathematics. Since the article has led to the renaming of one of the Getty’s best paintings, I like to think of it as a sort of farewell gift. My most recent edited volume is The Life and the Work: Art and Biography (2007) which examines the relationship between the lives of artists and their work. Who people “are” versus what they “do.” An issue not unrelated to this interview.

Q: You’ve also co-edited two volumes with President Roth, which were published by the J. Paul Getty Trust: Looking for Los Angeles: Architecture, Film, Photography, and the Urban Landscape (2001) and Disturbing Remains: Memory, History, and Crisis in the Twentieth Century (2001). Will you we working on any future writing projects with the president? By yourself?

A: I fear that the President has enough to do without carrying me on yet another book project. As for myself, I have an unfinished manuscript titled American Carthages that deals with the interplay of antiquity and small-town America. I hope to get back to it in the next couple of weeks while things here are still relatively quiet. Wesleyan, in fact, is where my interest in the reception of antiquity began. My M.A. thesis here looked at R. G. Collingwood as historian of Roman Britain, and the fact History and Theory chose to publish an article derived from the thesis encouraged me to pursue a doctorate in history.

Q: How has campus changed since your days as a graduate student? Are there any familiar faces here?

A: There have been physical changes, of course. As a graduate student here I rented a little house on Knowles Avenue, and now no trace of it is left. The house was demolished to make room for the new athletic center. But whatever the physical changes here, I’ve doubtless changed more. Certainly the view I have now from my office in South College is not one I ever envisaged when I lived on Knowles Avenue! As for familiar faces, I’ve had the pleasure, however brief, of seeing those of mathematicians Wis Comfort and Tony Hager, philosopher Kent Bendall, and historians Phil Pomper and Stewart Gillmor. All emeriti now.

Q: Where are you from and why did you decide to return to Connecticut?

A: I grew up down the road in Haddam, where my father still lives. Granted, life in Santa Monica was pretty nice, as was working at the Getty, but the opportunity to come home and be involved again with Wesleyan was too strong to resist.

Q: Aside from your academic interests, what are your hobbies?

A: I like to think of myself as still good at sports like tennis and golf – all evidence to the contrary.

Q: And what is the interesting artwork in your office about?

A: It was inspired by the elegant geometry of the semicircular window in my office here in South College. Above the window are illustrations of the quadric surfaces from my father’s calculus textbook on which I worked for many years, and below there’s a rock sculpture with a large Ammonite fossil. The fossil’s shape (a Fibonacci spiral) involves the Golden Number, Phi, which I argued in my article is key to understanding the Getty Ribera painting. So it reflects a bit my own “life and work.”