Recalling Sheila

By Chad Galts / September / October 1998
November 24th, 2007
When Sheila Blumstein resigned as dean of the College in 1995, she thought her tour of duty as a University administrator - which had already been extended by a year - was over. She was wrong. Called out of "retirement" by the newly arrived E. Gordon Gee in January, Blumstein left her

Gee says that, when he arrived on campus, he asked several people for the names of academic leaders. "Sheila's name was on the top of every list," he says. "She understands Brown better than anyone. She has a real sense of purpose, and place, and candor." Gee offered Blumstein the job as provost, but, he says, "she made it clear she had commitments to her students, to her research, and to her colleagues that she wanted to keep up." Instead, Blumstein, who arrived on campus shortly after getting her Ph.D. in linguistics at Harvard in 1970, agreed to help grease the wheels of the new administration with a six-month appointment. Her term ended on June 30; she was succeeded by Berkeley anthropologist William Simmons '60 (see "Homecoming," Under the Elms, July/August 1998).

As a professor who has twice been chair of the department of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences, Blumstein has taught thousands of Brown undergraduates. Her research on aphasia (the loss of the ability to understand spoken and written language) and the mechanisms of sound structure and language comprehension have led to three books, more than a hundred scientific articles, a Guggenheim award, and a fellowship in the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

When Howard Swearer tapped her to become dean of the college in 1987, Blumstein had to put her own research aside to conduct the first comprehensive analysis of the Brown curriculum since its inception in 1969. Her 1990 findings helped the University restructure how students are advised about their classes and academic careers and led to a boost in the number of classes - from twenty-eight to thirty - required for graduation. "The most important thing for us to affirm," she says, "was that the undergraduate curriculum was as academically rigorous as possible."

Blumstein was surprised when Gee called to offer her the provost's position, but the three-administration veteran was glad to help the new president get his bearings. Now safely ensconced back in the Metcalf office she shares with Sam, her four-and-a-half-year-old chocolate lab, Blumstein is back at work on her research - and collecting dividends on a career's worth of devotion to her students. She and one of her former graduate students, Martha Burton '89 Ph.D., now with the department of neurology at the University of Maryland, are working together on a project using the latest in brain-imaging techniques to examine how language is processed in the brain.

"When you think about work and jobs, sometimes you just want a change," Blumstein says. "It's kind of like the curriculum - at Brown, there's always an opening to new things."

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September / October 1998