Mark Miller has taught Political Science at the University of Delaware for over 30 years. Author of the influential book The Age of Migration, Dr Miller sat down with Alexandra Duszak to talk about his impressions of the state of the University.
TSD: In 30 years at the University of Delaware, what are some are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen to the campus, both academic and administrative?
MM: I think the university has evolved in a very welcome way. Even though I view the university through the lens of being a faculty member in a specific department, I’m very impressed by the maturation of both our graduate and undergraduate programs. I think we are a much better department than 33 years ago when I came. And I don’t say this off the top of my head without reflection. I can substantiate it, and the best evidence are in both the quality and number of the dissertations, senior theses, other quantitative measures, that we’re producing. I’ve been thinking that I should write an article sabout the number of impressive publications simply by our graduate students in the last several years. I am awestruck. So that’s one thing I’d like to say…I continue to be impressed by the quality of the library, Morris Library… I don’t know what it’s ranked at, but I think must number in the top 30 research libraries in the country. I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
TSD: You’ve been here through at least three university presidents. How has the character of the university changed over the years, broadly speaking?
MM: One of the interesting aspects about life in Delaware, it’s such a small state that you get to know the university presidents, like you get to know the congressman or woman and the senators. There are benefits to the small size.
I didn’t hear President Harker’s speech at commencement, but I heard from one of my colleagues that it was very impressive. It was about the importance of being good global citizens, that that should be our expectation of students. President Harker has fully embraced that, and I think he’s very sincere. So I think there has been a global turn, as it were, at the university, and I think our department has been at the forefront of that, along with some other departments.
TSD: Given your interest in global affairs, has the University done a good enough job in offering students the chance to study non-European languages, such as Arabic and Chinese? For example, there is a heavy concentration of courses in German and French, which of course are needed, but then with langauges like Arabic, there are only two professors and students can not study beyond the intermediate level.
MM: That’s better than what it was. I feel that that criticism is justified, but it’s not my place to pass judgment on FLLT, but it would be great if there was Turkish studies offered here. We’re a medium-sized university; we can’t offer everything, and I think we have made some progress. There weren’t Arabic courses when I came here. There has been progress, but institutions change glacially, and I think that’s been the case, but that would be the next step in the development of international studies.
My concern has always been that, and where we’ve seen too little progress, is that what is now called the Institute for Global Studies. When President Harker came in, it was upgraded, it got its own office, and I think that President Harker made very clear in my eyes, that he sees Delaware going from its present level to the next level, largely through international studies. Where we can see the proof in the pudding will be the maturation of the Institute for Global studies. If we can make a comparison to the Obama administration, everybody has great hopes, and it seemed pretty clear that we should expect change. We’re kind of disappointed now, and I hope that’s not going to be the case with the institute for Global Studies, that it turns out to be more of the same. There’s never been the commitment of resources, the strategic commitment of resources, to the Institute for Global Studies to enable it to make an effort at getting to the next level. That’s what I would like to see. I think that’s a top priority for the University of Delaware.
But it’s hard for a faculty member like me to talk in this way, because I know that the University of Delaware has taken a number of body blows. There was a major cutback in its allocation from the state of Delaware, and this is linked to the economic/financial crisis… In a period of retrenchment, it doesn’t make sense to talk about major commitments.
TSD: What are some things that you would really liked to see improved upon?
MM: Well, instinctually I’m interdisciplinary, and President Harker has spoken about interdisciplinary studies, and they’ve actually made some really good decisions. I’m very sparing in my praise. They authorized some hires [despite the current economic situation]. We were actually able to hire some new [interdisciplinary] faculty. 30 years ago, departments were little fiefdoms under themselves. Now when you hire, you’re going to get a different type of faculty member, because they have to have interdisciplinary aspects to themselves, and that’s how you change slowly over time, and that’s something I celebrate. I’ve always been a closet historian, masquerading as a political scientist. So that’s my scoop on the University of Delaware.
There’s been a significant and positive change. Delaware is rooted in its past, as all institutions are. The real question is—it’s kind of the hedgehog and the fox question—can one individual make any difference in history? I like to think, and I’ve always acted in a way that implies that what we do, we have to be held accountable. That’s that Catholic upbringing—ultimately you’re accountable for your actions, even if you stay away from the confessional for a long time.
TSD: It seems you think highly of President Harker’s plans to bring a global aspect to the university, but Harker is somewhat unpopular in some circles at the university because of the idea that he runs the school like a business. What are your thoughts on that?
MM: Everybody would applaud [the global initiative], but the question is, do we have the resources? When push comes to shove, will there be investments in that? Historically, this university is very oriented toward, has very wonderful chemistry and mechanical engineering departments. These are top-flight departments, they’re competitive with the very best universities in the world. I know that across the board, we want to bring all of our departments up to the level of say, the art history department or the mechanical engineering department or the chemistry department. That is not accomplishable in a single lifetime. You want to be pointed in that direction, and I think we are, from what I can tell.
No, I understand, I’ve felt [as though the school is a business] as well. I’m not someone who is particularly inclined to business, but I would simply remark that the business at Delaware has always been business…I’m not known for my pro-capitalist orientation, and what I’m grateful for is that I can teach courses the way I see fit, and I can express myself freely. I’ve never suffered for my social-democratic perspective. I’ve been able to teach a course that many Americans would have viewed as almost subversive: teaching about Palestinian history. I’ve done it for 33 years. I’ve never had a chair thrown at me, I’ve never been beaten up, I’ve never seen my dog poisoned. That happens everywhere else; it doesn’t happen to me. Maybe I have a charmed existence, maybe I have a good guardian angel. I’m sure I do. Something’s been right.
TSD: You mentioned that you’ve done a lot of graduate student advisement and senior thesis advisement. How many have you advised? Are there any that stand out as favorites?
MM: Those are the most important parts of my teaching. I love it—it’s the most gratifying. When I think back to students, I think back to the kids who did senior theses with me. So many of them have gone on to do great things—it’s amazing. I don’t know how many [I’ve advised], I don’t really keep track. Certainly I’ve mentored hundreds; I’ve done hundreds of senior thesis. That was a big inducement for me to come here was that there was an undergraduate research orientation, and I love that. I love working with juniors and seniors on their senior thesis. It’s probably the most rewarding aspect of my teaching.