New LAS dean’s focus: Highlight faculty research, teaching

Lisa Freeman
Lisa Freeman will serve as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences beginning July 1. (Photo: Jenny Fontaine/University of Illinois Chicago)

Since Lisa Freeman joined the University of Illinois Chicago as a faculty member in 1994, she has watched the campus change from when it seemed to be hidden below concrete walkways to now — where students, staff and faculty enjoy the outdoor green spaces.

“The campus is transformed,” Freeman said. “It was all concrete when I got here. There’s more of a sense of a campus and belonging to a community.”

On July 1, Freeman will become dean of UIC’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a post she held as interim over the past year.

Prior to her appointment, Freeman was head of the UIC Department of English for six years, associate head of the English department from 2012 to 2015, and acting associate dean of LAS in 2003. She also participated as a fellow in the 2021-22 cohort of the President’s Executive Leadership Program.

Her research focuses on 18th-century studies and theater and performance studies, and she is an award-winning scholar and teacher. She will begin a term as President of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in July, and she is also a longtime Newberry Library Scholar-in-Residence and founder and co-organizer of their Eighteenth-Century Seminar. In 2008, she received the Silver Circle Award for Excellence in Teaching.

She earned her doctorate and Master of Arts in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Freeman recently spoke with UIC today:

What are your goals as the new dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences?

What I would like to do is to continue with some of the initiatives I launched this year as interim dean. Primarily to highlight, support and grow faculty research. We’re a Research-1 university and it’s something that I highly value. We have extraordinary faculty who are doing important, groundbreaking work across disciplines, cutting-edge research and cutting-edge knowledge creation.

We launched two new initiatives this year. The first was the LAS Faculty Research Symposium. These symposia aim to bring our faculty together to work on global issues across the college and with experts across the country to bring other faculty, students, alumni and the public into these conversations. It’s a great way to highlight faculty research being done at UIC. The first symposium focused on climate change and the second focused on migration.

The second thing we launched was the LAS Faculty Research Bulletin, a twice-a-year publication highlighting faculty accomplishments, grants, awards and special recognition in their fields. They are great ways to share why a Liberal Arts and Sciences education is the best possible investment students and the public can make for their lives and careers.

Please share a little bit about your background and how it might influence and guide your new position as dean?

I think of myself first and foremost as a member of the faculty and as a scholar. All of this goes to the very heart of what makes me tick. I am fully committed to the UIC mission of inclusive excellence and of bringing cutting-edge research faculty into the classroom for our students who are extremely demographically diverse. As a Silver Circle winner, I consider teaching fundamental to who I am. It’s the part that I miss the most. I loved being in the classroom with our students because they are brilliant. Everything I do as dean will stem from the ways I think of myself as a member of the faculty and as a scholar and teacher committed to research and thought.

What attracted you to focus on 18th-century literature and theater, and can you see parallels to our 21th-century world?

It’s the period during which so many of the issues we still confront today coalesced. This was the age when the slave trade was exponentially expanded, when capitalism emerged, financial instruments were created and when colonization and empires were established on vast scales. At the same time, the period is known as the Age of Enlightenment for the great thinkers of reason, philosophy and liberal thought. What’s interesting for me is to think about the fundamental contradiction between what was happening and the thought that emerged at the same time, to think about how they are deeply intertwined and implicated in one another. Some of the greatest philosophers and thinkers of the Enlightenment, who espoused freedom and equality, were not prepared to recognize the full dignity and integrity of all human beings.

So, to think about how these things are intertwined fundamentally, that’s a lot of what 18th-century studies has turned its attention to and a lot of what my colleagues are working on. My field within 18th-century studies is theater and performance studies. The theater is where the public comes together to debate these kinds of issues and stage them in embodied form and try them out and figure out what they think. All of that is very much about why I work in the fields that I work in. My second book was called “Antitheatricality and the Body Politic,” and it’s all about how we think about who the public is and how that public is invoked amid culture wars.

As a faculty member at UIC since 1994, how have you seen the campus and LAS grow and improve for the students?

I think the faculty has gotten stronger as our attention to our students, their needs and where they come from has gotten better. Our students themselves are much more diverse than when I first came here. Our demographic has shifted enormously. I think the thing that is interesting about UIC is that it has always been an institution that has served first-generation students and that’s at the heart of what we do. I’m meeting alumni from the 1960s and 1970s a lot now and they were mostly first-generation students themselves. They see themselves in these students. I think that generational tradition and commitment remains very much at the heart of what we do.

As the largest of UIC’s 16 colleges, what is the role of LAS as a leader on the UIC campus?

We play a role in educating every undergraduate student on this campus through general education courses, including writing instruction, through STEM, math, chemistry, biology and physics. These are all classes taken by students from engineering to business. In every college, they take classes in LAS. We have an important leadership role to play in thinking about the shape of education for students at UIC. We have a responsibility, too, to consult with the other colleges. We have expertise in this college across so many different disciplines, but if we’re going to lead in these areas, especially in general education, we also need to be in conversation with other colleges.

How do you see UIC’s role in higher education and the community?

Our Research-1 mission, and our mission of inclusive excellence mean that the students we are educating are primarily first generation, are the most diverse demographic and are majority Pell Grant-eligible. Education is not only a vehicle of social mobility but also about educating an informed, critical-thinking society. We have an incredibly important role to play in promoting diversity and inclusivity, speaking out for social justice, and talking about who we are and the values we think are fundamental to a functioning and free society. UIC, with its demographic and its faculty, in particular within the College of LAS, has a lot to say on those issues and we have a leading role to play in this country. We live that mission day in and day out.

What is one thing that most people might not know about you?

One of the things people don’t know about me is that I was a psychology major and not an English major, and my first job out of college was working in investment banking. The other thing most people don’t know about me is that I was an intercollegiate athlete. I was a nationally ranked squash player and was the captain of my team in my junior and senior years.

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