Best of Both Worlds
By Elizabeth H. Brandon ’06
Having worked at Rhodes College for almost 40 years, Dean Robert R. Llewellyn departs the school with a medley of experience in academics and administration. While enrolled in the graduate program at Vanderbilt, Llewellyn had aspired to become a college philosophy professor. He fulfilled that ambition when arriving at Rhodes in 1969, but it soon became apparent that the college had much more planned for the brand-new professor.
In the mid-’70s, he was appointed associate dean, and for the next 13 years, he balanced that position with one of being a faculty member. Though he returned to being a full-time professor in the early ’90s, his career in administration was far from over. In 2001, under President William Troutt, Llewellyn entered his grand finale role as Dean of the College, until the end of the ’05-’06 school year.
Initially, the transition to associate dean was a challenge. He found he had to interact with the students in a different way. He recalls, “As an academic dean I was telling students what to do about a variety of things including academic disciplinary matters. In a classroom, you don’t tell students what to do; you elicit ideas from them about the topic and then follow up on implications of those ideas or arguments in support of those ideas. It was difficult for me to change from the administrative-mindset to the teacher-mindset.” But succeed he did. President Troutt comments: “Bob Llewellyn inspired students in the classroom to be their very best. His abiding example of service over self as an administrator inspires all of us to give our very best to Rhodes.”
Current and past students call him a “great thinker,” believing his experience in the field of philosophy has translated well to his administrative responsibilities. Peg Falls-Corbitt ’75, professor of philosophy at Hendrix College, recalls his teaching style, which has influenced her own.
“He’d educe comments from the students, respond to them and challenge the class to think further on what was in the text, what the author was saying,” she says. “He had a clear and logical mind that helped us find the structure and arguments in a comprehensible way.”
On his teaching experience, Llewellyn states, “An overdose of lecturing proves problematic in student learning styles. It’s clear to me that facilitated discussions are more open to allowing a topic to take directions beyond what I might have imagined and into areas that are more likely to have the intended educational outcomes.” With this view in mind, Llewellyn set about guiding as well as challenging students in his classes.
Reggie Weaver ’02, a third-year at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, was able to take Search from Llewellyn right before the professor made the permanent shift to position of dean. Weaver remembers Llewellyn’s interest in each student’s opinion along with his adeptness in bringing together various points. Despite the fact that Llewellyn valued the many directions certain topics could go, his method of teaching proved constructive.
“He was able to pull together different threads into a coherent whole,” Weaver comments. “With that ability to take so many thoughts of at least 12 to 15 people, he helped us see the big picture, how it all connected.”
As professor, inside and outside the classroom, Llewellyn invested himself in his students’ learning. Weaver says, “I thought he was an engaging teacher. Not only was he interested in the students’ academic success but their personal growth as well.”
Llewellyn continued to encourage his students after their graduation. Tracy Adkisson ’95 is associate director of Rhodes’ Physical Plant. This year, she is taking graduate courses toward her master’s in philosophy. Though she does not intend to alter her career, Adkisson possesses a continued passion for the field.
Of her former professor and continuing mentor, Adkisson states, “Thanks to Dean Llewellyn, philosophy intrigues me, has been my passion. Going back after being in the job market for a few years has allowed me to appreciate philosophy for itself, and not a means to a career.” She recalls her experience in his class: “He inspired respect, rather than demanding it, and his method held me to a higher standard as far as how I thought and what I thought.”
Each of these people had mostly come into contact with Dean Llewellyn in the classroom setting. They believe that certain qualities that made him the professor they admire transferred seamlessly to his performance as dean.
“His encouraging individuals to follow who they are and what they do, that ability has been part of the mentoring that he would need to do as a dean of the college,” says Falls-Corbitt.
Adkisson remarks, “The most important question to me is ‘does this person have the best interest of Rhodes at heart?’ That is one thing no one can challenge as far as he is concerned.”
Llewellyn has valued his work as an academic dean.
“I have enjoyed my engagement with college administration, which has added immeasurably to my awareness of what higher education is all about; it has given me insight into this institution that I would never have had if I had remained a full-time faculty member.”
In a similar way, his experience as faculty member became an almost necessary requirement for Llewellyn to function as dean.
“My continued participation in the academic program was important for my administrative work. Otherwise it would be mechanical and routine,” insists Llewellyn. “It’s important for an academic administrator to have contact with the classroom. I wish I could have been more active in the classroom in recent years. I missed the teacher development that inevitably occurs in a good classroom setting.”
That particular qualification has especially played into Llewellyn’s working with the faculty. When asked what qualities his successor must have, he explains: “It’s very clear that he or she has to have an ability to work collaboratively with the faculty. A chief academic officer must be able to listen to what the faculty has to say, to help outline what steps need to be taken to contribute to the advancement of the academic mission and then to be able to compromise. It will hurt him or her to be at cross-purposes with the faculty.” Having seen both sides of the story, Llewellyn appreciates that ability to cooperate.
Psychology major Kristina Dean ’07 has worked in the Academic Affairs office for the past three years. Working with Llewellyn, she appreciates his numerous efforts to enhance diversity at Rhodes.
“I have interacted with him behind the scenes,” she says. “I think he’s made a genuine attempt to improve diversity on this campus, as I’ve seen how much work he’s put into it, trying to obtain something and apply it.” She notes the passion involved in his consistent efforts to make improvements for the Rhodes community.
Many members of the Rhodes community comment on his desire to incorporate student input as much as possible. Llewellyn took the initiative to form the weekly student leader caucus, at which student leaders gather to discuss campus issues.
“When you first hear him talk to a group of students, you can sense his style of thinking in his words,” says Doug Lensing ’08. “They come out in methodological fashion. One can sense general interest and kindness in what he’s trying to do.”
Specifically, Llewellyn has involved students in the implementation of the new curriculum, making efforts to receive their feedback. Andy Greer ’07, who double majors in international studies and political science, worked with Llewellyn through Rhodes Student Government. Of Llewellyn’s thinking style Greer says: “He is a philosopher by training, well-rounded, thinking about matters of concern. He doesn’t look at an issue as an issue but one that has a ripple effect on many other things.”
Lensing admires his enthusiastic participation: “Dean Llewellyn has gone above and beyond every aspect of the job to make life a little more welcoming here at Rhodes for the students. You can sense how much he cares.”
Regarding the new curriculum, Llewellyn says that a fundamental question remained with the faculty committees at work on this task: “Are we confident we are doing all that we should be doing to educate the citizens of the 21st century?” A primary concern consistently is the welfare of the students. “We want to ensure that this educational opportunity provides for and remains directed toward enrichment of the experiences of students here and has promise for a truly transformative influence on their lives,” Llewellyn emphasizes.
Troutt praises Llewellyn’s capacity to mediate between students and faculty: “He provided students with a voice in the deliberations regarding the curriculum. He also helped students understand how our new curriculum must focus on an even higher level of engagement in and out of the classroom, and within and beyond our gates.”
A characteristic that alumni and students have associated with Llewellyn is that of fairness, which most evidently has played into his dual career at Rhodes.
“He always treated someone’s work in a fair way, trying to see what was valuable in what was said,” recalls Falls-Corbitt.
Weaver remembers Llewellyn’s approach to learning, his examination of each student’s viewpoint while conducting his Search class.
“He tried to structure the class setting so there existed open dialogue, rather than the professor talking at the students,” Weaver says. “Always facilitating conversation, he expressed interest in each student’s opinion.”
Having seen him work with faculty and students alike, Dean notes the determination with which he approaches each subject.
“One has to think of what is best for the college and act accordingly and think of the community as a whole,” she remarks. “He does keep it in mind, and when he talks about issues, there is a passion involved.” That quality of evenhandedness played into Llewellyn’s balancing act as academic dean.
Upon leaving his position as dean, Llewellyn recounted the number of changes Rhodes has made.
“In fact, and on a minor note, I can remember when overhead projectors were readily available in our classrooms; that was a new technology in support of teaching. We actually had faculty development workshops devoted to the effective use of overhead projectors,” he recalls. “Nowadays the technological support provided—electronic media, convenient computers and projection devices—is unbelievable; its effective use encourages interactive learning, something that has been a feature of teaching and learning at Rhodes.”
As students have praised Llewellyn for his structured, open-ended discussion, he reflects on its success today. While that method proved less popular when he began teaching, Llewellyn happily notes its more frequent use today.
“The discussion format is much more open to different directions based on student response, which is good because we need to be attentive to where students are and begin there in terms of learning.”
Llewellyn expresses future wishes for the Rhodes community: “We are a college of liberal arts and science, so we must create that sense, meaning we must make sure everything we do is directed toward the educational enrichment in the lives of students here.” While the new curriculum enters the scene, he hopes the change will enhance Rhodes as an academic community.
As students, alumni and faculty have celebrated his years spent at Rhodes, Dean Llewellyn says he is grateful for the overall experience.
“It’s rare for a member of the academy to have the experience both as teacher and as administrator. Further, I have been fortunate to serve Rhodes at times when important things were happening at this institution that have made it a better college,” he says. “I do feel I contributed in a small way to what has happened at Rhodes.”