Water spiders sparked James Wyche’s first fling with science.
As a 10-year-old in his native Rhode Island, the recently appointed vice provost and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences one day assembled a rudimentary microscope out of bent pieces of glass to scrutinize the eight-legged creatures.
“It was fascinating,” said Wyche, 59, in an interview from his office in Tougaloo, Miss.
Since that day, he’s never had a vocational change of heart, he said.
However, Wyche maintains that his longtime marriage with the sciences-he has a Ph.D. in biology from John Hopkins University and has taught posts at Hunter College, the University of California and Brown University among others-should not concern those who are in the non-scientific realms of the college.
“People would only have to look more closely at my background,” said Wyche in reference to his commitment to the social sciences and humanities.
His accomplishments as executive director of The Leadership Alliance-a consortium of leading research and teaching institutions dedicated to improving participation of underrepresented minorities-attest to that commitment, he said.
“For the past few years, people have actually been accusing me of abandoning the sciences,” remarked Wyche half-jokingly, adding that he intends to take advantage of UM’s geographical location and diverse population in order to increase the Leadership Alliance’s activities in the Caribbean and South America.
One of Wyche’s first-and possibly most challenging tasks-will be overseeing the transfer of School of International Studies into Arts and Sciences. Wyche said the merger, which outraged some students and faculty members, was a wise move.
“It couldn’t fit better into my game plan,” Wyche said.
He believes the merger will not keep programs within SIS from growing and improving, he said.
That growth, Wyche conceded, will need considerable financial backing.
“I see a period of real academic growth backed by a major fundraising effort,” said Wyche, anticipating he will be playing a “large role” during President Shalala’s first major fundraising campaign.
Under Wyche’s management, the Leadership Alliance has raised $8 million from private and public sources, making postgraduate studies feasible for over 1,000 minority students.
“Dr. Wyche has made it very clear that he enjoys raising money and intends to do so,” said President Donna Shalala, who admitted she’s worried the present fundraising effort is off to a slow start.
Money is on more than the president’s mind.
“We would like to bring in people at the top of their game,” said Robert Levine, director of Latin American Studies, who said he received the news of SIS folding into Arts and Sciences as “potentially good news.”
Good news, Levine said, provided Wyche manages to “electrify the place, and get people [in several academic fields] excited about working together.”
Boosting interdisciplinary programs, Wyche said, is a top item on his agenda.
“He knows some of the leading minority scholars,” said Shalala, adding that Wyche’s role as vice provost will give him more leeway in recruiting minority faculty.
Roughly 65 percent of the Leadership Alliance alumni are African American while approximately 30 percent are Hispanic.
Wyche is the UM’s first undergraduate black dean-a distinction he acknowledges, but quickly plays down.
“I don’t believe it played any role in my appointment,” said Wyche about his skin color. “That’s never been something up my sleeve.”
That, however, does not mean he’s colorblind.
“For those who have been historically underrepresented, I have a responsibility.”
Shalala said the color of Wyche’s skin was welcome news for a university that prides itself on diversity, but not an advantage over his contenders.
“He was the best qualified candidate,” said Shalala, who added there was a clear consensus that Wyche was the best pick among faculty and students who met prospective deans.
A top concern for many students is making sure Wyche “attacks the SIS situation, by allowing students and faculty members to adjust to [forthcoming] changes,” said Aimee Dehbozorgi, a student government senator for the College of Arts and Sciences.
“Wyche is an agent of change,” Shalala said. “He’s not here to retire.”
The largest of the university’s schools and colleges, Arts and Sciences will have a student population of roughly 3,400 by the time Wyche slips into his new office Aug. 1.
Shalala and Wyche first met in 1981 while she was president of Hunter College and he was a biology professor.
Wyche first pitched his name to UM officials last fall when he was debating whether to take on the presidency of Tougaloo College, in Jackson, Miss., where he has been serving as interim president for roughly a year.
He flew down to Miami in February to meet with UM officials who were in the process of narrowing the search for the new dean.
He was asked to return on March 24.
Four days later, Wyche received an official offer from the university, which he accepted by the end of the month after negotiating salary, a contingency fund and the job title.
Not oblivious to the magnitude of his job, Wyche says he doesn’t feel overwhelmed.
“For some of us, managing organizations is about using your head and your gut when making decisions, and not trying to do everything by yourself,” he said.