Dr. Henry Kurtz
In the next several issues of Update, we are profiling the deans of our colleges and schools. In this issue, we highlight
Dr. Henry Kurtz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
“When I was about 6, I wanted to be a chemist. I have no idea why, and I still can’t
figure out why, but I went to college, majored in chemistry, got a degree in it and
I became a chemistry faculty member. I’m not quite sure that anybody at 6 years of
age has a clue what being a chemist means, but that’s what I said I wanted to be.
I like math, so I am a theoretical chemist. I don’t work with chemicals — I work with
computers, but I’m still a chemist technically. You always hear people talk about
how many times they started here and ended there, but I never have. I’ve always been
on the same career path. I never wanted to be anybody else along the way.”
Why did you choose to come to the U of M?
“The short answer is easy – because someone wanted to give me a job here in 1983.
This is my first tenure track position. I had spent five years doing post-doctoral
work traveling the world to two or three universities and traveling to Sweden. I thought
it was time to get a real job, so to speak, and this was where I found an offer that
was good so I came to the University of Memphis. I’ve been here since. It’s worked
out well because Memphis is a nice place as is the University.”
What do you enjoy most about being a dean?
“That’s a hard question to answer because I’ve done a lot of different jobs here.
I’ve been a regular faculty member, then department chair of two different groups
and then dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. When I was department chair, I lasted
six years and then stepped down because there were other people who could do the job
and because I didn’t want to burn out. A dean’s job is really different. I’ve been
dean for 11 years now. What makes it sustainable and really work is the diversity
of the job. It’s the wide breadth of things that go on in the College and the constant
changing nature of it, like hiring faculty and allocating resources. It’s always something
different; it’s always something new. It’s nice being able to help facilitate that.”
What is the most challenging aspect of your position?
“The most challenging aspect is the shrinking of resources we’ve recently encountered.
How do we keep strong things strong and allow other things to grow? We’re not satisfied
with the status quo because you want to keep making programs at the University better.
We have a clear vision of what we want to be, so the challenging part of the last
five years is how we keep that vision going with shrinking resources. I think it’s
getting a little bit better, though. It’s just really a resource challenge. Personnel
decisions are never fun. How do you keep good faculty that have had no raises for
four or five years — those types of things are the bigger issues.
What is the most memorable event of your tenure at the U of M?
“I can think of the big spectacular events that go on at campus. The biggest blowout
I think we ever had on campus was when we broke ground at the FedEx Institute of Technology
building. When all the confetti shot up in the air from cannons, that was a major
day at the University as far as a spectacular event goes. I can think of the things
that were milestones at the University. Clearly, the biggest one was the last name
change from Memphis State University to the University of Memphis. Going through the
name change process allowed the University to reposition itself and to rearticulate
its vision. It really allowed us to say this is the kind of university we want to
be for the long term. Also, going back to the late ‘80s or early ‘90s when I was a
faculty member, there was a group of faculty members called the Roles and Rewards
Task Force that led to many years of re-evaluating faculty roles, reward systems,
the importance of research and changing the nature of the faculty we wanted to hire.
Both things really made us the kind of university we are now.”
What is the best advice you’ve ever given to a student?
“My best advice is to do something you’re interested in — interest drives everything.
If you find something you’re excited about, that’s the biggest thing you can do and
that holds true for faculty, too. That’s why I am here. I went away to college at
18 and never left.”
What’s your favorite U of M campus event or tradition?
“We have an event in the College of Arts & Sciences that I thoroughly enjoy. It’s
called ‘Great Conversations.’ It’s an opportunity for us to show off the entire faculty.
People are always excited about the event. And I like the Distinguished Alumni Awards.
We have an alumni awards dinner, and those things are impressive, too, because you
get to show off your former students.”
What are some of your hobbies?
“I love food. Wine and food (as well as travel) are my hobbies because I am part of
a group that travels to places all over the world for wine tours. I’ve been to Argentina,
California and Washington traveling for food and wine. It’s been fun doing that for
the last several years. Living in Sweden was a fun experience. Studying abroad was
probably one of the most formative things that I did.”
Tell us about your family.
“It’s just my wife and my Siamese cats at home. My wife, Bette Ackerman, teaches at
Rhodes College and is a psychologist. Academics are one thing that made Memphis really
good for us. It gave us a city where we could both get academic jobs. That’s rare
and a challenge for many people. And, we’re not at the same place, so we have a lot
of discussions, but nothing gets personal because we have different work realms. I
grew up in Florida. Everybody always says that nobody grows up there, but one branch
of my family goes back five or six generations in Florida. When you talk about being
a Florida native, we’re very native.”