On April 20, Executive Director of Communications Donna Klinger shared that Bryan Zygmont, Ph.D., will be starting as dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the beginning of August, assuming the position currently held by Peter Dorsey, Ph.D. Zygmont received his Ph.D. in art history, criticism, and conservation from the University of Maryland and is currently Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Professor of Art History at Louisiana Tech University. Dr. Zygmont sat down for an interview with the Record the day after the announcement to share his vision for the college.
Dr. Zygmont, please tell us a little about yourself.
Before arriving at Louisiana Tech University, I was at Clark College, which became Clark University. I was there for a decade, and in many ways, it was sort of like the Mount: a small Catholic liberal arts college, but without the cool core, which I feel like you guys own. I make beer and pizza. My only talent, probably, is making beer and pizza. What my kids probably like most about me is that I make pizza. What my wife likes most about me is I make beer. I like movies and playing video games and reading books and doing all the nerdy things. I also have a 9000 piece Lego Colosseum in my office.
As you enter into this new role as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, your understanding of the character of a Catholic university is going to be an essential part of how you’ll lead. What is, in your view, a Catholic university?
When I was finishing my work at the University of Maryland, people would ask me, ‘Where do you want to work?’ There were two answers to that question; both of them were true, but one was more true than the other. The first answer was ‘wherever I get a job,’ because I didn’t want to be an unemployed Ph.D. in art history. But the real answer was, ‘I want to end up in a small Catholic liberal arts college.’ The reason why I wanted to go to a Catholic school, beyond it being part of my own faith tradition, was the ways in which I believe that the good faith-based institutions really take an interest in helping mold and create good, ethical citizens of the world who view their education and their opportunities in life as a way of making the world in which we live better.
There are 5300 colleges across the U.S. and over 200 of them are Catholic. What specifically drew you to settle with us on Mary’s mountain?
When I was applying for jobs, what I hoped to do was return to a school that was similar to where I came from, which was a small, liberal arts college that had faith and community as very much part of the ethos of the school. I applied for fifteen jobs and the one thing I said to my wife again and again was: ‘the only one I would run to was [the Mount].’ One of the reasons is the size. The other thing I really wanted to be a part of was the core curriculum, which gives students the opportunity to have a shared intellectual experience. And the other thing I would say is the Mount’s description in the mission statement as a proudly pluralistic environment. As an institution of higher learning, and one that has its roots within the Catholic tradition, there is a way to find common ground among all different makes and beliefs. We’re all on a faith journey. When I think about the boxes that were ticked for me at the Mount, it was all of them. There is a Catholic with a big-C and a catholic with a little-c in a way that I am enthusiastic about. It’s not just the sites of the school, or the location of the school, or the Catholicity of the school, or the core. It’s all those things brought together.
In the wider academic and professional world, it seems that success is increasingly being measured solely in terms of accolades and credentials. As the new CLA dean, how do you plan to guide the success of students while at the same time taking into account the moral and spiritual nature of the person?
I tell my kids when they get out of the car every day to ‘be kind and try hard.’ Those are the things that really matter to me. When I think about what success means for an institution, we can talk about the Fulbright, which is an amazing program. I say this as someone who had a Fulbright grant and it’s the second line on my tombstone. But you know what’s a better line on my tombstone? The fact that a young lady came into my office today having had a problematic interaction with someone in our community and I talked to her for 45 minutes and although I didn’t fix the problem, I listened to her and am going to work to make things right. What this means to me is that I’m doing things that don’t show up on spreadsheets, they don’t show up on potential incomes for people. I hope people graduate from our school with degrees and jobs, and I also hope that they exit our university as a powerful agent for good and change in the world. We can celebrate the goods and excellences because we had a role in that being possible, too. It’s not just about diplomas and jobs and credentials; it’s about those intangible things that make the world a better place.
As a college founded in 1808, we at the Mount have played an integral role as both an observer and participant in the American story. What role do you see your intellectual background playing in helping us understand our vocation as a Catholic and American university?
I’ve been an art historian and that’s probably what I know the most about in terms of scholastic learning. What I really am is the one who’s fascinated by learning and about the world at large. Right now, I’m reading the autobiography of T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who lived during the Arab Uprising of the 1910s. This has nothing to do with art history. Last month, I read Augustine’s Confessions. Again, nothing to do with art history. We read Augustine not necessarily because we want to learn about him, although that’s part of it. Part of it so that we feel empowered to turn that self-analysis upon ourselves. Augustine was nothing if not someone who recognized ‘here I am, and here I was. There’s a path that got me here; let me think about that.’ Now, reading Lawrence’s autobiography, I’m thinking, “this is St. Augustine all over again!” It’s a man thinking about his place in the world, what he’s done, the good he’s achieved, and the bad he did on the way. When I think about the American intellectual tradition, part of it is understanding the world at large but also embracing learning in a very broad way. The liberal arts tradition is learning that all the things we do are related, they are connected. Your very major, philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE), is about this connectedness of academic disciplines. That’s a really cool major. When I think about what I am as an art historian, I remember that art history is not about art. It’s about an object, a thing, the Colosseum for example, and asking the question of what we can learn about economics, politics, religion, and sociology by looking at this one thing. What does the Colosseum tell us about the economic prosperity of Rome at the end of the first century? What does it tell us about politics and the ways in which Vespasian utilized entertainment as a way of controlling the masses? What does it tell us about aesthetics and the ways in which those who were using a new material, concrete, in a new architectural space, the arch, as a way of constructing this? What does it say about sociology, knowing that this space was hierarchized; the landowners sat here, the emperor over there, the sniveling idiots like the three of us were up here? When I think about art history, it’s the greatest disciple in the history of the world, because everything turns into it somehow. My dissertation was on the interaction of aesthetics, what things look like, and politics in the early American federal period. I got to talk about economics, politics, philosophy, religion, sociology, and identity. Before my trip for my interview, my only visit to your neck of the woods was in 2003 when I visited the Seton Shrine because Gilbert Stewart painted her husband in New York City in 1794. How did I know about her? How did I get to your back door? Because of a painting. I don’t know history like the historians, and I don’t know about philosophy like the philosophers, and I don’t know political science like the political scientists; at the same time, I know enough from my study of art history to have a nice drink and a conversation with them.
What ideas do you have for the CLA?
At my core, I am a collaborator. If you give me seven smart people in a room, we can come up with a really good idea together and it’s not my idea, it’s our idea, and our idea is always better than mine. The other thing I am is a data collector. I like collecting data to make informed decisions. It would be pretty arrogant of me for me to say “Gavin, be prepared. The sheriff’s coming to town. The sheriff, who has spent but a couple of hours on your campus, has all the answers. He’s only met six people, don’t matter, he knows what to do.” What I want to do is come to campus, meet and talk to everyone I can, and find out what we, not me, want this college to be. I want to collaborate with them, not boss them around. There might be a fine line between leadership and bossing around, and I get that too. I want to meet everyone I can, find out what their goals, their dreams, their obstacles, and their challenges are and think about what we can do together to make the experience you have in this college, and even the students who are unfortunately in a different college at the Mount, how to make that experience better. I want to have conversations and collaborate with people and look at what we do well, and how to do those things better, and what can we do that we’re not doing and do those things as well as we can.
A long-standing part of the Mount’s institutional mission has been to defend a certain conception of human dignity, as is the case for most Catholic schools. There is often disagreement about what protecting human dignity requires. What would be your approach to navigating those types of disagreements on campus?
If you guys ever go off to graduate school, you get eight people, seven of whom think they’re smartest people in the room, arguing about stuff, and inevitably what we came down to is: you attack ideas, you don’t attack people. This idea of engaging with ideas that are distinct from people has always served me well as both a teacher and as a human being. One of the commonalities of any good discussion is respect for the human, in terms of acknowledging that you’re talking with another person who has thoughts and feelings, but also that we can disagree amicably in a way that allows us to continue a conversation. When it comes to the idea of the dignity of the human person, it can mean different things for people, but there’s a common area in the Venn diagram for what human dignity means that we can universally agree on. Maybe that’s a starting point in order to have an open dialogue. I think dialogues are always good when they allow people to explain what they think, but they also hear what other people think, not necessarily as a way of persuasion, but as a way of understanding a point of view that might be different from our own. I think that’s one of the real benefits of having a debate. A debate is an exchange of ideas where both sides have an opportunity to both hear and be heard. Any conversation should be rooted in those two things. Look, I’m 46 now. What I think about the world now has changed a lot since I was 26. Part of that is me admitting to the world that I don’t have everything figured out just yet. There’s an openness with that and I would always encourage people to be open to ideas they haven’t yet considered. I did, and I think that’s made my life richer and more joyful. When people get really disagreeable in arguments, it’s because they think they have their whole life figured out already and they might never think something differently about things, but they might, and I think that’s good. Boy, you’re bringing the heat today by the way. I thought you were going to ask me my favorite color or what I wanted to be when I was in 2nd grade.
On that note, is there anything else you would like to share with the community, including favorite color?
I went to Arizona, so cardinal and navy. When I was in 2nd grade, I wanted to be the shortstop for the Milwaukee Brewers. What do I want people to know? I think more than anything, I’m very happy to return to a place that seems familiar to me, while at the same time being new. I’m an inherently happy and joyful person and it seems like I can be a happy and joyful person there. I have a pennant on my door that I had specially made by Oxford Pennants. I ordered twenty of them and gave out nineteen. The pennant says, “Fight the Good Fight.” I’m excited about fighting the good fight there and helping and watching other people fight the good fight. I bet there are people at the Mount who work tirelessly to make your experience as a student better and to make the school better for the community at large. I’m inspired to be a part of that and really excited to get going.
What animates your devotion to “fight[ing] the good fight”?
I was talking with a classicist about this at another institution, and he talked about the hero’s quest, like Odysseus on this colossal mission. There’s also the idea of justice and goodness. I had never really thought about this. It’s from the Christian Bible, from the book of Timothy: “I will fight the good fight, I will finish the race.” The really good things, the things that make us a better institution, that bring us happiness and joy and purpose, those things aren’t easy. They are a struggle. I don’t mean this in a bad way; it requires effort. When I think about the fight, the fight is the effort. The goodness is the purpose of it all. There are places where that kind of motto or esprit de corps or mission is more appreciated than others. To get back to the boxes I was ticking, I don’t know how to say this in a way that is articulate, but I feel like I can be the dean I most hope and aspire to be at a place like the Mount. I hope I can impact our students and I can inspire our faculty and work in the community and make everything better. I’m not going to tell you I’m going to make it great, or that it’s not great already, or good, or that it’s not good already. I aspire for better. I think better is always a goal and there are some places where fighting the good fight is valued and treasured and when I was applying for this job, and interviewing for this job, and thinking about this job, it seemed to me that this was that kind of place.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.