Taking Measure

An interview with Executive Dean Rick Van Kooten.

Anna Powell Denton.

After so many months of quarantine, March 2020 feels less like the recent past and more like a different lifetime. Across the world, coronavirus has had a dramatic effect on the way we work, live, and learn. And as higher education undergoes a moment of unprecedented transformation, the College of Arts and Sciences is no exception.

I recently spoke with the College’s executive dean, Rick Van Kooten, about a few of the changes the College has made in response to COVID-19, including the need for expanded online learning. We also talked about his professional life before he assumed the role of executive dean on July 1, 2019.

In addition to previously serving Indiana University Bloomington as vice provost for research, Van Kooten has served as a professor of physics since 1993. An award-winning teacher, he has taught a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate courses and is the author or co-author of more than 750 publications, mostly in the area of particle physics.

Fleischmann:

The past six months has been a time of unanticipated tragedy, turmoil, and uncertainty. Tell our readers about the College’s response to COVID-19, especially the adjustments made this past spring semester.

Van Kooten:

Last March, we were fortunate to have swiftly decided to transition to online courses rather than requiring students to return after spring break, which had already been extended by one week to give our faculty and staff enough time to prepare for the shift online. In-person courses would undoubtably have led to more cases of COVID-19 on campus and within the Bloomington community. Our faculty, staff, and students needed to rise to the occasion, and I was so impressed with how they did that, working together as everything changed. I like to think we all learned a lot about how to learn, even under unexpected duress.

Van Kooten speaks with a group of students outside of Owen Hall.

Fleischmann:

I know that the switch to online learning must have been complicated, especially since the College teaches such a wide array of courses, from fine arts studio classes to lab courses and everything in between. Where was the transition fairly easy, and which areas required more work?

Van Kooten:

One thing we discovered is that lecture classes can transfer to the web quite well. Smaller discussion sections can also transfer quite readily. It can be challenging to have group discussions in any context, but one of the benefits of online classes is the fact that, in effect, there’s no back of the room. So, sometimes the quieter students who may be less inclined to talk in front of a group will come forward and do that online.

Lab courses present particular challenges, of course, especially when students are working on experiments and answering questions based on those experiments. Even so, there are a number of things you can do to retool online lab courses. Faculty can provide the raw data that students would normally get from their experiments that they could then analyze, or the class can do simulations of experiments, which work fairly well. Students can spend more time learning about topics like data analysis rather than taking the data. Again, as technology changes and becomes more sophisticated, there’s an opportunity to learn more about how to conduct science collaboratively across great distances. That’s something every scientist needs to know.

In every field, students had to adjust to dialing in and connecting remotely, even while coping with the demands of sheltering in place and the disappointment of leaving campus. It certainly wasn’t easy for everyone; in many instances, it was exceptionally hard. Socioeconomic differences between students were amplified in the access to technology and high-speed internet, but we worked to mitigate that with loaned equipment. In the best-case scenario, faculty were able to be attentive to the challenges facing each person on that classroom call. We know now that this has been a common adjustment all across our culture, so in some ways it was a useful experience for each of us.

Fleischmann:

How do you think the College will change as a result of the work that has gone into the transition to online instruction?

Van Kooten:

If anything, the pandemic has been a kickstart to do more online. Even before COVID-19, online instruction was one of the areas I wanted to stress as executive dean. Now we’ve been required to really think about what works. We have the tools to make course content available in innovative new ways.

The pandemic has also revealed the need to develop online courses in a broader, more strategic way, with forms of centralized support. While there’s an Office of Online Education at the university level, we’ve never had a central office within the College to provide support for faculty. We need one. The world is opening up to the possibilities of online learning, and there are many exciting dimensions to that.

A custodian cleans and sanitizes a computer lab in the Indiana Memorial Union.

Fleischmann:

And what comes next? Fall semester is right around the corner. What’s some of the work that still needs to be done?

Van Kooten:

During the upcoming year, we’ll learn a great deal as we work to strike a balance between online and in-person instruction, with the latter done safely. So much of a liberal arts education is centered around being with people who are different from you and having live discussions with them. We have a vital history as a residential entity, too, and that’s part of the experience students crave. So, while we work to increase our online presence, we also want these online experiences to augment and reinforce what people get when they are able to meet here in person.

As we talk today, of course, many aspects of this pandemic are still unknown. We are all still in a time of necessary adaptation. We know we will have to face more unexpected demands, and we’ll continue to adjust, experiment, and learn from mistakes.

Many problems have been revealed the past few months, both by COVID-19 and by the fact that our culture is confronting systemic racism and the damage it does. I’ve been struck by the variety of ways these challenges are examined within each of the many disciplines here in the College. I have to trust that there will be unexpected opportunities revealed by this moment, and that remarkable research and creative activity will also be the result.

Fleischmann:

I know that many of our alumni may be unfamiliar with your background prior to becoming executive dean. Would you tell us about your time at IU before this position?

Van Kooten:

Sure. I started my career at IU as an assistant professor in the physics department. My field is experimental particle physics, which for a long time involved travel to both Geneva, Switzerland, and to the suburbs of Chicago, where I was involved in collaborative experiments, using the gigantic particle colliders there. I was appointed a number of times as physics coordinator, guiding the directions of research and organizing resources for hundreds of physicists. Eventually, after being promoted to associate professor and then full professor, I had a five-year stint as physics department chair, when I became more interested in the administrative side of education.

That work led me to want to focus more on what I could accomplish here and no longer travel as much due to family health issues. It was around this time when the provost asked if I might be interested in applying to become vice provost for research. Whenever I do something, I want to feel as if I can really make an impact, and this was one of those moments. That position also attracted me simply because I enjoy learning about many different things. I’d love to have 10 or 20 clones of myself who could learn simultaneously about different areas of research, both inside and outside the sciences.

In retrospect, the four years I spent as vice provost for research were great preparation for the job of executive dean of the College. I learned a great deal about work done all across the campus, including the College, and was able to meet faculty conducting that research.

“Our faculty, staff, and students needed to rise to the occasion, and I was so impressed with how they did that, working together as everything changed. I like to think we all learned a lot about how to learn, even under unexpected duress.”

Fleischmann:

Let’s talk about your research background, too. What does the work of a particle physicist consist of?

Van Kooten:

So, experimental particle physicists work with colliders that are designed and built to collect data about the particles circulating and then colliding inside these massive particle detectors. As a result, they spend a chunk of their time doing work that’s almost like engineering: building the detector and calibrating it and getting all the pieces in place.

The physics side of what I do is related to several different areas, one of which is the search for new particles that aren’t yet described by our current models. Everyone knows the famous formula E = Mc2. That just means energy can be converted into mass and mass can be converted back into energy, with the big factor of the speed of light squared. In turn, that means that as these massive colliders get larger and larger, the energy goes up — and if the energy goes up, you can create more massive particles.

Part of my research has been the search for those particles, and another aspect has been exploring the tiny differences between matter and antimatter. Right after the Big Bang, there would have been exactly the same number of particles as antiparticles. As the universe cooled, they would slow down and the particles would have all been annihilated with the antiparticles. But something in the physics resulted in there being roughly one more out of 10 billion particles than antiparticles. So, almost all the particles and antiparticles were annihilated except for that one out of 10 billion, and the surviving particles are the matter of our current universe. If it were not for this miniscule matter-antimatter asymmetry, we would not exist.

Fleischmann:

What first drew you to this work? Was it the mathematics of it? The engineering? The mystery?

Van Kooten:

All of those things. In my career, we’ve discovered a few particles that had never been observed before. For instance, one was a particle that contained a b quark, a down quark, and a strange quark, and we’d never come across a particle with that combination before. And just think about that: we were seeing something that literally no one had ever seen before. The puzzle of the matter-antimatter asymmetry is also intriguing. So, yes, discovery and mystery are certainly a big part of it, the sheer curiosity within the field. That’s what drew me to physics, and still interests me today.

Fleischmann:

What connections exist between your research and your leadership of the College? Can you make an analogy, for instance, between your work as a physicist and the moment we’re in today?

Van Kooten:

That’s a great question. I can say that at the end of my first year as executive dean, a year during which I listened to many people and worked to earn their trust, I am particularly humbled to be working on behalf of our extraordinary community here: faculty, staff, grad students, and undergrads all represent enormous potential. The College is at the heart of this great Research-1 university, and it’s a place that’s filled with exceptional resources.

One thing that the present moment reveals is the need to continue to work collaboratively, and to draw on the work of others across the world. We have a vital home base here, and an impact that really is immeasurable in many ways. And our alumni, of course, are evidence of that.

As we work to develop abilities and solutions, we should be open to the fact that we will inevitably discover new things. We can compare what we learn to our initial predictions and adapt on the basis of that.

Raymond Fleischmann

Raymond Fleischmann is director of advancement communications for the College of Arts and Sciences and serves as the primary editor for The College magazine. He holds a B.A. in English and the Individualized Major Program from Indiana University, and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Ohio State University. His first novel, How Quickly She Disappears, was published by Penguin Random House in January 2020, and his short fiction has been published in The Iowa Review, Cimarron Review, The Pinch, River Styx, and Los Angeles Review, among many others. Reach him at rfleisch@indiana.edu or through his website raymondfleischmann.com.