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Monaco.

News & Features | September 27, 2011

Louise Blavet

This September, President Anthony Monaco finally became a part of our campus—our weird but awesome blend of some of the most academically unique and diverse university students in the country. This is our new leader, the man who will be the emblem of everything that Tufts’ amalgamation of student voices seems to say when blended together. So far, all contact between President Monaco and the student body had been through e-mail, newsletters from the presidential search committee and fairly frequent Twitter updates, so we were all excited to finally meet the man we’d been hearing about for so long in person.

When the “Tufts Observer” spoke with President Monaco during the first week of classes, we heard the voice of a brilliant biological geneticist, the voices of the financially minded trustees, the voice of seasoned academic administrator, and the voice of his PR agent—the voice we didn’t hear was our own.

President Monaco didn’t hesitate when asked in what direction he hoped to take Tufts in the years to come. “I’d like to build on the strong foundation that has been laid over the last 10 years,” President Monaco told us. “Teaching is very valued. The research program has grown and a lot more faculty are involved in research. The research in our schools, particularly our professional schools, is now very much up there in the international rankings. And so I would like to see those two things come together and have a bigger impact on society.”

One fact is obvious: President Monaco is incredibly smart. He speaks with poise and a fierce intellect that is both impressive and reassuring. He served as director of Oxford’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, where he focused on identifying the biological basis of common human diseases. When asked what his greatest achievement has been thus far, he calmly answered, “Being able to work on a project everyone thought was impossible. Trying to isolate the first gene for a human inherited disorder when you didn’t know the defective protein…It was not only an intellectual challenge, but a physical one as well.”

“When I first was introduced to neuroscience, I just thought it was amazing that you could understand human behavior and its problems based on an understanding of the brain and its different parts that each contribute to regulating behavior,” President Monaco told us. “To me, that was what was beautiful about neuroscience.

Now, I understand you can’t just be reductionist about it. What we’re trying to do is understand molecules and pathways and networks. It’s about how they’re connected. That’s what really fascinated me about neuroscience.”  His eyes light up while he is saying this. He is speaking quickly and with a passion that, as an English major, I must admit I don’t understand but can still totally relate to. Maybe we can also look at Tufts as one large brain; we all do different things here and see the world in diverse ways, and, at the end of the day, what is beautiful is what connects us: we are one large, functioning unit working towards a greater goal than our own individual pursuits. Now that President Monaco has finally assumed his place here, it’s his turn to see how he can connect us all in that same way.

Here is where things get a little slippery. Yes, President Monaco is informed and intelligent. Yes, he is a brilliant scientist and an able administrator, having served as Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Planning and Resources at the University of Oxford. He has a clear demonstrated knowledge of what it means to lead an academic institution. What we didn’t gain from the interview, however, was a clear concept about his vision for student life and his ideas about the relation between the Office of the President and the Tufts student body. When asked about improvements to undergraduate life, he was quick to throw up the “hot button issues” we’ve been hearing about for months.

“I have several priorities for undergraduate life… I feel that we have major issues of diversity to continue to deal with. As you may have seen in my ‘Community Message,’ I hope to chair a diversity council so that we can bring in views from the different schools… and try to come up with some thoughtful recommendations… and let those recommendations be put out for consultation and comment on and try and improve on.

“I’m also concerned with the issues related to alcohol abuse and intoxication in the undergraduate population. As you know, at the Fall Ball we had 11 transports, which is not something that creates a lot of Jumbo Pride for me… I think I’m going to need to put in a lot of energy in this space.”

President Monaco’s head is in the right place. He is concerned with diversifying faculty and bringing the best resources possible to the university in order to improve its international academic reputation. He has a profound respect for the mind and everything it is capable of. However, when it comes to us, the students, he seems to be relatively unenthused.

We are looking for something concrete to hold on to. We want to know that our president is out there fighting for us, understanding our problems, and fully enveloping himself in our world. Granted, this was a half-hour interview during the first week of classes, but the lack of warmth or interest in who we are or what we do was a little bit unnerving. Grand and sweeping propositions about “diversity councils,” narrowing “gaps in education,” and bolstering our “international and global perspective through global leadership” are all great ideas but are a little empty in substance.

What President Monaco failed to show us was an enthusiasm for the student body as a whole. Several times, when asked about how he feels about undergraduate Tufts population, President Monaco used phrases such as “diverse,” “active citizenship,” “engaged,” and “high caliber.” These are empty sound bites. We’ve heard these phrases before—many times. What we want to hear is that a real and sincere passion has a place within the Office of the President.

We wanted to see beyond the academic. We wanted to get to know Tony Monaco. What is you greatest fear, we ask, hoping to see the more personal side of this scientific brain. “I guess my greatest fear is that you’re giving a talk somewhere, and you show up, and you try to get the slides loaded, and the whole thing fails, that every single audio-visual just doesn’t work. Everything is a failure, and you’re sitting there frustrated.”

Do you have a favorite writer, we ask. “I haven’t thought about it, to be honest,” he replies. Or a favorite book? No response. What about a favorite scientist, we press further. “I’m just not the type of person that goes around thinking of my favorite things all day,” he replies, frustrated. Just to clarify, we weren’t looking for a list; we aren’t publishing an article titled “President Monaco’s Favorite Things.” We are searching for something within the new president that would illuminate him beyond the publicity blitz and formal emails. Instead, it was all business.

President Monaco is focused and driven. He is smart and intellectual. He is pragmatic and has a clear idea about what an academic institution needs in order to sustain itself in an ever-changing world. However, in the brief amount of time we spent with him, we got the sense that we were talking to a man who was struggling to relate to the Tufts student body on any sort of personal level. We know about all the issues. We know about diversity problems, funding difficulties, international reputation and academic caliber. We can read about all of these things in an email, or a newsletter, or an article. What we want is the reassurance that the man at the frontlines of dealing with all of these issues can discuss them with us—openly and candidly. What we need is someone who can talk about his interests and values with the student body he represents.

So here we are in this great big place. Tufts is overflowing with activity. Everything is kicking off. Freshman are excited and nervous about entering college, starting classes, making friends, discovering who they are. Seniors are anxious and thrilled about what’s to come, the last year of it all, finding a real job, and figuring out exactly what a Tufts degree is going to mean for their future selves. It is precisely in times like these, the times when you aren’t sure what to do or who you are or how a Tufts degree is going to figure into your future sense of identity, that you look to the person who will come to represent Tufts in years to come. You need to know that person stands with you.

“One of the values of a liberal arts degree is that you understand things in the social sciences, you understand the humanities, you understand communication and media, and you’ve taken some sciences and I think that still a very important skill set,” said President Monaco, discussing what, in fact, that Tufts liberal arts degree really means. “It’s also how to critically analyze things in this area, how to be innovative in solutions, how to work together in groups of people to try to get solutions to problems.”

The president of Tufts has the ability  to create such a significant impact on our lives during these four short years we spend on this campus. Though the position might seem removed from us at times, that office is a powerful one. Not only does the president of Tufts don the hat of chief fund raiser, public figurehead, and academic visionary, he sets the tone for everything that takes place on this campus—from the deans’ offices, to staff meetings, and academic planning, to social life, parent involvement and alumni support.

As a student-operated and student-focused publication, we had hoped to have a discussion on a different level with the president—one that provided us with a little more insight into the man, rather than the office. We don’t need the sales pitch. We need to be reassured that the man behind the big mahogany desk is someone that can relate to us on the most basic level.

President Monaco is in a unique position at the moment: most of us haven’t met him or heard him speak, and over the course of the next few months, many opinions will be formed around him through his actions and words. We are all expectantly waiting, and excited to let President Monaco show us who he is. We are nothing if not minds to shape and hearts to mold and would love nothing more than to weave the new president into our own Tufts identities. We are Tufts students and we are young and passionate and we are in love with this place. We just want to know who he is and know he’s on our side—that he’s just as in love with Tufts as we are.