Humanities for the 21st century: A conversation with incoming dean Alex Stern

Published: October 14, 2022
Jonathan Riggs | 

Alexandra Minna Stern will become UCLA’s dean of humanities on Nov. 1, succeeding David Schaberg, who has helmed the division since 2011 and will return to teaching and research full time after a sabbatical.

For Stern, who was most recently the associate dean for the humanities and the Carroll Smith-Rosenberg Collegiate Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, the move is a homecoming — she grew up in California, earned her master’s degree in Latin American studies from UC San Diego and was an assistant professor at UC Santa Cruz.

In her two decades at Michigan, Stern held academic appointments in history, women’s and gender studies, and obstetrics and gynecology. She is widely recognized as an expert on the history of eugenics, genetics, society and justice in the United States and Latin America.

As she prepares to begin her tenure, Stern spoke with us about this new chapter for her and for the division.

What does it mean to you to lead the UCLA Division of Humanities?

It is a great honor to follow in the footsteps of David Schaberg, who has managed this division with a steady hand and inspiring vision of the humanities. I’m excited to join my counterpart deans in the UCLA College and the leadership team at the university.

For me, this is both a return home to California, where lived many years before my two decades in the Midwest, and a new adventure in Los Angeles, a city where I’ve never resided but am eager to explore. I’m deeply committed to public higher education, and I can’t imagine a better place to pursue transformational work than UCLA.

I look forward to getting to know the university community as I represent and advocate for the humanities on campus and beyond. Coming from Michigan, it will be quite an experience to morph from Wolverine to Bruin!

What qualities of the division do you feel make it unique and impactful?

UCLA Humanities is an extraordinary division with a talented, diverse faculty whose research encompasses a wide range of topics, chronologies, regions and approaches. The division is very interdisciplinary, which has allowed it to lead in many areas, including urban humanities and digital humanities. By virtue of being located in a vibrant and polyphonic city, humanities at UCLA has been public-facing, contributing to and benefiting from an amazing artistic, cultural and creative milieu. The full breadth of UCLA’s humanities appeals greatly to me and resonates with my vision of engaged humanities in the 21st century.

What are your top priorities as dean?

My priorities will evolve over time as I familiarize myself with the humanities community and the university as a whole. Generally speaking, I’ll seek to maintain strength in longstanding areas and energize new initiatives. For example, I want to ensure the viability of global languages, including less commonly taught languages, and build capacity for experimental programs such as health humanities and disability studies.

As a fierce advocate for the humanities, I welcome the opportunity to demonstrate their relevance to the pressing questions of humanity, society, democracy and culture today. I’m keen to support the entire humanities community — students, staff, faculty and alumni — and to work together toward shared goals, retaining my signature optimism without overlooking the serious challenges faced by the humanities in academia in our current moment.

What keeps you inspired and passionate about your work and field?

Much of my research has focused on the history and legacy of eugenics, especially in California, and I’m actively involved in projects related to reproductive justice and injustice, reparations and memory today. The lab I founded, the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab — which will now most likely be based at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics — works with California state agencies to help verify sterilization survivors who are eligible for monetary compensation through a recently approved program, and it collaborates with activists and scholars on anti-eugenics projects that are community-based and guided by the tenets and goals of social justice. I remain passionate about my research; it is rewarding when it contributes to addressing past historical harms and contemporary social inequities.

Is there a little-known fact about yourself we could share?

I spent much of my early 20s living in San Francisco and reading poetry at the Cafe Babar at 22nd and Guerrero, and that kind of creative energy sustains me to this day. Unfortunately, I have lost most of the poems I wrote during that raucous and heady period of my life. I frequently turn to poetry, in English and Spanish, for intellectual and emotional nourishment because of my love of language, metaphor, cadence and its irresistible sublimity.

What’s your favorite advice to share with students and others?

I believe active listening and humility can go a long way. Wherever or however we step into academia, we should strive to be lifelong learners. For me, leadership is less about giving advice and more about modeling and enacting empathy and advocacy within an interdependent and generative community.

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