Robert Kasberg grew up in the Midwest, graduating high school when the country was fractured by the war in Vietnam. College admittance in hand, he could have avoided the draft, at least for a while. Instead he chose to enlist, but not, he says, because he necessarily supported the war. “I wanted to go to Vietnam because I wanted to see for myself whether what we were doing was right or wrong,” he says.
He volunteered for the Navy Hospital Corps—“I thought I would not be killing; I would be healing”—and was assigned to a Marine unit. Although he never saw Vietnam, that youthful decision was the start of an unconventional career path, with stops in rural Filipino villages, Yale University, his hometown of Indianapolis and now, Tufts School of Dental Medicine, as associate dean of admissions and student affairs.
What connects his professional journey is a deep belief in making life better and fairer for others and in bridging borders of geography and culture. “When you try to understand people on their own terms and in their own cultural context, you come away with a deeper appreciation of who they are,” he says.
Kasberg credits his mother, and the nuns and brothers of his parochial school education, for establishing his early outlook. A key influence was the Rev. Dennis Flynn, a missionary priest whom he met when his Marine battalion was conducting war games on the island of Mindoro in the Philippines.
It was Flynn who led Kasberg to the next bend in the road—a six-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer working with tribal people on Mindoro, where he helped run health clinics and establish schools. He became fluent in two Filipino languages. “I probably learned more than I taught,” he says. “It was such a far stretch from the lily-white environment I came from. It challenged all sorts of assumptions, and I found it liberating that you can interact with people as equals in many different ways. All of our artificial divisions of ‘more advanced/less advanced; more sophisticated/less sophisticated’ are really quite ethnocentric.”
Back in the U.S., he started college at age 30 at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), and eventually earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Yale, returning to the Philippines to write his dissertation on religion, illness and healing in Filipino society. While religion and health are often regarded as radically separate domains in the West, “it’s fascinating, how those areas interact within Filipino society,” he says.
Kasberg’s original intent in choosing anthropology was a career in international development, but family circumstances brought him back to Indianapolis, where he joined the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy. Among other projects, he conducted a study on the African-American tradition of giving and serving. His findings—that the practice of helping others was so tightly woven into the African-American community that it literally “went without saying”—were pioneering.
“There was almost no literature on the subject,” he says. “Anything you wanted about this group regarding drop-out rates, incarceration rates, all the derogatory aspects of the culture, there was tons of it—but something positive, almost nothing. What we found was the tradition of giving and serving are indeed deep and meaningful and so commonplace that African Americans do not even see it as philanthropy.”
He moved into academic administration in 1996, first as assistant dean of the graduate office at IUPUI, and in 2002, as director of admissions for Indiana University School of Dentistry; he became assistant dean for student affairs there in 2005. “I loved it,” he says. “My forte was just being able to sit and listen and understand the students. I was a very strong student advocate.”
Kasberg says he tries to impress upon dental students the importance of balancing “your obligations to your work, to your family and to yourself.” As a man who has raised nine children, now ranging in age from 14 to 28, he takes that balancing act quite seriously. He has always made time to coach his kids’ teams, work with them on their studies and volunteer for the PTO. And, he notes, he does not carry a cell phone: “I give my employer and I give my family so much of my time that when I have a free moment, I want to be able to read and think.”
We sat down with Kasberg recently to talk about his experiences and his new job at Tufts.
Tufts Now: At Indiana, you worked in both admissions and student affairs. What lessons did you take from those positions?
Robert Kasberg: My job is being a student advocate and maintaining the school’s [academic and ethical] standards. That’s not an easy line to walk. I tell the students that being a student advocate doesn’t always mean doing what the students want me to do. At Indiana, my mantra was always to do what was in the student’s best interest. Sometimes that’s a difficult decision. My other mantra was never to make our standard the exception. If a school of dentistry has standards, our job is to make sure students meet those standards. Only every once in a while do you need to make an exception.
In 10 years at Indiana, those two principles served me well. I can’t say all the students liked me; I can say most respected me.
At this year’s dental commencement ceremony, you offered a few pieces of advice: take ownership of your mistakes and develop a healthy respect for doubt. Anything to add?
You have to admit when you’re wrong and be able to say “I don’t know.” Transparency is so important. If a faculty member or student comes into my office and thinks I’m holding my cards close to my chest, we’re lost. I hope people appreciate that I’m honest.
I also hope students leave here understanding the limits of what they’ve been taught. [My] Ph.D. is an accomplishment, but it’s kind of finite. That D.M.D. degree is indeed an accomplishment, but we have a thing called continuing education, and there is a reason for that. I hope our students leave here realizing that D.M.D. degree represents that they have reached competency and now are working toward proficiency. There are going to be times when they are going to have patients they don’t have an answer for, that they don’t have a treatment plan for. And hopefully, they will have a mentor or somebody they can rely upon.
What are your goals here at Tufts?
Dean Huw Thomas has given me two charges: student wellness and diversity. At Indiana, my track record on diversity was impeccable. As assistant dean at the graduate school at IUPUI, I focused on African American and Latino graduate student recruitment, and helped increase the number of African American and Latino doctoral students in biomedical science programs from one African American and no Latinos in 1997, to more than 25 by 2003. As director of admissions at Indiana’s School of Dentistry, I helped implement strategies that, by 2005, resulted in the most diverse D.D.S. student body in the history of the school, a mark we eclipsed in 2012.
I live diversity every day; my family is multiracial and multicultural. I hope to add to the wonderful diversity that Tufts already has. My focus will be more on African Americans and Puerto Rican Americans and Mexican Americans, but also on working-class white kids. I’d like to see if we could do more with kids coming from rural areas and urban areas. Dental school graduates who hail from rural or urban neighborhoods are more likely to practice in an underserved area than graduates who were raised in more affluent communities.
Wellness and mental health are issues that are kind of hard to wrap your hands around. I have an open door. I understand that everyone at times runs into some kind of adversity. No one is a superhero. Especially for guys, they’ll say, “I can work things out on my own.” At Indiana, one of my strategies was to tell them, If someone at psychological services said they were going to pull a tooth by themselves, you’d say, “No, we’re the professionals.” Just like you’re a professional at oral health, there are people who are professionals at handling emotional trauma.
What’s your advice for first-year students?
I have two pieces of advice for them: earning a dental degree is not worth sacrificing your family. If you get the degree, but go through a divorce, the price was too great. Give your spouse some sacred time, where nothing interferes. If you spend a day with your spouse, you will not flunk out of dental school.
The other is that you have a sacred duty to take care of yourself. Being in dental school does not mean you need to study 20 out of 24 hours. You are foolish if you don’t take time to decompress. For some people that means working out, listening to music, whatever helps you reenergize or relax. Make sure you carve that into your schedule. After two-and-a-half hours, the brain’s ability to take in information drastically declines anyway. Take a break; then go back to studying.
Helene Ragovin can be reached at email@example.com.