Reflecting on the Tenure of the First Dean of SMFA at Tufts

As Nancy Bauer prepares to step down, she leaves a legacy of advancing art education for Tufts students amid record growth

Nancy Bauer, dean of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts (SMFA at Tufts), will step down from her role overseeing the school as well as the Tufts University Art Galleries and the university's relationship with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Announced in the spring by School of Arts and Sciences Dean James Glaser, this transition will take effect on December 31. Nate Harrison, who currently is serving as dean of the faculty for SMFA, will serve as dean ad interim of the school, effective January 1, 2022, until a permanent dean is in place.

Bauer plans to take a sabbatical to work on a book about the philosophy of higher education. She will return to Tufts as a philosophy professor, an appointment she has held for more than 20 years.

After having co-led with Glaser the process in 2015-16 by which the School of the Museum of Fine Arts became part of Tufts, Bauer was appointed to the deanship of the school in July 2016, ushering in an expansion of arts education at the university. One of the signature achievements of Bauer’s tenure has been growth in enrollment at SMFA at Tufts.

Early in her deanship, Bauer launched a new website for the school that used students' own words and artwork to convey to prospective applicants the distinctive experience of an SMFA at Tufts education. Continuing a positive trajectory from earlier in Bauer’s tenure, in the most recent admissions cycle, the school saw growth in applicants to both the Bachelor of Fine Arts program and the five-year combined degree (Bachelor of Arts or Sciences/Bachelor of Fine Arts) program—up 31% and 33%, respectively. Similarly, during a period in which independent art schools have been facing declining enrollment numbers, SMFA at Tufts has experienced 23% growth in its matriculating students.

Bauer brought the spirit of adaptability and resilience to her leadership of the school during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the pandemic necessitated the transition from in-person to online instruction, Bauer led the school in completely revisioning how to provide meaningful arts education. When studio classes became impossible under COVID circumstances, under Bauer’s direction, the school converted all of its classroom and lab spaces on both the SMFA and Medford/Somerville campuses into individual studios for students.

Bauer and the faculty also transformed the curriculum, redesigning many courses to focus on how artists adapt and respond during crises. In the Fall 2020 semester, as a practical response to the pandemic and knowing that some students might have a difficult time sourcing art supplies, SMFA studio managers purchased, packed, and shipped to every student a box containing everything they would need for their specific classes, including art supplies and access to specialized software.

Bauer also led efforts to expand the SMFA’s curriculum and intellectual range through faculty appointments, including hiring new professors of the practice. Bauer made other changes to improve both housing options and the conditions for creating artwork, including the renovation of the Beacon Street dorms in Brookline, the building of a new café in the heart of the school, and improvements to the shuttle bus system to strengthen the connections between the SMFA and Medford/Somerville campuses.

According to Glaser, Bauer played the key role in the selection of Tufts as the educational institution that would host the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Glaser credited Bauer’s understanding of the vital importance of upholding SMFA’s commitment to art-making as an intellectual, socially critical, and personally reflective process. He cited her thought leadership in building an administrative structure to support and mentor students in finding their artistic voice.

After her sabbatical, Bauer will teach courses in the School of Arts and Sciences in topics including intersectional feminist philosophy, the philosophy of art, the history of philosophy, and the philosophy of higher education. Those courses will be cross-listed with SMFA’s department of Visual and Material Studies.

“It has been a once-in-a lifetime privilege to work with and learn from the students, faculty, and staff at SMFA,” said Bauer. “I am very proud to be affiliated with such thoughtful, resilient, hardworking, and socially committed people and incredibly lucky to be able to continue to work with my SMFA colleagues once I return from my leave.”

"Nancy Bauer’s most important leadership decision was to recognize that the school’s long-time approach to art education—including review boards in lieu of grades, and numerous opportunities to learn across disciplines—was deeply meaningful and distinctive. She knew many things needed to change, but she kept what was golden,” said Glaser. “She has, as a philosopher, been a tremendous leader of an institution defined by the concept that ‘the art is in the idea.’

 “The fine arts have always been an important part of a liberal arts education. Now, thanks to Nancy’s leadership, they—and SMFA at Tufts—are an integral and innovative part of a Tufts education.”

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