New WCA Dean prepared to ‘hit the ground running’

In July, Westminster College of the Arts (WCA) will welcome its new dean, Dr. Matthew Shaftel. Currently the associate vice president of academic affairs at Florida State University (FSU), he focuses on student success and acts as the director of FSU’s new general education initiative. In the midst of preparing for a move from Tallahassee to New Jersey and familiarizing himself with the Rider community, Shaftel spoke with The Rider News about his transition process and hopes for the future.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Shaftel: My career has really been devoted to what I would call creating ecologies of learning. Learning doesn’t just take place in a classroom. When I was 13 years old and living with my middle-class family in Tucson, Arizona, I told my parents, “Hey, guess what? I want to go to boarding school.” They thought I had lost my mind.
I ended up going to boarding school, and during my first year, I lived with my music theory teacher. It was the experience of living with my teacher and a group of six other students that showed me how learning can transcend the boundaries of the classroom.
On my very first day of school during my undergraduate education at Yale, I found out there was a policy where if you had multiple students invite a professor to lunch, that professor could eat for free. My friend and I invited our music theory professor to lunch, and that professor became my undergraduate mentor, graduate mentor, and my Ph.D. adviser. Later on, we wrote a book together.
For me, there’s never a boundary. The classroom is only one of many places where learning happens — and the arts are all about community. There’s nothing if there isn’t community.

Q: What do you do in your position at Florida State University?

Shaftel: My title is associate vice president of academic affairs, but that doesn’t tell you much about who I am. The first thing I did as an administrator at FSU was starting an annual music festival in Northern Italy. We would have classes, rehearsals, and eight concerts together within four weeks. It wasn’t long after that that I took over the music living community at FSU, and I developed a mission that was focused on community engagement, both inside and outside of the FSU community.
About four years ago, I moved into central administration, and I was asked to lead the redesign of our general education curriculum. When we first met, the committee just wanted to make a few changes, but I suggested that we should think about what we want our graduates to be when they leave FSU. Life-long learning, critical thinking, oral and written communication, information fluency, and cultural engagement make up the cornerstone of education, and these things are close to my heart.

Q: What appealed to you about taking a position at Rider University?
Shaftel:  I am so honored to be able to serve Rider/WCA at this time. WCA has an incredible and unique history since being founded in the 1920s, and the connection between Rider and WCA is so positive. There are so many pieces that are in play, and they make WCA really robust. Bringing our voices together into “one choir” to move forward with that same commitment to excellence. This is an opportunity to keep moving Rider’s quality tradition into a future of excellence, and I am excited to work with world-class faculty and students with so much potential.

Q: How have the arts been a part of your life?

Shaftel: I have been a musician pretty much forever. I was heavily involved in musical theater. I have also been a choir director, and I have directed music at two different churches for the last 20 years. I was a singer before becoming a music theorist and I have performed in operas. Music and theater are part of my own DNA and my family’s DNA too. I have to say that I am a lousy dancer, though. I took ballet in high school and I think the only reason they allowed me to stay is because they needed boys. However, I have a tremendous love for dance. I also love contemporary art, and my children and I schedule trips around particular museums. They helped me plan a trip to NYC last year because they had been to every Guggenheim museum except the NYC one.

Q: How are you preparing for your position at Rider before starting in July?

Shaftel: I’m reaching out to everyone I can and making phone calls. I have three trips scheduled, and I’m collecting books and information. There’s a terrific book by one of our alumni about Westminster Choir College that I just ordered and I’m excited to dive into it. I have been having regular conversations with the associate deans, the provost and the staff. I also would like to meet with as many faculty members as possible before I start. I want to be ready to hit the ground running. I don’t want get in and spend a long time trying to figure out what’s going on. I like to stay on top of things from day one, so I’m working very quickly. I also have to sell my house — I’ve only known I’m coming to New Jersey for about 10 days now. We’re already getting ready to settle down and we already visited schools in the area for our three kids, who are 16, 14 and 12. “Energizer Bunny” is the name of the game. It has been a fun process, thinking about what the next step will be.

Q: How do you feel about encouraging unity between the Lawrenceville and Princeton campuses?

Shaftel: It’s a critical priority, and a lot of students and administrators agree. It’s something I’m really aware of, and I think it will be an exciting and fun challenge. It seems to me that everyone is ready for it, and everyone is hungry for that connection. There are so many ways to function together. We will think of a lot of solutions to make that connection easier, and that is a really important part of what I will be doing at Rider.

Reporting by Gianluca D’Elia

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