By populating its faculty with academics whose research connected to science and technology, Phelan helped focus the school into a humanities and social sciences institution specifically designed to fit within the context of a technological university.
“Tom Phelan had a wonderful talent for bringing people together from diverse backgrounds and supporting them in innovative projects both on campus and in the surrounding community,” says Winner, who has been a member of the school since 1985 and currently holds the Thomas Phelan Chair. “His understanding of the ethical and spiritual dimensions of scholarship helped create academic programs in which the underlying human values are strongly emphasized.”
The school grew considerably during Phelan’s unprecedented 23-year leadership as dean. The faculty increased by 30 percent; two departments the Department of Arts and the Department of Science and Technology Studies were created; and four additional degree programs were added.
“When I arrived on the Rensselaer campus, H&SS had just completed a bold reorganization,” says Winner. “Crucial to these changes was a commitment to excellence in faculty research and its close connection to improvements in undergraduate and graduate education.”
Shortly after joining the arts department, Professor of Arts Neil Rolnick worked with his colleagues and department head Larry Kagan to develop Rensselaer’s integrated electronic arts graduate program.
“Our biggest goal was to create an academic program that set Rensselaer apart from what other schools were offering, in order to attract serious artists,” says Rolnick. “Many other universities taught different facets of electronic arts music, video art, computer imaging as separate disciplines, so our emphasis was on teaching them as different faces of the same discipline.”
Today the master of fine arts in multimedia/video communications program is ranked 6th in the nation, according to the 2008 U.S.News & World Report guide to “America’s Best Graduate Schools.” In the fall of 2007, the school admitted the first students into its new Ph.D. program in electronic arts one of only a few doctoral programs in the United States.
“The School of Humanities and Social Sciences was originally created to provide a service to Rensselaer’s engineering and science students, in the form of a core curriculum in the humanities,” says John Harrington, the school’s current dean, a position he has held since 2002. “Tom Phelan helped it to evolve into a school with the academic strength and curricular diversity to stand on its own.”