June 13, 2018

Beyond the News: Honors College Dean John Corvino comes full circle

In 1998, John Corvino found himself in a position most college graduates face — he needed a job.

While finishing his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, Corvino accepted a one-year temporary lecturer contract at Wayne State University. He didn’t know what it would lead to, but was excited he’d be gainfully employed. Twenty years later, that decision turned into a deanship. On June 1, Corvino officially became dean of Wayne State’s Irvin D. Reid Honors College. He succeeds founding Dean Jerry Herron, who led the college since 2008.

Two men talking
Stanley Shapiro (left), then director of the Honors Program, chatting with a young professor in 2000 who would eventually become dean of the Irvin D. Reid Honors College.

Corvino, 49, is no stranger to the Honors College. Upon arriving to Wayne State, he was interested in being involved with the Honors Program (precursor to the current Honors College). Through an introduction to Stanley Shapiro, former director of the program, Corvino began teaching honors students.

Corvino admits the thought of being a dean never crossed his mind back then. But as the years went by, with Corvino earning tenure in 2007 and becoming chair of the philosophy department in 2012, he began entertaining the idea. With one catch.

“When people would ask, I would tell them that the Honors College deanship was the only one I might be interested in, because it would allow me to continue to work directly with students; also, because of my own positive undergraduate experience as an honors student (at St. John’s University in New York),” Corvino said. “Lo and behold, it became an opportunity. I didn’t expect it to happen so early on in my career, but here I am.”

We recently asked Corvino about what this position means to him, his vision for the Honors College, and how he plans to connect his work as a “public philosopher” with his new role, among others.

What does it mean to you to be named dean of the Irvin D. Reid Honors College?

It’s a great honor and a delightful opportunity. I’ve been teaching honors students at Wayne State since I arrived as a philosophy professor in 1998 — long before the Honors Program became a college. These are high-achieving, gifted, hardworking students, and it’s a privilege to work with them.

Two men standing in front of cakes during a celebration.
Outgoing Irvin D. Reid Honors College Dean Jerry Herron (left) and incoming Dean John Corvino celebrate the transition.

When did you know you wanted to move into this position and why?

In one sense, it happened pretty suddenly. I had been chair of philosophy for more than five years, and I planned on returning to that role after enjoying my year-long sabbatical last year. Then Provost Keith Whitfield approached me, informed me of Jerry’s planned retirement as dean of the Honors College, and asked me if I would be willing to be considered. Given how much I enjoyed working with honors students over the years, it was hard to say no.

You have some big shoes to fill, carrying the torch from Herron. Did he pass down any words of wisdom or advice?

Jerry’s advice to me comes more by way of example than by way of words, although we’ve certainly met many times to talk about the transition. Mainly, he has demonstrated how to be a thoughtful, generous, humble leader — one who listens to his staff and his students, collaborates with his colleagues around the university, and is tirelessly engaged with the community. These are indeed big shoes to fill, and I’m grateful to have Jerry’s mentoring and support as I strive to fill them.

What is your vision for the Honors College?

The Honors College already has a strong vision in which students pursue academic excellence alongside — and by way of — deep engagement with the city and world. My plan is to carry that vision forward, working with our excellent staff to refine the details. More simply, our goal is to connect our high-achieving students with Wayne State’s world-class faculty — and then let them work their magic.

In your career you’ve been active as a “public philosopher,” largely concerning debates over same-sex marriage. How might that connect with your work as dean?

My scholarly work has largely focused on trying to create better, more productive conversations in the culture wars, and that’s something I plan to continue. Think about some of the challenges that face our city: What do we do about the growing divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots”? How do we address racial, religious, and cultural strife? How do we ensure just allocation of resources? These are not just questions for Detroit, but for our nation — indeed, for our globe. I think Wayne State is well situated to be a leader in these conversations, given our vibrant urban location, our diverse population, and our superb faculty and students.

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