Dobkin keeps pace with faculty interests

David Dobkin

Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin pursues both his job and his hobbies with a passion. His Nassau Hall office is the site of regular lunches where he gets to know more about faculty members. And it serves as a display area for his collections of pennies (shown in background) and snow globes.

Photo: John Jameson

From the Jan. 9, 2006, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

Much of what you might want to know about David Dobkin is available on his Web site. His biography, his guiding philosophy, his legendary collection of photographs of Princeton people and even his catalog of 600 snow globes are all there at

What you won’t find, however, is an indication of the degree of care with which he approaches his job as dean of the faculty.

“He is an absolute delight to work with,” said Jeremy Adelman, chair of the Department of History. “He is so supportive of what departments try to do. I think the world of him. He’s been a terrific dean to work with for me. He’s attuned to all the issues that we have to confront about diversity and age and seniority and how to promote young people and how to think about emerging fields. He’s super responsive — I send a question to him and I get instant and helpful responses. He’s been, in my view, a superb dean — he’s sensible and thoughtful at the same time.”

Dobkin, a faculty member since 1981, became dean of the faculty in 2003 after serving as chair of the Department of Computer Science for nine years. Halfway through his five-year term as dean, Dobkin said he is finding the job interesting and fulfilling.

“My job is to be the member of the faculty who essentially is looking out for the other members of the faculty,” he said. “This brings me into contact with almost all parts of the University. You can think of the University as being two chains — there’s the academic side and there’s the business side. I’m the one on the academic side who walks over to the business side and explains us.”

Dobkin has administrative oversight of the departments and programs of instruction and is responsible for recruiting and retaining faculty members. He participates in meetings of the president’s cabinet, works closely with the president and the provost on academic initiatives and represents the faculty to the trustees’ Academic Affairs Committee. As secretary of the Faculty Advisory Committee on Appointments and Advancements, he facilitates the work of the group that oversees all faculty appointments and promotions.

Each fall, Dobkin meets with every department chair to discuss what might be coming up during the year. He’s responsible for recruiting faculty members to serve terms as chairs — during the last academic year, he had to fill 15 slots for chairs who began July 1, 2005. He also holds office hours so that faculty members can speak with him on any issues of concern.

Dobkin said his job involves many meetings and much coordination with other offices. “I describe it as, on good days, flying over a city and seeing how the parts interconnect, and on bad days, I’m under the city seeing the leaky plumbing,” he quipped.

A knack for learning

Getting that bird’s-eye view of the University is what Dobkin finds most stimulating about his work.

“There are a lot of smart people here doing really interesting things,” he said. “I come into contact with many of them. They will come in and explain to me why their discipline is important or the directions in which their discipline is going. So there is an aspect for me of the job that’s like being a freshman in college and just being able to pick and choose among all these things and hear about all of the electives that I didn’t take.”

In an effort to get to know even more about his colleagues, Dobkin began scheduling lunches every two or three weeks in his office with groups of seven faculty members from various departments. They sit around the conference table in his office and talk about what they do.

“There’s a lot of intellectual sustenance that comes from it for me,” Dobkin said. “I also think it demystifies Nassau Hall for the people who come. They come into this office and I seem like one of them.”

Dan Rubenstein, chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, said that Dobkin had a knack for learning about faculty interests and making connections even before he became dean. In 2001, Rubenstein mentioned to Dobkin his research on zebra behavior and his need to keep track of which animals were interacting. Dobkin told Rubenstein about an engineering colleague, Margaret Martonosi, who ended up helping him develop a network of wireless devices that hang from the necks of zebras and monitor their every move.

“Putting me in touch with his colleague led to the crafting of a National Science Foundation proposal that has enabled us to develop the ZebraNet tracking system for recording movements and associations of zebras and other wildlife roaming the African savannas,” Rubenstein said.

Caryl Emerson, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, said that, as a humanist, she appreciates the attention Dobkin devotes to an area of academics not closely connected to his own background. “He really listens to all sides, and is interested in how this (profoundly unscientific) sort of knowledge accumulates and enriches a life of the mind,” she said.

“He’s efficient, generous, quick-minded but slow-to-temper and, when interrupted, makes you feel like you were just the person he wanted to see,” Emerson added.

Dobkin said that the biggest challenge of his job is not being able to say yes to every wonderful idea he hears.

“Some of the things I decide to do make some people happy and some people unhappy,” he said. “There are tough situations where I feel like I have to make a decision that takes more wisdom than I have.”

When that happens, he sometimes takes a walk. “Often it’s just a matter of letting a problem stew for a few days to become comfortable with the situation,” he said.

He also seeks advice from President Shirley M. Tilghman and Provost Christopher Eisgruber, as well as from his own staff, which he describes as “very experienced in a lot of things.”

“Doing a job like this from scratch would be impossible,” Dobkin said. “Doing a job like this without a good staff would be impossible. The only way is to have good people around you.”

A return to teaching

Another way Dobkin stays in tune with faculty concerns is to continue to teach. For his first two years as dean, he concentrated on learning that job. But this year, he’s back in the classroom leading a freshman seminar he has taught before on “Sex, Money and Rock and Roll: Information Technology and Society.” The course, which he developed and co-teaches with sociologist Paul DiMaggio, examines the social issues associated with information technology, focusing on fields such as computer science, economics, law, philosophy, political science and sociology.

“The problem with this job is that you could very easily get sequestered in Nassau Hall and lose touch with what’s happening in the classroom,” Dobkin said. “One of the things I’m very conscious of is what I can do to continue to think like a faculty member and act like a faculty member. I have friends on the faculty with whom I talk to remind me where I’ve been. Teaching a freshman seminar is a wonderful way to experience it by myself.”

Freshman Sherry Zhang has been thrilled by Dobkin’s involvement in the class. “Few professors know about — let alone take the time to create a profile and add all the students in the class as his facebook friends,” she said. “Professor Dobkin is very connected to technology and to his students. Because he understands the technology we use, he knows where we’re coming from. He’s completely approachable and takes a genuine interest in his students.

“I remember the first time I went to office hours — I walked into Nassau Hall, and there was the dean of the faculty waiting to discuss my term project ideas!” she continued. “Technology, we’ve learned, can even break down student-professor barriers. All the students in his class received an e-mail that said: ‘David Dobkin has added you as a friend.’”

Zhang said one exercise Dobkin used in class was to do a Google search on each student — and then invited the students to Google him. The second entry — after one on David Dobkin, director of the recent films “Wedding Crashers” and “Shanghai Knights” — is the site Princeton’s Dobkin created when he became chair of computer science in 1994.

“One of the things that I had worked on years ago was privacy and security of computers,” he explained. “There are various approaches you can take to the whole privacy issue. One approach is to make yourself as private as possible. Another approach is to put everything that people could ever discover about you and just say, ‘Here it is. If you want to know about me, here’s everything you’d want to know so there’s no reason to search.’ I opted for the second possibility.”

Globes and blogs

Dobkin’s Web site includes a biography tracing his life from his birth in Pittsburgh to his undergraduate years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his graduate program at Harvard and his stints on the faculty at Yale and the University of Arizona before coming to Princeton.

It also features his “guiding philosophy” — a page that contains the same phrase written in several languages, but not English. The translation is: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Dobkin said he became attracted to the phrase when he was chosen to become a department chair and wasn’t sure why.

The site also is filled with pictures. “My field was computer graphics, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about images,” he said. “I just started to build Web pages and at one point I scanned in a lot of pictures that I had of my life, my kids. Then in 2000 I went on sabbatical and bought a digital camera. What you don’t see in my Web presence is the 30,000 pictures that I have on the Web in other environments. I’ve recorded a lot of my life.”

Since 2003, Dobkin also has “photo blogged” his life as dean. As he began meeting many people in his new job, he began shooting their pictures as a way to associate names with faces. Now, he always has his camera with him.

“Word gets around — people expect it when they come to see me,” he said. “I’ve had a few people who seem to only come in because they couldn’t believe their picture wasn’t up there. When I have people in for lunch, I tell them they should check out their picture on the Web and not feel bad that they weren’t invited earlier.”

Photographs are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Dobkin’s collections. “I seem to collect collections,” he admits.

There are the snow globes, a portion of which are cataloged alphabetically on the Web site. The glass enclosed depictions of everything from Moses crossing the Red Sea to a scene from the movie “Fargo” adorn a shelf in his Nassau Hall office, and also fill Timex display cases in his computer science office and his home. There are even several “do-it-yourself” snow globes filled with pictures of his family, which includes wife Suzanne, daughters Sarah and Jane and son Benjamin.

That collection is more than 20 years old. A more recent passion has been gathering and sorting pennies. It began with two coffee cans of coins left to him in the 1990s by a graduate student who didn’t want to move them to California when he finished his degree.

Dobkin originally planned to pursue the hobby with his daughters, who are now seniors in high school and college. But it’s finally taken off as a project on which he works with his 11-year-old son. They’ve been sorting by year and by mint, and have stored some 25,000 pennies in an elaborate system involving plastic tubes and gaskets that was designed by a friend.

Dobkin said that one of the pleasant surprises he’s found since becoming dean of the faculty is that the job is not as all-consuming as he feared it might be, leaving him time to spend with his family and to pursue his hobbies. “It’s often meetings all day, but it’s not meetings all night,” he said. “I had some concerns about whether I could do this and have a life, and I’ve found that I’m able to.”

As he looks ahead, Dobkin anticipates continuing to learn about the job and about Princeton.

“There are a lot of challenges in the job, a lot of things to do especially as we plan for the future of Princeton,” he said. “And, as you might have guessed, there’s figuring out how to enjoy every day and finding interesting things to do.”