After the members of a search committee at the Teagle Foundation began hunting for a new president, they realized that the best candidate was on the committee.
The members persuaded Judith R. Shapiro, an influential educator and administrator, to switch from searcher to candidate, and then unanimously chose her to lead the foundation, which supports undergraduate arts and sciences. She will assume her new post in New York on July 1.
Ms. Shapiro has been on the foundation's Board of Directors since November 2009, a few months before the current president, Richard L. Morrill, took office.
Until she became a presidential candidate at the foundation, she says, she was a "happily retired person, doing some teaching" at Barnard College, where she is a president and professor of anthropology emerita. "But it did seem, as time went on, that it'd be a very interesting thing to do. So when they really wanted me to do it, I said yes."
Advocating for the arts and sciences is what Ms. Shapiro is ideally suited to, says Andrew Delbanco, a professor in the humanities at Columbia University who is on the Teagle board: "Judith is astute, witty, hard to fool, and an educator through and through," he says, via e-mail. "The Teagle Foundation is extremely lucky to have her as its new leader at a time when all who believe in liberal education can use all the friends they can get."
Indeed, as Ms. Shapiro takes office, arts-and-sciences education is facing renewed criticism for underemphasizing job preparedness. Ms. Shapiro has a ready response to that: "It has been said again and again that the liberal arts provide skills that are in fact vocationally helpful when job structures are what they are becoming. People get tired of hearing that, but it's true."
She argues that the goals of increasing graduation rates and job attainment need not deplete the number of students pursuing a liberal education. Those goals should be advanced, instead, by considered approaches to teaching—and by energetic sharing of the best methods to improve results. Her activities since not really retiring have included teaching in the Reacting to the Past project, which began at Barnard in the late 1990s. The project's pedagogy centers around students playing elaborate historical games, informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. The method has been adopted by more than 300 institutions.
That approach is an example of the benefits of collective action, says Ms. Shapiro. Teagle has backed the project in keeping with its strategic use of the resources of a midsize foundation—"one that has had an influence far beyond the size of grants it's been able to make," as she puts it.
Over the years, Teagle has emphasized assessment of student learning and pedagogy. Ms. Shapiro says she will focus on curriculum revision, particularly how successful approaches developed at one institution can be disseminated to others. Faculty members understand the value of sharing the results of other research, she says, "but they've been resistant to doing it in teaching. We'll try to foster change in that attitude."
Leading the Teagle Foundation will bring together several strands of Ms. Shapiro's career. She was Barnard's president from 1994 to 2008 after eight years as provost of Bryn Mawr College. She has taught anthropology, with a specialization in the indigenous peoples of the Amazon Basin, since her first faculty appointment at the University of Chicago in 1970. She has been president of the American Ethnological Society and is a member of the Presidents Council of the University of the People, an international, tuition-free online institution.
Her plans at the Teagle Foundation sound like the work of several years. But she says she is unlikely to remain in the job as long as, say, a decade, as she is already 71, albeit highly engaged through advising nonprofits, teaching, and much else.
"In any case," she says, "my dog would divorce me."