Dean Valerie Gray Hardcastle: 'I Am a Die-Hard Optimist'

For her 16th birthday, she received a copy of "The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul," by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett.

On Sept. 4, 2007, Valerie Gray Hardcastle begins her tenure as the 20th dean of McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.

The timeless, soul-searching book, a gift from her father, turned out to be a fortuitous find at many levels – and a glimpse at where her own "I" could and would take her.

"Right then and there I decided that I wanted to do what they did for a living – I couldn't believe you could think and write about such topics and get paid for it!" said the widely published Hardcastle, a nationally recognized scholar in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science.

And she still feels that way: Hardcastle is, she said, "fascinated by the larger questions in our world – I want to understand our universe and our place in it."

"I have a strongly scientific orientation to those questions probably because of my family background," she said. "My dad was a physicist, my mom a computer scientist. I have a sister who is an astronaut at NASA with a PhD in space physics and another sister who is an MD and on the faculty at Johns Hopkins Medical School. My brother also works at the University of Houston in the policy and procedures office, so none of us fell too far from the family tree. I've been extremely gratified by the reception my work has received over the years."

Hardcastle comes to McMicken from Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, where she most recently served as associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Her distinguished history at Virginia Tech, dating to 1992, includes positions as professor of philosophy, head of Science & Technology in Society and director of the graduate program in Science and Technology Studies.

"Virginia Tech has been extremely good to me over the years," she said. "They raised me from a pup, and they gladly gave me many opportunities for professional growth. I will remain indebted to them for a long, long time."

Raised in Houston, Texas, Hardcastle earned a PhD in philosophy and cognitive science at UC San Diego in 1994.

"My father and uncle were both college instructors, and both my grandmothers were schoolteachers, so I really just joined the family business," she said. "My father was also an administrator in higher education – dean of two different colleges, chancellor, vice president for academic affairs, and president; all at the University of Houston – so it probably isn't too much of a surprise that I am following his footsteps."

Hardcastle's research has been focused on understanding the nature and structure of interdisciplinary theories in cognitive science, and developing a philosophical framework for understanding conscious phenomena responsive to neuroscientific and psychological data.

Several factors, she said, led her to seek the McMicken dean's role. A Taft Fellow in the philosophy department from 1998 to 1999, Hardcastle said McMicken "already felt like home to me – a comfortable place to be and work."

"I wanted to switch to working at an urban research university, since I believe urban areas are where universities will have the greatest impact in the 21st century," she said. "I saw UC as a place on the move, with an exciting new president who has a well-specified vision that I wholeheartedly embraced.

"I also believe that McMicken College is an outstanding college with an outstanding faculty, but that it is also kind of a hidden gem. I could see how I could help push McMicken more into the center of people's radar screens, as it were. And I also believe that McMicken is on the verge of tremendous growth and development and I wanted to be a part of that."

Philosophy department head John Bickle has known Hardcastle professionally and personally since the mid-1990s. They were, Bickle said, both members of the "second generation of neurophilosophers," with graduate training in both philosophy and the cognitive and brain sciences. Hardcastle has, he said, "a deserved reputation for having a 'take-no-prisoners' intellectual style."

"What is really impressive about Valerie's work is its scope and range," he said. "I mean, she can argue with people like me about the philosophical consequences of cellular neurophysiology and molecular neuroscience for our overall picture about what the mind is and how it works, and then turn around and talk about the impact of psychiatric treatments on persons' senses of selfhood.

"The key is, she knows the relevant science and she knows how to connect the scientific details up with perennial problems of philosophy: mind-body, nature of self, consciousness, and even legal and moral responsibility."

The great thing about having Hardcastle come in as dean of A&S, Bickle added, is "that she'll bring these interdisciplinary talents to the leadership of our college."

"Nobody in any discipline should be worried about being left out – exactly the opposite, in fact," he said. "Val knows firsthand both what unites and what separates the major academic disciplines. More importantly, she appreciates the unique contributions that each discipline makes to our rational understanding of who we are, the world around us, and how the two combine. She'll be a fighter for A&S, also."

Bickle finds Hardcastle an ideal successor to Dean Karen Gould, whom he admired greatly.

"I foresee successful times ahead for McMicken College, not to mention for the philosophy department that Val will also be joining," Bickle said. "With her addition, there now aren't too many graduate programs in the world where a student can get the kind of training in philosophy of cognitive science, and philosophy of the life sciences generally, that they'll get at UC."

What does Hardcastle see herself bringing to McMicken?

"I think my greatest strength is as a big thinker – I can usually see the forest for the trees, which can be important, since most people's jobs require that they stay focused down on the leaves of the trees the majority of the time," she said. "I'm also a very strategic and practical person, which means I can generally find a way to help people get what they want or need, though I don't always take the obvious route to doing so. Finally, I am a die-hard optimist."

And she still, she said, learns from students, faculty and staff – "about everything, great and small. Other people, their reactions, and their ideas are our greatest assets."

A departmental perspective on the world, Hardcastle explained, is "very different from an individual faculty member's perspective and a college perspective is something different again, as is the university perspective."

"To be a good administrator, it is important to be able to move between these different perspectives easily and to recognize that no perspective is more 'correct' than any of the others," she said. "There are many ways of looking at the same issue and all can be equally valid."

Away from campus, look for Dean Valerie Gray Hardcastle to be involved in the pursuit of the physical as well as the philosophical. Look quickly, however!

"I'm an amateur runner, triathlete, and body-builder, believe it or not," she said. "Though I think I competed in my last sanctioned (natural) body-building show this past November, I'm sure I will continue to lift, and I'll compete in local 5k or 10k races and regional triathlons. I'm really not very fast, but I enjoy the activities very much anyway."

And cheering her on will be a family who has "always believed in me and what I can do."

"Beyond higher education and amateur sports, I am a mother to three wonderful children. They are my most important activity," said the proud mom of Kiah, 16, Cheshire, 15, and Quinn, 12. "My children are just great; I think they've grown up believing that moms are permanently attached to word processors and that college campuses are really just large backyards. My partner Jim (Benton) is my greatest ally. He's never been anything except unconditionally supportive, even if it means moving from his longtime home to a place he's never been before."

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