Q&A with Yonatan Eyal, Director of Graduate Studies

Yonatan Eyal

Yonatan Eyal, Director of Graduate Studies

The newest addition to the Graduate School is Dr. Yonatan Eyal, who joined the team in late 2015. Previously a professor of history at the University of Toronto, Eyal moved to UC to become its first Director of Graduate Studies. In this interview, Eyal shares his plans to improve the graduate student experience, his love of the American Civil War and what he would do with $10 million.

In your own words, what do you do at the Graduate School?

I work with Dean Montrose and Associate Dean Mack  to lead and administer the Graduate School, both its strategic vision and day-to-day operations. Big-picture thinking and plotting the future of the school make up half of my role, but then the other half is just helping to make sure the trains run on time. More prosaically, I supervise office staff, develop new projects and oversee professional development initiatives.

Why did UC appeal to you as an institution?

UC is this metro area’s only research university, and that’s a fact that I don’t think is played up enough in the public mind. This institution has the mission and resources not only to educate students but also to pursue cutting-edge research and discovery. I believe in research universities specifically because they get students right into the heart of discovery, the frontiers of knowledge, whether the lab or the archive or the seminar room.

The doors are open for students to walk in, sit down with me and talk about advisors, the career search or applying for grants and fellowships.

Do you have a ritual or routine to start out your workday?

I read InsideHigherEd.com every morning. I really want to be conscious of the context in which we operate, that we are part of a larger higher education ecosystem, not just across the country but globally. Reading something like InsideHigherEd reminds you that you’re part of something larger than yourself. I believe in the university as an institution, as an entity that’s more than the sum of its parts and can bring people together to accomplish things they couldn’t individually.

What do you hope to accomplish in your position?

The main thing I’m focused on now is enhancing our professional development opportunities. Our signature program is Preparing Future Faculty (PFF), and I’m looking at ways to expand its reach and involve more students. The Graduate School isn’t just PhD students who are going to become professors: we have lots of master’s and professional students, people here who are going to be concert violinists, industrial designers, entrepreneurs. I want to help those students think through multiple future career paths.

With what issues can you help graduate students?

To me, a graduate school is the crossroads of research university, and not just an administrative crossroads. It’s not just a place to drop off forms or do petitions; it’s an intellectual crossroads where students can come with problems that transcend their colleges or home departments. The doors are open for students to walk in, sit down with me and talk about advisors, the career search or applying for grants and fellowships.

Nullification Crisis Cartoon

An editorial cartoon from the time of the Nullification Crisis

You come from an academic background in history. How did you make the leap to being an administrator?

I think that the way to look forward and to lead is to know where you’re coming from. To understand the roots of an organization is critical to understanding where the organization is going. So to me, there’s no disjunction at all. Historians are familiar with looking at the past to chart the future, and we’re familiar with how people and organizations manage change over time. I like to think historians have the perfect training for academic administration.

As a historian, why did you choose to study the American Civil War?

I fell in love with the field of American history as a junior taking AP U.S. History in high school, and I didn’t realize at the time why I loved it. I now realize that I loved 19th century culture, which is essentially Victorian culture. It’s a culture of overt sentimentality, earnestness, taking emotion in public life seriously: it’s the opposite of our culture today, which is a culture of irony, cynicism, deconstruction.

Let’s say you have a time machine that lets you go back to observe one event. When do you go?

I’d pick the Nullification Crisis of the early 1830s, when the nation came as close as it did to war before the Civil War actually happened. South Carolina tried to stand up against the federal government, president Andrew Jackson stood up against South Carolina and it looked as if there was going to be disunion and bloodshed. But for a variety of reasons, it didn’t happen. Historians are interested in what we call contingencies, the “forks in the road” where things could have gone differently. I’d love to be back in that moment and see how the crisis actually unfolded.

Thomas Cole, The Pic-Nic

"The Pic-Nic" by Thomas Cole

What is your favorite vacation spot?

Bar none, where my wife and I did our honeymoon: Edgartown, Massachusetts, a city on Martha’s Vineyard. There’s something about the New England charm, the waves, the nautical themes and the food—the lobster! Martha’s Vineyard in the summertime can’t be beat, as far as I’m concerned.

If a relative left you $10 million and you had to spend it on yourself, what would you buy?

I’d buy as many books as I want, that’s number one. But I’d definitely also buy artwork, specifically paintings. I’d love to go to a gallery and know that I could take something off the wall and bring it home. I love 19th century Romantic landscape paintings from the Hudson River School: Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Asher Brown Durand. Although I don’t think $10 million would do it for any of those!

If you could have any other job, what would it be?

I wouldn’t want any other job! This is it! For me, it’s the perfect mix of the academic and administrative. It fills all of the things I want to accomplish, all of the things I think I’m able to contribute to. I’m also teaching in the history department starting this fall, so when you add the faculty role to it, it feels like the perfect fit. I’m really being serious, in that Victorian, earnest way.

What is your favorite quotation or mantra?

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

Written by Daniel Walton, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School