Expanding Horizons


Rick Van Kooten headshot
Rick Van Kooten, incoming executive dean of the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences

From childhood on, the College’s new executive dean knew he was a scientist. Now schooled in many disciplines, he brings a deep commitment to faculty and students to his new role.

Rick Van Kooten, who becomes executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in July, knows exactly what he liked about his previous position as vice provost for research for Indiana University Bloomington.

“The fantastic thing about that job,” he says, “is that you work with researchers from all across campus. And when you ask them about their research, their eyes light up and they go on a half-hour tear. That’s why I’ll really miss that job.”

But there is a consolation: as executive dean, Van Kooten, who has always loved to teach, expects that he’ll get to spend more time with students and so will see the same light in their eyes when they discuss their studies.

Van Kooten’s eyes light up too when he discusses his own field, particle physics. It’s true that his work is hard to explain, since the vocabulary involves b quarks and the Higgs boson particle that are studied on equipment like hadronic colliders.

But Van Kooten has learned how to make his work sound very intriguing indeed. For example b quarks sound far lovelier when he explains that among European physicists the “b” stands for “beauty.” (Sadly, among American physicists the “b” stands merely for “bottom.”)

He readily admits that his research exploring the tiny difference between matter and antimatter has no practical application—aside from possibly one day answering that nagging little question: Why do we exist? But purely “curiosity-driven inquiry” like his does have spin-offs.

“While spin-offs aren’t what justify our research, they are very, very important,” Van Kooten says, citing the case of the World Wide Web, which was invented in a building next to the one he worked in while he did postdoctoral research at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva. “We just used the web as a convenient way to share information with the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center,” he says. “The very first sports website in the world was the one for the CERN softball team. It tracked statistics like players’ batting averages.”

Stanford is important to Van Kooten because he did his graduate work there. A Canadian by birth, he earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto. His Dutch parents emigrated to Canada after World War II in the atmosphere of warm appreciation for the Canadian troops who liberated the Netherlands.

“I was a weird little kid,” Van Kooten admits, one who always knew he would grow up to be a scientist. He had both a microscope and a chemistry set and collected ostracods (tiny crustaceans one millimeter in size that live in pond water). “For two years, I had a collection of them in pond water on the window shelf in the sun in my bedroom,” he says.

“I was a weird little kid,” Van Kooten admits, one who always knew he would grow up to be a scientist.

But Van Kooten’s interests have never been solely confined to the sciences. Another reason he’s relished his past four years as vice provost, he says, is that “I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the campus and it’s opened my horizons.”

Off campus, he’s an enthusiastic gardener, who raises Japanese maples, unusual conifers, and niwaki, stylized dwarf trees, like bonsai, that grow in the ground instead of in containers.

And he’s a cyclist, who is extremely proud of his daughter, an IU alumna who rode twice on the winning Little 500 team. It’s not just because of her cycling record, though, that Van Kooten calls her a “poster child for the College.” At IU she majored in both economics and history and took part in the Liberal Arts and Management Program (LAMP), the undergraduate certificate program that combines the study of the liberal arts at the College with management courses at Kelley.

As executive dean Van Kooten wants to foster more programs like LAMP that will attract both College majors and non-majors who want to combine liberal arts and professional studies. He’s also interested in exploring on-line degree programs, though he’s quick to emphasize that any new programs must not compromise the College’s intellectual integrity. “We can’t sell our souls just to make more money. We have to create programs in a balanced, thoughtful way.”

He hopes that increasing revenues and enrollments will allow departments to fulfill the ambitions they’ve outlined in their strategic plans: “We can’t ignore the fact that departments are in the best position to determine their direction,” he says.

And he’d also like to emphasize research by increasing graduate student stipends and by encouraging the growth of programs like the Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Experience (ASURE) and the Science, Technology, and Research Scholars (STARS) program, which allow undergraduates to get involved in research from the beginning of their studies.

Whatever he does, Van Kooten is here to stay. As he jokes, “I didn’t call myself a true Hoosier until my daughter was on the winning Little Five team.” And he’s got all those trees to tend.