New CAL Dean Kelland Thomas on the importance of the interdisciplinary

After a yearlong selection process following the leave of Lisa Dolling, the College of Arts and Letters officially named Dr. Kelland Thomas as its new dean in March. Currently associate director of the University of Arizona’s School of Information and director of the school’s Creative Computing Lab, Thomas is in the midst of “a big transition” for him and his family, moving cross-country to our community. In a call from Tuscon, Arizona he discussed the initiatives at his present workplace, his newfound relationship with Stevens, and his thoughts on the vitality of creative thinking.

While his background is primarily in the performing arts, with a Doctorate in Saxophone Performance and a Master’s degree in Music Theory from the University of Michigan, Thomas had a persistent interest in computing from his formative years during the first wave of personal computing. Throughout his time at Arizona, he took computer science courses, gaining a bachelor’s degree in the process, which “rekindled [his] passion to find ways to combine [his] musical interest and performing career with technology… interactive electronics, and computational power behind it.”

This became a common motif in his career path; joining the university’s School of Information: Science, Technology, and the Arts, the school gives students “a background in… computational thinking and doing but with applications across disciplines.” Additionally, he’s currently directing the aforementioned Creative Computing Lab, a hub for interns, students, and postdoctoral research “doing various projects related to how we can use computing power and programming to develop creative applications, whether it’s visual arts, virtual reality, [or] music and sound.”

Thomas is also a co-investigator in research funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The project’s intent is to “explore how computers and humans can collaborate and communicate,” with his work focusing on “developing an artificially intelligent, autonomous system that will communicate with the human musician.” “MUSical Improvising Collaborating Agent (MUSICA),” in collaboration with individuals from University of Illinois and Oberlin College, received a $2.3 million research grant and aims to “pass a musical Turing test, where a musician would recognize what the computer is doing. In response, that behavior should be [contextually] related to what the human is doing [like] how two musicians have a ‘conversation’ whilst playing.”

This kind of cross-disciplinary interplay is what Thomas notes as “akin to what [he has] seen at CAL” and likely had a large role in the department’s choice for their new dean. The College of Arts and Letters had contacted him about applying for the position, and, while it wasn’t on Thomas’s “radar,” upon further research he found CAL to be “an exciting take on the liberal arts” and the prospect of “directing a unit and helping further [the school’s] vision” equally as exciting. Regarding his plans for when he gets to Stevens, Thomas remarked that he will be “the new guy,” planning to “listen to all of what the faculty… administrators and students say and find out what the strengths are [of the department,] find out what can be improved and taken to the next level.” He intends to “work with those vested people” to “collaboratively develop an exciting vision for CAL’s future.”

When asked if the academia has a role in fostering an arts culture on campus, Thomas made a point to say that he “would want to be the kind of administrator who helps create a more prosperous culture of the arts and humanities, critical thinking, and global perspectives across [Stevens],” believing that “CAL would be a force for that kind of intellectual and cultural moment on campus,” and expressed wanting to “develop those kind of initiatives that will help CAL increasingly be a presence.”

Those initiatives, promoting an arts-centric mindset to a majorly STEM (educational ideals based on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) environment like Stevens, and the relationship between the two became points of considerable deliberation talking to Thomas; when asked about ways STEM and the liberal arts could meaningfully interact, he made a point to say there seems to be a “false dichotomy” between the two, noting “the most serious and successful artists [he knows] are just as rigorous in their inquiry as scientists” — the difference being, “the artists… [are] not necessarily proving or disproving hypotheses but they’re investigating a space… with the same kind of rigor [and] the same intellectual probing” that scientists engage in. He reiterated how “we’re already living in a work landscape where critical thinking and creative problem solving are… necessary to strive and thrive in being successful in almost any field,” with efforts like STEAM— STEM programs integrating the arts like the upcoming pre-college summer programs to be offered on campus— acting as pointers to this shift.

“Interdisciplinary may seem like a buzzword, but when you get deeply into several disciplines,” citing his work with computer science and music, Thomas believes “that’s when you get to see how powerful it can be to have different people working together… to solve problems that haven’t been thought of yet… and do the kind of work that advance our understanding of technology interacting with ourselves and nature.”

Dr. Kelland Thomas will start as the new dean for the College of Arts and Letters on June 1st of this year. He “[looks] forward to finding ways to serve our culture” as well as “being a Duck and contributing to the wider community.” Those looking to participate more in the College of Arts and Letters can attend their upcoming hosted lectures: “Maintenance and Modernity — Some Reflections” with speaker David Edgerton in Motion 324 at 4 p.m. on April 18, “Clean Water — Water Everywhere?” with a panel discussion in EAS 222 also at 4 p.m. on April 18, and “Personal Identity and Narrativity” with speaker Jakub Čapek in Babbio 320 at 4 p.m. on April 21.