Georgetown College is thrilled to welcome Dean Christopher S. Celenza, a scholar of Renaissance history and early European scholarship who has been an exemplary leader in both academic and administrative capacities at Johns Hopkins University.
July 6, 2017 — This week, Georgetown College celebrates the arrival of its newest Dean in former Johns Hopkins University faculty member and administrator Christopher S. Celenza.
Celenza has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in multiple professional settings, academic disciplines, and countries. He has held important roles both as a teacher and as an administrator; his a unique perspective on both historical and modern academia that will be invaluable as he leads Georgetown’s oldest and largest school.
Here, we review Celenza's career, what excites him about coming to the Hilltop, and how he thinks about the future.
Celenza was always a naturally curious student with a passion for history. But it was as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Albany — where he’d go on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history — that he first realized a career in academia was the right path for him.
In a class taught by Renaissance historian John Monfasani, Celenza found one day that a difficult 15th-century text he had been poring over suddenly made perfect sense.
“I just got something about the text that had eluded me to that point,” Celenza said. “It was something so exciting to me — something new and interesting that I could do.”
From there, Celenza was hooked. He listened eagerly to his professor’s stories about his work in vast libraries like the Vatican’s, filled with ancient manuscripts. Seeking out more opportunities to learn about the history of European scholarship, he soon arrived at Duke University to complete a Ph.D. in history. The close direction of the late Ronald G. Witt, his professor and thesis advisor, helped Celenza develop a vision for how he would live out his career.
“He combined the life of a scholar with life outside the classroom. He did things not just about research, but also about living a life,” Celenza said of his mentor. “He was a really meaningful model for me.”
While dedicated to living a balanced life, Celenza was also ambitious. He was soon pursuing a second doctorate — this time a Dr.phil. in classics from the University of Hamburg in Germany.
“I realized I had a lot of catching up to do,” Celenza said. “I was interested in and stimulated by these subjects based on my undergraduate experiences, but there was so much more to learn.”
While pursuing his second doctorate, he was hired to teach history at Michigan State University. He would stay at MSU in an assistant or associate professor role for nine years, even while completing his doctoral studies. His time at MSU culminated with his taking a position as the university’s associate chair for graduate studies, his first administrative role. In 2005, Celenza moved to Baltimore to join the faculty at Johns Hopkins University.
At JHU, Celenza held diverse positions across the departments of history, German, Romance languages and literatures, and classics. He helped found the Charles Singleton Center for the Study of Premodern Europe, and before long he traversed back across the Atlantic — this time directing the prestigious American Academy in Rome.
Celenza counts his years in Rome as among the most significant experiences of his career. The city’s large community of diplomats and international educators provided a fascinating backdrop, and the administrative challenges that accompanied running an international organization presented opportunities for professional growth. But what stuck with Celenza most were his lessons from everyday life in the academy.
“There, for the first time, I saw a polyphony of people all across different fields — not just only from the humanities, but visual artists, architects, composers, writers. And the magic wasn’t just that people were there doing work, but that we were living and eating together,” he said. “That’s something I hoped to bring back — that power of presence.”
Celenza’s return to Hopkins from his time in Rome brought opportunities for challenging and rewarding academic administration experience. He was named Chairman of the classics department in 2014, then Vice Dean for Humanities and Social Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences. After a year of managing the details of faculty hiring, he was tapped to become the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, where he oversaw faculty management across Hopkins’ nine schools.
“I was looking at how faculty were managed in each of the different schools, and really trying to figure out how we could help faculty flourish,” he said.
When he first began discussions to take over the Georgetown College deanship, Celenza was no stranger to the Hilltop: His wife, Anna, is the Thomas E. Caestecker Professor of Music in the Department of Performing Arts. Still, he found there was much to learn about Georgetown during his interview process.
“The one constant — and this was truly universal — was the love these people have for the institution,” Celenza said. “That really is unique, and I think it radiates from an undergraduate tradition that goes back to the 18th century.”
Celenza sees clear parallels between the Jesuit tradition of cura personalis — care of the whole person — and his own cherished memories of the American Academy in Rome.
“We tend to think of universities as places where there’s a disembodied mind transmitting knowledge to another disembodied mind. Rome taught me that those minds are in brains, those brains are in bodies, and those bodies are in places,” he said. “At Georgetown, it’s part of the DNA of this place to openly discuss these concepts — the idea of formation of the whole person. That’s not something you find at a lot of universities.”
It’s easy to imagine that a person with two doctorates and a successful career as an academic administrator across a multitude of positions (on two continents!) might walk onto the Hilltop with a laundry list of major projects and reforms. That’s not the case for Celenza.
“I’m going to have a structured series of interviews with chairs, directors, and so on, and I’m not going to have any big declarations or pronouncements until I listen,” he said. “I’ve seen too many administrators founder coming up with a plan in their heads, hoping it’ll map onto culture and reality, and realizing it won’t work. You want to get to know the culture first.”
Still, that’s not to say that the College’s newest leader lacks a driving vision. Part of the College struck Celenza as a particularly appealing destination was its marriage of the undergraduate liberal arts tradition with opportunities for cutting-edge research — and he intends to make sure the latter half of that marriage continues to grow.
“We should keep the foot on the gas when it comes to undergraduate research,” Celenza said. “Maybe you get added to a biology lab and become a co-author on a paper. Maybe you do an experiential learning project here in D.C. I just want to keep the momentum going with that.”
Celenza is reluctant to talk at length about his accomplishments — he’d much rather discuss what makes a place special, how he hopes to contribute best to a community, or how excited he is to cheer on students at sporting or performing arts events. But it’s clear that the College has found a qualified and inspiring leader for future generations of Hoyas.
“I’m here to serve the institution not just now, but years from now too,” he said. “My big declaration is this: I’m here to serve, and I’m here to listen.”
— Patrick Curran