Dean, professor, party-planner

Robert Wiltenburg headed plans for the 150th Birthday Party while continuing to extend the reach of University College

With two daughters in their 20s, Robert E. Wiltenburg is no stranger to planning birthday parties. But the most recent party he planned took a little more foresight.

More than two years’ worth, to be exact.

In 2001, Wiltenburg, Ph.D., dean of University College in Arts & Sciences, was tabbed to head the committee in charge of executing the University’s 150th birthday celebration.

“I went into a meeting and found my name written in as chair of the committee,” he says with a laugh.

Once the shock wore off, Wiltenburg and his committee set about putting a plan in place that would accomplish many things — give the public a chance to see parts of the University not often seen; find interesting facts about the University; and perhaps even use the event as a recruitment tool for interested people, young and old.

Robert E. Wiltenburg, Ph.D., dean of University College in Arts & Sciences and chair of the University's 150th Birthday Party Committee, talks with senior Erin O'Shea, who is pursuing a double major in physics in Arts & Sciences and mechanical engineering.
Robert E. Wiltenburg, Ph.D., dean of University College in Arts & Sciences and chair of the University’s 150th Birthday Party Committee, talks with senior Erin O’Shea, who is pursuing a double major in physics in Arts & Sciences and mechanical engineering.

“We wanted to put together a day that featured the innovative things a great modern university does in medicine, patient care, research, teaching, dorms and student activities,” Wiltenburg says. “At the same time, we wanted to highlight the latest technology, such as Lewis the Robot Photographer.

“In terms of planning, the committee itself represented not only each of the major schools, but also major functions of the University, like facilities and security.”

Of course, trying to get everyone on the same page more than two years ahead of time is close to impossible. And Wiltenburg points out that while he “never had to actually resort to arm-twisting,” some “good-natured nagging, more than once, more than twice,” didn’t hurt.

Then, when the calendar rolled over to 2003, more and more departments started coming forward with ideas for displays, lectures and presentations.

When they did, the wide range of expertise and generosity surprised even Wiltenburg — who has been at the University since 1982, when he arrived fresh out of graduate school.

“I was delighted by the wealth of responses and by people’s generosity,” he says. “They gave up a Sunday and more, but I think that feeling is typical of the good will that characterizes this University.”

Wiltenburg also thinks that same kind of good will typifies the Midwest. He grew up in New York City, where his father was a Lutheran pastor, and graduated from Bronx High School of Science before converting to the humanities.

Having earned an undergraduate degree at Cornell University, he earned a doctorate from the University of Rochester. He came to WUSTL to direct the Expository Writing Program in English in Arts & Sciences, while also teaching his specialties of Shakespeare and Milton.

In 1994, he became associate dean of University College before rising to dean in 1996 after Wayne Fields, Ph.D., now the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor in English, returned to the teaching ranks to lead the Program in American Culture Studies in Arts & Sciences.

“Dean Robert Wiltenburg is one of the University’s strongest assets,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton says. “He is an exceptional academic leader and is sensitive to the interests of our entire community, both those close to the University as students, faculty and staff and also those in our wider community who have an interest in the life of the University.

“I could not be more pleased with the effective leadership Bob has brought to help us bring St. Louis to our campus to celebrate our Sesquicentennial and to reaffirm our partnership with St. Louis.”

Wiltenburg still finds time to teach classes in English literature, as well as a course nearly every spring in the Program for Humanities in Medicine. In 1994, he received the Missouri Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

“He has been one of most steadfast supporters of the humanities in medicine program at our medical school,” says Stephen S. Lefrak, M.D., professor of medicine and dean and director of the program. “He has led a selection of ‘physicians and literature,’ which is one of the most highly rated electives at the medical school.

Bob Wiltenburg and his wife, Candace O'Connor, on vacation at the site of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural marvel Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pa.
Bob Wiltenburg and his wife, Candace O’Connor, on vacation at the site of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural marvel Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pa.

“Bob accomplishes this in many ways. He understands students, especially medical students, in a way that is unusual for someone who has not been through the process. His classes are exciting, interesting and highly participatory. He actually values the opinions of those who are not as ‘literary’ as he is.

“He has a very engaging style while still requiring excellence. He is not just the students’ buddy, but their teacher in a collegial manner.”

As a dean in Arts & Sciences, Wiltenburg has served on various committees over the years, but his main focus is on University College, which was founded in 1931 and is the evening division of Arts & Sciences as well as the Summer School.

As Wiltenburg sees it, U. College is much more than a place where people learn.

“University College helps people further their education, but it goes beyond that,” he says. “Some people will take a class for personal enrichment, but most of the time we see people who really want to transform their lives.”

Students also manage to finish their education despite all kinds of competing pressures — something he found out firsthand on one of his early days on the job.

“Every year we give an award for academic achievement,” he says. “The first year I was dean, we gave it to a woman I’d never met. During the ceremony, I called her name, and she came up with an infant cradled in one arm, a toddler holding her hand and a child in the back shouting, ‘Way to go, mommy!’ At times like that, this is an extremely rewarding job to do.”

Recently, it has been especially rewarding to see the University commit itself to becoming an institution of learning for everyone by improving its benefits to employees, allowing them to finish their undergraduate course work for free.

“I urged this change, based on what other institutions had, and worked with Ann Prenatt and the chancellor to make it happen,” Wiltenburg says. “Already, it has resulted in 500 more University employees taking courses, so there has been a substantial response.”

Robert Wiltenburg, Ph.D.

Why you’ll soon know his wife (if you don’t already): She is Candace O’Connor, who has just finished writing a new history of the University to coincide with the Sesquicentennial.

On what makes a book a classic: “It’s not that someone has put it on a shelf or put them in uniform bindings, but it’s because it speaks to many different readers in many different ways generation after generation. Shakespeare’s text is just so rich in the possibility of the interpretations that any time you give a reading you are missing something important. Then you go back and something catches your eye — something has changed in your life, you are older and wiser, older and scared, but something has happened to make you read that differently.”

Essential reading when stranded on a desert island: Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, Practical Boatbuilding

This fall, they have inaugurated an associate’s degree. And other programs are thriving: the Lifelong Learning Institute, a peer learning experience for older adults, is approaching 500 members.

“And one of the things that has been so impressive in U. College’s recent history, before I became dean, is the series of interdisciplinary undergraduate programs begun in the 1980s, which have been very successful,” he adds.

Wiltenburg also takes pride in the mission of U. College in the community.

“We are a centerpiece of the University’s special relationship with St. Louis,” he says. “In fact, Washington University has always had an intimate relationship with the city, more so than many similar research universities.

“I really enjoy what I’m doing. The University College staff is extraordinarily talented and committed, and I think we have even more potential than has been realized so far. Our enrollment is higher than it has been in 20 years or so, but I would like to extend our reach further and make even better use of the faculty and resources we have.”

In his work on the Sesquicentennial, he has a sympathetic listener at home: wife Candace O’Connor, who has just finished writing a new history of the University. They have two daughters: Mary, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, and Kate, who will be attending Yale Law School next year.

Hobbies are a little hard to find time for now, though he enjoys bicycling, some sailing and playing Go.

“I also love teaching literature,” he says, “and it seems to me that one of the most freeing things that can happen to you educationally is to learn to love old books.

“Particularly with Shakespeare, I’ll go back and read a play I’ve taught several times, and something new will catch my eye. That’s what makes a book endure: It speaks to readers in many different ways, generation after generation. And that’s why Shakespeare is still a living author — and why it is a great privilege to teach.”