The ad called for Benjamin Rifkin.
Maybe it didn’t outright say his name, but when the College began to look for a new dean for what was then the School of Culture and Society (now Humanities and Social Sciences), the ad they placed certainly spoke to the man who has now held the position for over three years.
“It just seemed like everything that was specified in the ad was part of my professional journey to that point,” Rifkin said.
The dean, currently 52, had held other leadership roles in higher education before applying for his current position, but the College community grabbed him by reflecting the values that he holds close to his heart.
Touring the College in 2009, it was clear to him that education was the priority over all else. Dean Rifkin noticed that this was not always the case while working at other institutions, but according to him, his time here has only reinforced this opinion.
“Whenever there is a conversation about ‘how do we solve this problem?’ or ‘what do we do?’ and there is a number of options, (education is) always the answer, and the answer comes from everyone, that the number one priority has to be what’s in the best interest of our students,” Rifkin said.
Students may be familiar with Dean Rifkin’s passion for learning and his appreciation for taking advantage of all types of learning opportunities. He’s famous, particularly to those in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, for his weekly emails detailing any number of events going on around campus.
But what are the roots of this passion? Where did this man who is so involved in the College come from?
Born in New York City, Rifkin was raised in N.Y. and N.J., and went to college in Connecticut. He’s a self-described “tri-state kind of guy.”
When he arrived at Yale University, he planned on majoring in history and going to law school. Then, after initially being discouraged from taking a foreign language by an adviser (who suggested a math class instead), he placed into a high level French literature course. He did so well that he decided to challenge himself further.
“So I decided over the summer that I was going to choose between Russian and Chinese, and that I was going to go to Russian on the first day of classes and Chinese on the second and I was going to pick one,” Rifkin said.
He never tried Chinese. After falling in love with Russian from the first day, he went on to change his major, and eventually his career path. Instead of a law degree, he wanted to get a Ph.D. and teach Russian. He traveled to the Soviet Union for a semester, returned again for a shorter time, then finally went back to work for a publishing firm there for two years.
This path led to experiences that would shape his journey as a person, an educator and, eventually, an administrator.
In the Soviet Union, Rifkin was made more aware of his identity as an American. He learned the ways of his new culture through translating at a Soviet publishing house, and he engaged in profound discussions that lasted into the morning hours over literature, films and philosophy with his Russian friends.
Through his graduate work at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Rifkin took up an interest in how students learn. While at Michigan, he also met his wife, who happened to be from Ewing.
This combination of experiences led Rifkin to years of teaching in higher education, and now has led him back to N.J. His philosophy still holds strong today.
“What can I do to give (my students) the skills to keep learning and to be excited and engaged about learning more,” Rifkin said.
To learn more about Dean Rifkin’s beloved dog Webster, click here.