The American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Q&A with New Managing Committee Chair Mark Lawall

Joanie Blackwell

Lawall is Professor of Classics at the University of Manitoba. An expert on transport amphoras throughout the Mediterranean, he has conducted research at the School and at the Athenian Agora for two decades. Lawall has served the School through several committees, is an Academic Trustee of the Archaeological Institute of America, and is on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Institute in Greece.

What inspired you to take on the daunting post of Managing Committee Chair?

At the Managing Committee meeting in Toronto in January, it was announced that the number of applications was lower than anticipated. So when I got back, I started emailing various people who I thought would make good Chairs, urging them to think about it, and everyone declined. Then, on January 10, Barack Obama gave his farewell speech in Chicago and said, “If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.” The first part—disappointment in elected officials—did not apply, but the second did. I wrote it down on a post-it note. It was an echo of Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you…” and Thucydides’/Pericles’ commentary on the useless quiet Athenian. The next morning, I agreed to have my name put forward for the Managing Committee Chair nomination.

What are some of your memories of the School from your Regular year in 1991?

The School seemed much smaller. And I think a lot of us also knew that we were a bridging generation of sorts. There were people there, still, who were Regular Members in the 30s and 40s—Whitehead Professor Eve Harrison and I were always the first two at breakfast, and I had occasional meetings with Virginia Grace about my dissertation. There was a real sense of connection to a very long past. And I think that’s still there in a lot of ways, but for us it was very physical.

Tell us about your research at the School in the late 90s and early 2000s.

I was working on the amphoras at the Agora, and the intellectual fun and energy coming from inside the Stoa workspace during this period was just phenomenal. Susan Rotroff was finishing the Hellenistic pottery volumes, John Papadopoulos was working on the Iron Age pottery, Kathleen Lynch was working on the symposium book, Barbara Tsakirgis on the houses, John Hayes on the Roman pottery, etc. Over lunch and tea and 11+ hour work days, this amazing dynamic developed. What I really take away from that period is the intense work, intellectual excitement, and camaraderie of it all.

How do you see the Managing Committee Chair’s role in the governance of the School? What will be its focus over the next few years?

The Managing Committee Chair, like the Chair of any such group, has to facilitate business and decision-making, mediate among multiple views, and reach a consensus that everyone can live with. What is more unique to the ASCSA is the need to be the liaison between the Managing Committee and the Trustees, and between the Managing Committee and the staff in Athens and Princeton. Getting those three elements in sync and communicating clearly with one another is the big challenge.

I am not laying out any sort of agenda for the beginning. I need to listen and learn so that I can get a handle on every aspect of every issue in order to provide a fuller knowledge and context, when necessary, to the committee as a whole.

One of the things I hope will come out over the course of the next four and a half years is that MC members will feel confident that they understand the issues facing the School, are making informed decisions, and feel ownership of and approve of the overall operations and priorities. I’d also like to see more members of the MC actively and passionately engaged in the process of management and governance. I hope we can achieve a greater participation by a greater proportion.

Another focus I will urge the MC to take is to better define its role: what does oversight of the academic mission of the School mean in practice, and how does that intersect with other issues?

The Vice Chair position, fulfilled by Kathleen Lynch (University of Cincinnati), will take on a bit of a new role. Can you describe that shift, and how do you see yourself collaborating with Kathleen?

The Vice Chair position has been under-utilized in the past. Going in with less direct executive experience than recent MC Chairs, I knew I could benefit from handpicking Kathleen to play an active role as a soundboard. Every few weeks I send her a long document detailing what I’ve been doing and thinking about, and soliciting her take. From her role as secretary, she knows the issues and the personalities better than anyone…and is much more calm, cool, and collected than I am!

What do you see as the most urgent challenges the School will face during your tenure these next five years?

The most immediate issues are balancing the longstanding maintenance needs of Loring Hall and the necessary changes to the library cataloguing and shelving system with the fundamental needs of each year’s cohort of students and researchers. It will be a big challenge; communication with and input from the MC will be critical.

The longer term challenges are more related to the changing discipline of Classics and the changing status of the humanities in general. In North America and in Europe, departments are shrinking and public funding is being limited. The School definitely has a role to play in these long-term advocacy issues. Jim Wright’s recent letter to congressmen [link] supporting the National Endowment for the Humanities highlighted the School’s ingrained connection to the origins of democracy.

At a lower level, an MC member might have to justify School membership dues to a Dean looking to make cuts. MC members need to be supported in making that case—we need to make clear the unparalleled benefits of the School both for students and for post-graduate researchers, and we need to make clear that the School and its programs are accessible to all. The ASCSA’s management and financial structures are its strength in such periods of economic and political challenge. Unlike many foreign schools in Athens, we are far less dependent on government sponsorship for our existence.

Your research has taken you to a number of other American overseas research institutions. How do they compare to the ASCSA?

I think one of the great things about the American School and the culture there is that it instills a sense of collaboration; that you’re all in this shared effort together. The approach to training, the level of respect between students and more advanced scholars, the genuine interest in one anothers’ work that is found on many ASCSA affiliated projects are all great strengths that empower our students as they enter that job market or embark on related careers. I think that, in part, such ideals of mutual respect are created in the School environment: in Loring Hall over breakfast, at Tea Table at the Agora, at Ouzo Hour on the portico, tramping up yet another conical hill to see yet another pile of rock with the Mellon professor of the day, etc.

You are the first MC Chair to hail from a university based outside the U.S. Do you think this will influence the School’s ability to attract more Canadian universities and scholars or its relationship with the Canadian School?

That remains to be seen! I’m not sure there will be a huge impact. Right now, there are eight Canadian institutional members. There are a few striking absences in terms of schools with graduate programs who could especially profit from sending students to the School since the Canadian Institute thus far provides nothing comparable to the School’s programs. There are some Canadian faculty members who have maintained research affiliations with the British and French Schools from a while back. I am deeply involved with both the Canadian Institute in Greece as well as the AIA, and my experiences with those two operations of vastly different scales, missions, goals, etc. certainly shape my approach to the ASCSA.

We hear you are an avid runner. Have you ever run the Athens marathon?
I ran Athens in 1992 three months after completing the Edmonton Marathon. I thought I could just maintain fitness and it would be fine…it was a disaster. But I love running in Greece especially along the trails of Hymettos, up Acrocorinth, and at this decrepit running track in Ano Ilissia. I’ve been going there for 25 years and have gotten to know a lot of people who provide a really clear sense of how the average Athenian is managing…it’s pretty sobering, but their resilience is inspiring.