For Michele Dillon, Ph.D., her role as the College of Liberal Arts’ (COLA) newest dean, following a stint as its interim dean, is official.
Educated on the coasts of Ireland and California, working in higher education has always been a pursuit for Dillon. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University College Dublin, but she pursued other avenues for her doctorate. It was this pursuit that led the Irish native to America and to the University of California at Berkley.
Her first time studying in America turned out to be an eye-opening experience for Dillon, especially when it came to her peers.
“I lived in International House,” she recalled. “It was a dorm with 600 people. About 200 were American, mostly graduate students too. There were people there literally from every country. That itself was such an education. Breakfast, lunch and dinner with all of these different people with various experiences.”
The prevailing culture around higher education also played a part in steering the COLA dean to the United States, particularly its emphasis on freedom and entrepreneurship.
“You have a lot of freedom to pursue what it is you want to study,” she said, adding that embracing the American attitude helped her feel as if “you can do whatever it is you want to do.”
Dillon went on to compare the American education system to that of Ireland.
“It’s a standardized curriculum so it doesn’t have to do with socio-economic status. I mean, there are still obvious inequalities in the schooling system but for the most part, no matter if you lived in a relatively poor, rich, urban, or rural area, everyone had the same education. I learned so much,” she said.
Dillon was born and raised in Westmeath, Ireland. She was interested in the opportunity to expand her horizons in a new country, especially in a country with a more open-minded view of research in higher education.
“It’s a different perspective,” the dean said as she compared American academia to academia found in Europe, specifically Ireland. There was, as she put it, “a certain narrowness to how people think but I believe that might be changing,”
Dillon reiterated that there was less of a prescribed track to what to study here in America, and that the viewpoint of research done in Ireland and Europe feels more rigid, but no less valuable.
It was this education that lead her to want to study sociology after having picked the concentration from a breadth of intellectual reasonings. However, she remembered feeling unaware of the specifics when she arrived at university.
“The first day in introduction to sociology when I heard the lecturer talk about social roles I thought ‘oh my goodness, what beauty is this,’” she said. Dillon was ecstatic “that they could put a name” on what it was that interested her. As she pursued her master’s thesis in Dublin, she had a concentrated research goal in mind.
“I was always interested in culture and social change and however that presents itself,” she said. “I was looking at issues of gender and social class among youth in terms of their pop culture preferences,” she explained, adding that she wanted to explore how “people create meaning through their own lived experiences.”
During that time, a popular view among sociologists stressed that there was a distinct culture of femininity and masculinity that could be seen in young people. However, Dillon’s research ultimately uncovered an almost exactly opposite trend.
“There was a group of girls that either rejected or at least didn’t fully embrace the culture of femininity in terms of how I measured it,” she said. “…my data showed – and granted it was a rather limited study I was doing as a master’s student – that it is actually more complicated than that. That it is a little more diffuse than what we would expect,” Dillon said as she detailed how her study was performed in 1982. “Today we’re talking about fluidity of identity. That to me was fascinating. While it’s easy to use terms like femininity and masculinity they actually have multi-layered meaning.”
For her doctorate, she turned her research towards the issue of divorce in Ireland. In 1986, there was a referendum to allow for divorce in Ireland. Dillon looked at issues around the church, media and family. While the referendum failed initially, it ultimately found success 10 years later. Dillon’s research in this area resulted to a greater understanding of religion and that “it’s more complicated than what we theoretically assume,” she said.
The topic, especially when referring to the impact of Catholicism on divorce, became a foundation of many of her future books. Her most recent publication, entitled “Postsecular Catholicism: Relevance and Renewal,” was published last year and focused on, in her words, “what allows religion to persist, even as we become more modern and secular.”
Apart from writing books and a sociology textbook, the COLA dean takes pride in her roles past and present at UNH.
“I love being a faculty member. I love teaching and doing my research. I love service. I love being an academic,” she said.
Dillon joined the university in 2001 and went on to serve as the chair of the sociology department for six years until she stepped down in 2015. She recalled expressing genuine interested when approached about the interim dean position.
“Given that it’s interim and that the semester is going to start soon and the general challenges of a nationwide search I certainly was willing to put my name in,” she said. “There was an internal search led by the provost in consultation with the department chairs in COLA. After that there were four of us who were interviewed and then I was appointed interim.”
When offered the position, she was ecstatic.
“What excited me was that it’s interim and I told the provost that I’m happy it’s interim but I’m not going to act as if it’s interim. I want to keep moving things. I don’t want it to be a holding pattern,” she said.
Dillon also expressed happiness when the university conducted a national search for the next COLA dean.
“We need a more diverse population at UNH,” she said as she referred to increased diversity amongst students, faculty, and administrators, a personal goal of hers.
“It’s a great college and we have great strength here,” she added.
Dillon said she feels optimistic for the future of the College of Liberal Arts and wants to promote how “our faculty are doing great things.” She has also expressed interest in “talking with and meeting with students,” to learn more about what it is that makes UNH unique, as well as supporting the direction of UNH’s current president, James W. Dean, Jr.
“President Dean’s (priorities) are very straight forward, solid priorities, that I and I think everyone is committed,” she said. “That keeps you anchored.”