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Prodesse quam conspici: A former dean looks back

<p>Throughout his tenure at Miami, Michael Curme never lost sight of what was most important: the students.</p>

Throughout his tenure at Miami, Michael Curme never lost sight of what was most important: the students.

Mike Curme didn’t want to be profiled.

“Prodesse quam conspici,” he said.

That’s Miami University’s motto: to accomplish without being conspicuous. It’s a phrase Curme has lived by since he began his career as an assistant professor of economics at Miami in 1988.

Since then, Curme has been many things: professor, associate dean of the Farmer School of Business, dean of students and professor emeritus. While his titles have changed, Curme’s commitment to his students, both inside and outside the classroom, has stayed the same.

When Curme became interim dean of students in 2013, he hoped it would only last a semester.

“The dean of students position, I never in my life expected it to happen,” he said. “I’m still not sure how it happened … The president asked me to do it, and I said yes for one semester.”

A year later in 2014, Jayne Brownell applied for the position of vice president of student affairs in the Office of Student Life. On the day of her interview, Curme approached her.

“I’m Interim Dean, and whoever is hired, I want them to be successful,” Brownell recalled him saying. “Therefore, you will have a resignation letter on your desk the first day without a date on it … The day that you think I’m not of use anymore, you fill in the date, and that’ll be fine. I’ll be okay.”

Brownell got the job. She kept him on for another four years.

“I was ready to go after five-and-a-half years,” he said. 

His path to the dean of students position wasn’t a normal one. People spend decades in administrative positions before reaching that office, and he was trained only as an economics professor.

“That job is like being at Kings Island blindfolded, and then they put you on a different ride every day,” he said.

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Doug Slingerland is a custodian in Warfield Hall, which is home to the Office of Student Life. His shift starts at 3 a.m. each morning. He’s the first one in the building, but Curme was always second.

“He’d always come in at like 6, 5:45 in the morning,” Slingerland said. “We’d just kind of talk for maybe 10 minutes, and he was always friendly and pleasant and helpful.”

On Slingerland’s birthday last year, he got a call from Curme.

“He’s good at recognizing people,” Slingerland said. “He’s thoughtful. He notices things, and he’s very encouraging.”

On weekends, when Brownell would head into the office to get caught up on work, Curme was always there. Sometimes she could hear him laughing through two sets of closed doors.

Some days, he sends Brownell YouTube videos of songs he thinks she’ll like, 60s and 70s soul, mostly. Before he returned to his position as a professor in Farmer, she would mention a book she liked and find it in her office the next week.

Brownell came to Miami after living and working in the New York metro area for 20 years. She didn’t know anyone in Ohio, and said she didn’t know whether she would find a sense of community here.

“I had some anxiety about leaving such a strong community of people that I had known for so long,” Brownell said. “I hoped that I would find that here but didn’t know if I would. Mike was probably the first person that made me feel like I would be able to have similar relationships here.”

The Office of Student Life wasn’t always lighthearted, though.

The Dean of Students is responsible for calling parents when their children have crises on campus. When Miami students died, it fell on Curme’s shoulders to inform their parents.

The job is not for the faint of heart.

During his time as Dean of Students, Curme extended Student Health Services and ensured the department was properly staffed, an endeavor that took years.

Among his health-related projects, he brought The Haven at College, a treatment and recovery program for students struggling with substance abuse, to Miami. 

When he returned to his position as a professor in Farmer, he started a capstone course, ECO401, called Building a Better Community which brings students together to find interdisciplinary solutions to interpersonal violence, mental health challenges and substance abuse.

Marc Rubin, a former dean of Farmer, said no one matched Curme’s empathy.

“Students loved him, his evaluations were always superb,” Rubin said. “He’s just a very empathetic person. He understands where people are coming from, he really looks to that.”

Rubin also served as an advisor for Hillel, a Jewish student organization. When Rubin attended Hillel events, Curme managed to find his way there, too.

During their time as faculty members together, Rubin said he never saw Curme put himself before his students, sometimes to the detriment of his own interests.

“Mike would do whatever it took to get the job done in terms of students,” Rubin said. “Maybe he didn’t do as much research as he wanted to … If you prioritize students, some other things are gonna suffer because you’re not gonna let the students down.”

As much as Curme has prioritized students, he still worries about what could have gone better after every interaction.

“If you think about all the students I’ve interacted with in the last 33 years … there’s a sense of regret that my interactions with all students didn’t generate the best possible outcome,” he said.

Michelle Thomas is the director of student organizations and diversity in Farmer. She said Curme always made a point to reach out to underrepresented students in his classes.

Once, Thomas asked Curme to meet with a young African American student, C.J. Walker, majoring in economics.

“Would you be willing to meet with this young man?” Thomas wrote in her email to him. “Because he’s so special, so talented, but he’s in econ, and there’s not a lot of people that look like him in econ.”

The day Curme and the student met, he came into Thomas’ office raving afterward.

“From then on, they see each other regularly,” Thomas said. “They have coffees together. He’s now like a mentor to this student, and there’s hundreds of stories like that.”

This semester is Curme’s last at Miami. This summer, he said he’s going to take a few months to decide what’s next.

“In the past couple weeks, I’ve been doing a little reflecting,” he said. “I’m not trying to reflect much on my time at Miami until it’s over because I’m trying to live the experience in real time, and I’m loving it.”

Mike Curme didn’t want a profile.

For his friends and colleagues like Thomas, though, it was necessary.

“Because he’s humble, people don’t often see that he has friends, he has colleagues that he’s pulled in that are from all walks of life,” Thomas said. “They don’t always look like him, believe in the things he believes in, but he invites them into his life and learns from them. That’s who he is.”