Remembering Phil Certain (Ph.D. 1969, Hirschfelder)

Former department chair and L&S dean known for thoughtful leadership & innovation

By Mary Ellen Gabriel
L&S Director of Communications

Man with glasses in suit and tie
Phillip Certain, Dean Emeritus of the College of Letters and Science. | Photo by Jeff Miller

This story was first published here.

Phillip R. Certain, dean of the College of Letters & Science from 1993 until 2004, died Tuesday, August 11 at Agrace Hospice in Fitchburg at age 76 after a years-long struggle with progressive supranuclear palsy. He was the fifth-longest-serving dean of the largest college on the UW-Madison campus.

Trained as a theoretical chemist who dealt with quantum mechanics and the structure of molecules, Certain earned his PhD at UW-Madison and joined the faculty in 1970, receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  Prior to becoming dean, he served as chair of the Chemistry department and associate vice chancellor for academic affairs.

Certain had a reputation as a careful listener, a visionary problem-solver and a people-focused leader who pursued ambitious strategic goals while cultivating leadership in others.

“Phil was a wonderful leader and colleague. He cared passionately about UW-Madison and lived our highest values,” says UW-Madison Provost Karl Scholz. “While a scientist by discipline, he believed deeply in the liberal arts. We will miss greatly his humor and the unfailing support he provided to us as individuals and to the institution.”

During his tenure as L&S dean, Certain oversaw major building and capital improvement projects, including the 90,000-square-foot Chemistry Building (dedicated in 2000) as well as state-of-the-art facilities improvements for the Physics, Psychology and Astronomy departments and lecture hall renovations to permit improved instructional technology.

As a peer-reviewer for the Higher Learning Commission, Certain offered insights that facilitated UW’s successful accreditation by that national organization. He also led the process for instituting the university’s first general education requirements (for which L&S delivers most courses), revitalized the L&S curriculum planning committee, and strengthened the Academic Planning Council.

“He understood the profound impact that transforming work processes can have, on morale, productivity and effectiveness,” says Elaine Klein, L&S associate dean for academic planning.

Certain was a visionary thinker who navigated challenges with a view towards making long-term, positive change. Facing a lean budget in the early 2000s, he enlisted his L&S colleagues in an intensive strategic exercise known as “Creating the College.”

“This was a painstaking process,” recalls Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, who served as deputy dean under Certain and went on to serve as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (as well as vice provost and interim chancellor) at the University of South Carolina, where she is now a distinguished professor of journalism. “Phil called for a re-commitment to thinking through how we could grow in new areas, better serve our students, and re-configure the way we conducted our business. It takes real vision to sustain greatness and chart a path to growth, while also identifying what needs to be pared down.”

In the course of this exercise, faculty excellence and the undergraduate student experience were defined as bedrock values for L&S, and Certain focused fiercely on both.

“He knew we had to stay committed to retention of top UW faculty and the hiring of rising stars, in order to continue building the university’s world-renowned reputation for groundbreaking research and high-quality instruction,” says Fitzpatrick.

Current L&S Dean Eric M. Wilcots, who joined the Astronomy Department in 1995, says he is “eternally grateful” for Certain’s strong support during those years.

“Phil Certain led the college with an amazing amount of grace and good humor, and he was always focused on excellence and growth,” says Wilcots.

Certain believed that a student’s liberal arts education could be immeasurably enriched by experiences outside the classroom. Along with Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History William Cronon, he launched “Pathways to Excellence,” an initiative intended to meet the needs of “highly motivated students eager to go beyond the standard curriculum,” as Cronon put it. One ambitious new outgrowth of the Pathways program was residential learning communities, such as Bradley Learning Community (opened in 1995) and Chadbourne Residential College (1996), which offered students the opportunity to engage in small group discussions, meet visiting scholars and build a strong community centered around their intellectual interests.

The First-Year Interest Groups (FIGs) initiative, launched in 2001 and thriving today, was another highly interactive and holistic opportunity for freshmen to join a small cohort of learners exploring courses around a common theme. These and many other programs grew out of Certain’s interest in an “education for the whole person.”

“I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Phil Certain. Even though retired, he remained actively involved with campus,” says Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “He leaves a huge legacy, as a leader who filled multiple roles here at UW.  The high-impact learning practices launched during his tenure as L&S dean are at the heart of what we call the Wisconsin Experience for our students.”

Several centers and institutes arose with Certain’s support, including the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities in 2000, now a thriving, cross-disciplinary hub for humanities scholarship and public engagement across and beyond the UW-Madison campus. He also presided over the establishment of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures and the creation of the International Institute (now the Institute for Regional and International Studies), which he described as essential to coordinating UW’s growing array of international programs, seminars, visitors and research proposals.

“He was a great advocate for the arts and humanities, as well as the social sciences,” says Susan Zaeske, associate dean for arts and humanities. “He combined vision and a drive to get things done with genuine care for those he worked with. Phil was brilliant at growing leaders.”

During his L&S deanship, Certain oversaw several noteworthy developments in the sciences. In 2000, L&S joined an international consortium to build and operate a major new South African observatory, known as the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), now a thriving partnership. At the South Pole, UW-Madison physicists helped launch the AMANDA (Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array) project, the precursor to today’s powerhouse IceCube Neutrino Observatory, which has produced rare insights into the most persistent mysteries of the universe.

Before becoming dean of L&S, Certain helped create the Madison Plan, launched in 1988 after a rise in tensions after highly inflammatory racist incidents on campus in 1987. The plan was intended to help “create a more diverse UW-Madison,” and was credited with helping to increase the number of women faculty and faculty of color (though the challenges in student recruitment remained daunting). Certain also served on former Madison Mayor Sue Bauman’s Task Force on Race Relations.

Upon his retirement, a fund was created in his honor by L&S Board of Visitors members. Now known as the Phillip R. Certain and Gary D. Sandefur Distinguished Faculty Award, the fund supports an annual award to newly tenured faculty who are outstanding in research, teaching and service to the college and to the campus.

Certain called the liberal arts “an education for good citizenship, a productive life and the love of learning.” He exemplified these values, cultivating an active civic life that included, among other roles, moderator of the congregation at the First Congregational Church, president of the UW Retirement Association and several terms as vice president of Madison Opera before becoming the president of the board from 2015-2018.

Chuck Snowdon, professor emeritus of Psychology and outgoing president of Madison Opera, remembers teasing Certain about taking on so many administrative responsibilities after retirement from UW-Madison.

“It was clear that he had leadership in his very being,” says Snowdon. “His style was marked by calm wisdom, guidance and gentle humor. Those of us who’ve known him will miss him greatly.”