In Deborah Dluhy's corner office at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA), nearly every inch of her desk is covered in work. Papers, reports and binders line the floor-to-ceiling shelves-evidence of work in progress and work past. She will address each and every one of them in the meticulous and caring way that she has done for many years as dean of the school. And then she will leave and tackle even more work as chair of Wheaton's Board of Trustees.
Piles of work come with the territory when you have devoted your career and life to supporting arts education and helping to guide two major institutions of higher learning. But all of that is about to change.
Dluhy, who is 70, plans to step down from her position as chair of the Wheaton Board of Trustees in May and retire as SMFA dean in June.
She has worked at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for 32 years, 17 as dean of the School of Museum of Fine Arts. She also has been chair of the Wheaton Board of Trustees for five years and served as a member since 1988. Taking on responsibilities and commitments that would be challenging enough for two or three people to handle, she has single-handedly excelled in each.
She will continue to be a member of Wheaton's board. But the paper she plans to focus on will be for watercolors, not financial projections and proposed policies. She has painted on and off since childhood and dabbled in watercolors for the past few years, but she never had the time to explore it deeply.
She also plans to sell the Belmont, Mass., home she and her husband have lived in for 30 years and get an apartment in the Boston area, where her husband will continue to work for the next few years. And she plans to renovate a family home in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
"I look forward to having more time to read," she says during an interview in her office one morning. "I'd also like to travel and spend part of a year in France studying cooking. I decided to retire from work at a point where I could be energetic and full of life. So I'm hoping that I have caught that right.
"You never know. I could walk out of here and be hit by a truck, and there goes that aspiration," she jokes. "I feel that I am in good health, and I am a curious person. I'd also hope to do some consulting in higher education and the arts. We face some challenging times today. This is work that I enjoy. I love seeing people get excited by their discoveries and the contributions they can make to other people's lives. So if I can be part of helping people access that experience, I'd like to do that. I don't feel ready to quit. But I feel ready to change. There is a difference."
Those who have worked with her both at the SMFA and at Wheaton say they hate to see their thoughtful, collaborative, even-handed leader go.
"I will miss Debby," says Patricia Jacoby, who is the deputy director of external relations at the Museum of Fine Arts and was vice president for resources at Wheaton years ago. "She has been an excellent colleague on the museum's management team, an advocate for the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, a link to the community of art school leaders, and a kind, thoughtful and wonderful friend to so many.
Wheaton Trustee Thomas Hollister, who has worked on the board with her for 12 years, notes that "consistent with Wheaton's culture and traditions, Debby has a consensus leadership style. It is one of the great strengths of the college and the board that it is not about egos or personal agendas, but instead, always about working together for the greater good of Wheaton. Under Debby's leadership in the last five years, the Wheaton board has never been stronger in terms of talent, expertise and diversity."
Wheaton has held a special place in Dluhy's life since she arrived as a freshman in 1958. It was here during her first art class that she discovered the type of approach to learning that best suited her. It was here that she was inspired to pursue a budding interest in art history. And it was here, she says, that the seeds were planted for her desire to be as good an art educator as those who had supported her through her Wheaton journey and well beyond.
Dluhy majored in art history at Wheaton and has a doctorate in art history from Harvard University. She has worked at the Museum of Fine Arts since 1978, holding positions as development officer, assistant director of development, associate dean for administration at the SMFA, and dean for academic programs and administration at the school. In 1993, she was appointed dean of the school, becoming the first woman to hold the position at one of the oldest and most distinguished professional art schools in the country. She is also the deputy director of the Museum of Fine Arts.
It is an interesting journey from where she thought her career would lead. As she entered Wheaton, she considered becoming a nurse because she liked taking care of people and thought that would be a good way of doing it. Her career in art history and art education, and her many years of dedicated service to Wheaton, have done that, just in a different way.
At the SMFA, she has successfully pushed to increase the number of full-time female faculty members; bolstered the support that student artists receive as they navigate through the school's elective program toward art careers; and improved the relationship between the SMFA and the museum.
"Debby has been a leader who cares deeply about students and faculty," Jacoby says. "She has brought significant changes to the governance structure and way of doing business at the SMFA."
As evidence of the esteem in which she is held, the museum school's Board of Governors (with the support of many others) has established an endowed scholarship fund of $600,000 in her name.
At Wheaton, Dluhy was class vice president and reunion chair from 1972 to 1977; taught art history at Wheaton from 1975 to 1976; served as class president from 1981 to 1987; was a volunteer for the Sesquicentennial Campaign; and served as a member of the President's Commission for Coeducation.
She was president of the Alumnae/i Association and member ex officio of the Board of Trustees from 1994 to 2000. Dluhy also was vice chair of the search committee that selected President Ronald Crutcher. She was elected to the board in 2000 and became chair in 2005.
All of that experience has helped Dluhy as board chair, says Wheaton Trustee Debra Kent Glidden '68, who has worked with her on the board for 10 years.
"As past president of the Alumnae/i Association, she brings that viewpoint of intimately knowing the alumnae/i organization, which drives so much of what we do. She also has tremendous academic experience and management experience as head of the museum school," Glidden says.
Dluhy's first experience with the board was as an alumna trustee from 1988 to 1993. That was enough to hook her.
"I found it very interesting work because I was looking at a place that I cared about a great deal at a macro level," she says. "It's all well and good to say I value what Wheaton did for me and how people got behind me when I needed them, that I loved teaching here, that I care about the place, but I wanted to give back by working on its behalf.
"And the board was an interesting group of people, so it was fun to work with them. They cared deeply about the college. I found them serious. I knew they cared about the big picture. And I knew that together we would get a lot done. So I thought, this is going to be very good."
Being a board member is not for the faint-hearted-especially during tough economic times. The role is one of great power and great responsibility that requires members to always keep their eyes on the big picture and make tough, sometimes unpopular decisions.
"Our responsibility is to ensure that the college and its resources are enhanced, supported and maintained so that the college's mission can be delivered now and for the future," says Dluhy.
Being chair is even harder.
"As chair you have to help keep this orchestra of trustees clear about roles and engaged together on behalf of a shared vision for the college. Our role is to support the president, share our expertise, but not execute ideas we may individually hold dear," she says. "In a way, as chair you're like the orchestra leader, a conductor. You want all the voices to be heard. You hope to have people express their opinions and be part of a greater whole as individuals working as a team."
Ask her whether there is a favorite memory that she takes with her and she rattles off many: "Coming on to that board in the moment after the decision to become coeducational and watching members generously commit to projects like the new athletic center that Wheaton would have to have for becoming a really vibrant coeducational institution; watching new dormitories being built; watching Dale [Rogers Marshall] supporting the importance of the liberal arts in really important ways; seeing the beginnings of the college produce the highest level of accomplished graduates who were going on to careers or graduate school and valuing the education; and seeing Wheaton become more global and engaged with students of diverse backgrounds, all carried forward with Ron's arrival.
"I have watched Wheaton transform and hope that I have played a role in that. I've seen Wheaton become a place that I would enjoy greatly if I were a student today."
As she steps down as chair, she adds one more gift on top of the countless hours of work here: She and her husband have left an endowment gift in their estate plan.
"We are not wealthy," she says, "but it's a priority because the college is a gem."