Courtesy of Cornell University

Dean Ray Jayawardhana took the helm of the College of Arts and Sciences on Sept. 1.

September 27, 2018

A&S Dean Ray Jayawardhana Shares His Passions for Collaborative Learning and Astrophysics

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Arts and Sciences dean and astrophysicist Ray Jayawardhana’s interest in astronomy started when, as a boy of about four years, his father told him about people walking on the moon.

He said that at that age, the idea that “there’s something in the sky and you could walk on it” was “kind of mind-blowing.”

His interest “traces back to that early sort of sense of adventure and sense of kind of being just incredibly wowed by the idea that people could travel to and walk on something in the sky,” he said.

He added that, over time, that “excitement about a sense of adventure” developed into a “curiosity and interest and fascination” with the universe.

The Sun sat down with Jayawardhana, who became the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences on Sept. 1, to learn more about his background and his views.

Jayawardhana takes the helm of the arts college during a rigorous discussion on its curriculum. The Arts and Sciences’ Curriculum Review Committee came out with recommendations in the spring, and one idea was to shorten the college’s language requirement to one non-introductory course or two classes of at least three credits each in the same language.

Jayawardhana said this recommendation was discussed and debated in the spring, and the newest version of the proposal, which took into consideration “a lot of this feedback,” does not include the change to the language requirement. The new version, however, still allows students to use sign language to fulfill the requirement.

Another element of the curriculum committee’s recommendations is to institute a pre-major advising seminar for first-year students. Jayawardhana said that a pilot version of the seminar is currently being taken by 500 students.

“This is just a personal viewpoint — I do think that these seminars allow students to engage with faculty early on during their time here, and because they’re meeting with the same faculty over a certain period of time, they have a chance to get to know the faculty member and develop a mentoring relationship that, at least for some of them, lasts beyond the seminar,” he said.

When asked about his opinion regarding the “human difference” requirement that the curriculum committee proposed, he said his view is that the curriculum is “very much the purview of the faculty as a whole, as opposed to a dean.” He added that he is not sure he can “necessarily weigh in at this late stage.”

“I think it’s up to the faculty to really, through consultations and through these discussions and debates, to really come up with what they think is the most appropriate way to set up the curriculum,” he said.

Jayawardhana grew up in Sri Lanka. From middle school onward, he was interested in various subjects, including French and archaeology. But he said his interest in astronomy “persisted at some level … in the background” over the years.

Jayawardhana attended Yale as an undergraduate, and then completed his Ph.D. at Harvard. As a graduate student, he said he observed and characterized “discs of dust and gas around young stars, and how they evolve over time.” According to Jayawardhana, new planetary systems form at these locations. He also was able to utilize telescopes in Chile and Hawaii.

Jayawardhana’s last position was Dean of the Faculty of Science at York University in Toronto. Some of his accomplishments at York were starting a “premier” postdoctoral fellowship program and forging a partnership between York and the Fermilab, an American particle physics lab that is participating in the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment.

“York gets to play a critical role in the next big neutrino experiment called DUNE, which is a multi-million dollar particle physics experiment that Fermilab is … leading in partnership with many institutions around the world,” he said.

Throughout his academic life, Jayawardhana said he has “sought out opportunities to engage with colleagues from different disciplines.”

“I think that one of the things we could do better is for scholars from the full range of disciplines to engage maybe more fully with the public and with high school students,” he said. “So that’s what I tried to do as the dean of science at York.”

Jayawardhana also spoke about the liberal arts more broadly. 

“I think of the humanities and social sciences and the sciences as sort of different avenues for exploring what it means to be human, the human condition, the world we live in, the Universe we inhabit,” he said. “The need to explore through humanistic disciplines will endure.”