Marc Feldesman, chair of anthropology, will be retiring at the end of the spring quarter after over 30 years of service at Portland State. During his tenure, he has built the university’s anthropology department into one that is now nationally recognized and respected for its progressive research and programs.
Feldesman recalls that his arrival at PSU was the result of a series of “fateful occurrences.” After receiving his bachelor of arts from California State University at Northridge in 1969, he continued his studies at the University of Oregon, where he received his master’s in 1971. Against the advice of his advisors, Feldesman began to teach classes at PSU while still in pursuit of his doctorate, which he received in 1974. He began teaching part-time, and then received a full-time offer when the professor he replaced did not return.
In 1983, then-president George Hoffman offered Feldesman the position of Chair of Anthropology after the previous chair retired. Feldesman recalls telling Hoffman that he wanted to make sure that it was not his job merely because it was his “turn in the rotation,” but because he was the best person to rebuild an anthropology department that was in disarray at the time.
In the past two decades, Feldesman has hired all of the faculty in anthropology as well as the offshoot Chicano/Latino studies department, and he “feels proud of everyone who makes up one of the best anthropology departments in the Northwest.”
Part of that success has been the establishment of the developing master’s track in public policy issues. Candidacy for the program grew by one-fourth more candidates this year. Feldesman found that though anthropologists are often brought to the table as specialists by the government on policy issues, “they should have been at the table in the first place.” The program seeks to achieve this, and is unique in its focus.
When he began his career as an academic, Feldesman was in a field of research that was “very cutting-edge at the time,” in his use of computers to simulate what anatomy might have looked like in human ancestors. In more recent times, his focus has shifted to methodology, theorizing on what the best questions are to ask and how aspects of research can fail. His collaborative paper dealing with the inaccuracy of certain procedures used by forensic scientists in bone testing continues to have notoriety and widespread application.
In the future, Feldesman sees continued growth of the Chicano/Latino studies department, with “the logical step being its move towards a bachelor’s program,” as Latinos are a growing minority both locally and nationally. The personnel that Feldesman has hired in this department were purposefully selected for this development, and he sees its independence from the anthropology department within a few years.
When asked if he could have done anything differently during his tenure, Feldesman acknowledges that he had plenty of opportunities to leave PSU for higher positions at larger institutions.
But he stayed not only because he enjoys life in Portland, but because he was also “raised to finish a job before moving on,” something which he did not feel like he would be doing if he had left. He felt like he had to do all that was possible with building the anthropology and Chicano/Latino studies departments.
He has no regrets about being at PSU, even if it was “frustrating and exasperating at times,” such as the current budget cuts taking place, which he finds “worrisome.”
The problem, according to Feldesman, is that “no one has a clear handle on the magnitude of it all,” and the effect of increasing enrollment at the university. To help alleviate this problem, he would opt for a more selective admission process, which he finds “to be inevitable” as there is no more money for building classrooms and additional resources, which would not make sense anyway as projected enrollment will actually go down in several years.
He has found the role of chair to be a challenging one, as he has remained through several presidents and deans that have come and gone during his stay. The professor has had to establish new relationships each time, and feels that he has been “effective with all of them.”
Feldesman said the position is demanding, and requires “a willingness to lead, and to provide moral and academic leadership,” which can be done by example. It is also difficult to take the dual role of administrator and professor, without fully encompassing either.
Feldesman chose to retire now because it was “the right time” for him and because he wanted to leave “at the peak of success” and while he was still relatively young. It will be a “phased retirement,” however, as he does plan to return in two years to help redesign the freshman inquiry program and teach classes, which will deal with “evolution on a broader scale.” He will also look to travel and spend time with his wife and three children, while doing some computer consulting and programming. He is confident, however, that he can now “leave comfortably, as all the pieces are in place.”