Karen Laughlin, 1949-2020

Tributes paid to a ‘steely’ dean of undergraduates who helped forge a new generation of leaders

May 28, 2020
Karen Laughlin
Source: Florida State University

A literary scholar who transformed the student experience at Florida State University has died.

Karen Laughlin was born on 4 December 1949 and studied for a BA in English and French at Duke University (1972), which included a semester in Aix-en-Provence, France. She secured a Fulbright Fellowship to return to France to teach English at a secondary school in Limoges before going on to both an MA (1974) and a PhD (1982) in comparative literature at the University of Toronto.

In 1982, however, Dr Laughlin moved to Florida State, initially as an assistant professor and then, from 1987, as an associate professor. An authority on modern drama, women’s studies and critical theory, she co-edited a volume on Theatre and Feminist Aesthetics (with Catherine Schuler, 1995) and wrote many articles and chapters on writers such as Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett.

Alongside her teaching and research, Dr Laughlin took on major managerial roles at FSU, as the department of English’s director of graduate studies (1993-96), president of the FSU faculty senate (2000-02) and finally, from 2003 until her death, dean of undergraduate studies. It was here that she left her most lasting mark on the university by setting up the Presidential Scholars programme, which selects and then invests in undergraduate students with exceptional potential in order to forge a new generation of transformational leaders.

Yet Dr Laughlin was equally committed to the whole student body. She ensured that all incoming undergraduates built solid academic foundations during their first two years, and she introduced a system of “academic mapping” to help them graduate in four years.

The results were record freshman retention and four-year graduation rates during Dr Laughlin’s time as dean. She attended the latest (virtual) commencement ceremony, which awarded more than 5,600 bachelor’s degrees and was streamed on 2 May, just two days before she died.

Sally Karioth, professor of nursing at FSU, said Dr Laughlin “had a quiet dignity that didn’t need accolades or recognition” but was accompanied by “a steely core that no matter what the situation, you couldn’t cajole, wheedle or blackmail her into doing something she didn’t think was morally right”. After they met for lunch on 3 May to discuss the many challenges in taking care of students during the current semester, Dr Laughlin sent her a cartoon with a caption summarising her philosophy of life: “Educators are the only people who lose sleep over other people’s children.”

She died the following day of unknown causes.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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