Jan Reiff’s journey from her childhood in a small Midwestern town to UCLA, where she is the new chair of the Academic Senate, took an adventurous  turn on Chicago’s elevated trains  — the “el” — during her undergraduate years at Northwestern University.

“In the town I grew up in, almost everybody had a German surname,” recalled Reiff, an associate professor of history in the College of Letters and Science. But riding the el to sites around Chicago to be a volunteer tutor to disadvantaged kids, she was amazed to discover “there were people from everywhere and from every race, every color,” not to mention dozens of distinct neighborhoods. “You’d get off on one el stop and be in a totally different world.”

Fascinated and eager to learn everything she could about Chicago and other urban centers, Reiff switched her major from chemistry (she’d planned to become a doctor) to history. While completing her Ph.D. at the University of Washington, she worked at Chicago’s Newberry Library as a research fellow and instructor in its National  Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored institutes for historians interested in using computers and statistical analysis in their teaching. She subsequently taught at Case Western Reserve University and, in Germany, at the University of Bremen as a Fulbright professor.

In 1992, Reiff joined UCLA’s faculty, bringing research and teaching expertise on how cities come to be, change and grow, and establish their place in the larger world — a framework that might well apply as she leads thousands of faculty colleagues in the veritable city that is UCLA.

These are times of significant change for UCLA, Reiff said, pointing to ongoing problems with declining state funding, a surge in international student enrollment and the new challenges this brings, and the push to incorporate technological innovations in everything from online classes to collaborative research worldwide.

The important question at the heart of these issues, said Reiff, is, “What does it mean for UCLA to be a great research and educational institution? This is a question that everybody asks and which the Senate has a particular role in.”

Reiff is well-prepared for her new leadership role, having steeped herself in Senate concerns for nearly a decade. Starting in 2004, she volunteered to serve on the Senate’s Graduate Council, which she chaired from 2007 to 2009.

“I’ve had many graduate students, fostered many Ph.D.s,” she said. “Graduate students occupy an interesting and important place in the institution. I was intrigued with how to make the graduate experience better here.” Among the council’s accomplishments during her tenure was the passage of a parental leave policy for graduate students.

She has served on and held leadership roles in Senate committees on teaching, degree programs, department reviews and academic personnel, among many others. She also involves herself in campus life beyond the Senate: During this week’s fifth annual Volunteer Day, she joined fellow Bruins at Leo Politi Elementary School in L.A.’s Koreatown to talk with the youngsters about going to college — a subject near and dear to her.

Reiff was the first in her family to attend college. “I went to a private university, but my education was mostly paid for by the State of Illinois” in the form of a merit-based scholarship. She has a special appreciation for public universities like UCLA, “where you have a population of people coming to college for the first time.

“What makes UCLA the outstanding institution it is are its creative and committed faculty, its excellent and diverse student body, and the staff that hold it all together.”

In these times of change, she said, it’s crucial that more faculty members take part in the Academic Senate as strong partners in shared governance. “This isn’t top-down. We don’t have two or three people at Murphy Hall saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do this year.’ Instead, we have people at Murphy Hall saying, ‘This is the money we have; these are our resources. Now help us think through the best way to make UCLA a really robust academic, educational and research environment.’”

One issue of great concern to Reiff and other faculty is that of technology in academia. Reiff has deep roots in the digital world, having worked with technology even before the advent of the World Wide Web. In the mid-90s, she returned — virtually — to the Newberry Library where she served as co-editor of the award-winning Encyclopedia of Chicago, published in 2004 both as a print volume (University of Chicago Press) and as a digital publication on the Newberry website.

Reiff has also been using digital tools in her UCLA classes for years. She won the Academic Senate’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2009, lauded by students and colleagues alike for her ambitious multimedia presentations and for having students use Hypercities — a historical mapping tool and website developed at UCLA — to download their research findings about historic neighborhoods in her GE cluster class on Los Angeles.  

She has a broader view of educational technology as well, having served on the evaluation panel for the University of California’s Online Instruction Pilot Project as well as UCLA’s joint Senate and Executive Administration Information Technology Planning Board.

While Reiff sees a place for online tools in academia, “I don’t think online education is ever going to be the model,” she said. “Every teacher teaches to their own strengths,” be it delivering a gripping lecture on Russian literature or creating an innovative video.

What’s more, she noted, “part of what makes a place like UCLA so interesting is you meet other people. You share ideas. And it’s harder to do that in online.”

Ultimately, she said, “the Senate needs to make certain that educational considerations drive the deployment of new instructional technologies … Having faculty thinking about research, the curriculum and how they interact with each other helps make UCLA the kind of exciting place it is.

“We have so many imaginative researchers and teachers here, so many great ideas. If the Senate can capture these ideas, incubate them and bring them to the table, we can better accomplish our goals.”