By Elizabeth Casillas, Apr. 26, 2022
Iris Levine first set foot in Cal Poly Pomona and encountered a newly constructed music building devoid of electricity, window coverings and bearing large conduits tunneling to and from the theatre department. At that point, the Department of Music was unaccredited, and Levine entered as an associate professor — the first woman ever appointed to a tenure-track position in the music department.
Thirty-two years later, Levine announced her retirement on April 12, leaving behind a fully accredited and thriving music department that she later oversaw as department chair. Since then, Levine has boasted titles such as associate dean and dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences; interim dean for the College of Education and Integrative Studies; interim provost for Cal Poly Pomona and until July 1, she will serve as special assistant to the president.
“Is that enough jobs for you?” asked Levine.
Not only did she hold these titles, but her work ethic and positive outlook drove her to excel in every position, starting with her time in the music department.
In 1990, when Levine entered the university, a lack of funding and minimal interest created a difficult environment for the campus’ music community. Apart from a lack of funding, Levine also experienced a difference in treatment from students for female faculty compared to their male counterparts; students were used to calling male professors by their respective titles, but when it came to female professors, they used first names, disregarding titles.
Levine quickly worked to turned all of that around.
“The Steinway initiative was all her,” said Janine Riveire, a professor in the Department of Music, referencing the university’s exclusive partnership with Steinway & Sons, a piano company. “She spearheaded the advancement, the fundraising, to make her school an All-Steinway school. We only have Steinways.”
The Department of Music is currently accredited, highly acclaimed and boasts an increase in financial aid the department awards to its students.
According to David Kopplin, chair of the department, Levine helped those outside of the music department understand why music was important and raise awareness for the needs of the department.
Apart from improving the department’s prospects, Levine also formed deep, personal connections with each student who came into her classroom; she still maintains a mentorship role with many alumni and closely follows their professional career, even in the most challenging of times.
In 2013, Levine was diagnosed with cancer, and although she received plenty of support and opportunities to step down from the multiple roles she held, she stayed steadfast in being a constant in her student’s lives.
“She insisted on conducting the concert and keep them going from afar,” said Niké St. Clair, professor in the Department of Music. “She just was sitting down, and she was making music with them. She didn’t take the semester off.”
When asked by colleagues why she chose to share something so personal with students, Levine replied, “I really believe that our students are all going to go through this with a loved one at some point. They’re going to have to deal with this whether it’s a family member, friend or colleague, so why not have them deal with it first and be able to talk to me?”
Levine not only impacted the lives of her students, but her daily interactions with colleagues crafted lifelong mentorships and relationships.
When Nicole Hawkes, chief of staff in the president’s office, first entered her role, Levine reached out first through email and identified herself as an ally and friend. Hawkes recalls Levine being her first stop once she was able to step onto campus.
Similarly, St. Clair acknowledged being pushed and supported by Levine; she was a cheerleader to those around her.
“Every time I felt like I needed a shoulder to cry on or share some joy, I would just go to her office,” said St. Clair. “She was always quick to push things aside and say, ‘OK, talk to me.’ She never threw me out. After years of being dean, I could still go to her and talk about choral repertoire.”
Levine’s friendly personality, and impressive background, enchanted those around her.
“Some people have more of an impact on students, and some will have more of an impact on faculty,” said Terri S. Gomez, associate provost for student success. “Dr. Levine is rare in that she has been equally impactful for both groups.”
Levine described her transition from the music department to CLASS as removing blinders. With each position she was promoted to, another pair of blinders would come off and she would see the college more clearly and understand what happens behind the scenes.
Each new position took effort and time to learn, but Levine always had a grasp on what she was doing and incorporated a methodical approach to job duties; when times were tough, she turned to humor.
“We have been in the trenches during some really challenging times, and Dr. Levine always finds a way to find humor in situations,” said Gomez. “She never takes herself too seriously.”
Even though she transitioned out of the music department, Levine never forgot her home department. In between meetings and during lunches, she would walk through the music department and pop into rehearsals and recitals.
“To me, it was my home,” said Levine.
Music was Levine’s main love, according to Kopplin, and this love was ever present in all aspects of Levine’s personal and professional life.
Outside of her university duties, Levine serves as the artistic director of a Los Angeles-based community choral ensemble she built 25 years ago, Vox Femina. She has performed some of the highest levels of repertoire there, and by working seven days a week, she has been able to continue nurturing it.
Levine was adamant about continuing with Vox Femina even during her intensive job as interim provost, which she transitioned into amid the pandemic. Her tenacious personality and straight-forward problem solving has been admired by colleagues.
“I was probably in trouble more than anybody in the department,” said Kopplin. “But if I did something that needed improvement, she let me know right away. She was unafraid of those conversations, and for a person to grow, you need that immediate feedback. She never let anything linger.”
These personality traits also revealed themselves earlier in Levine’s musical career when she pursued an undergraduate degree in music education from the University of New Hampshire.
After being denied enrollment in music courses, since she was still an undeclared student, Levine sat outside the department chair’s office a full day until he agreed to discuss her admittance into the music courses.
After successfully transitioning into the music department in the University of New Hampshire and later completing her graduate degree in the University of Southern California, Levine joined the campus community and become not just a faculty member, but a friend as well.
“She has an infectious laugh, and when she is not being Iris the administrator, or Iris the dean, or Iris the choral conductor or even Iris the department chair, she was Iris,” said Kopplin. “She will be missed.”
After retiring, Levine plans to continue being the artistic director for Vox Femina, conduct honor choirs, contribute to a book, guest lecture in courses covering women in music and attend Los Angeles Sparks games, but through all that, she will continue being a strong member in the campus community.
“I loved being here at Cal Poly Pomona,” said Levine. “Truly loved it.”
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