A calendar hangs on the wall in a corner of Dr. Tasneem Khaleel’s office in Montana State University Billings’ Sciences Building. It’s opened to the month of February 2004.
“That’s the month where it just stopped,” Khaleel said.
It’s the month that she took on an interim role as MSUB’s Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences for a few months, giving up her place as a professor teaching students in the process.
That interim role eventually turned into a permanent job that lasted a little more than a decade, until Khaleel stepped down July 1 as dean to finish her career as a professor of biology in the setting she loves: the classroom.
“I said to myself, ‘Why did I come here,’” she said. “I came here to teach. What am I doing in the dean’s office?”
Beginning this fall, Khaleel will shed the dean’s mantle and once again don that of a teacher.
Her first class back in front of the students will also be her long-time favorite, freshman biology. Khaleel said that entry-level course provides the opportunity to mold students as they figure out what they want to study and to share her enthusiasm and passion for biology.
“Each time you look at those faces in that freshman biology class, there’s a feeling that you just can’t describe,” she said. “You just have to feel it.”
In 1971, Khaleel became the first woman to earn a PhD — her’s was in developmental biology — from Bangalore University in her native India. The next year she moved to Pennsylvania, teaching biology at a private college there, before coming to Billings in 1976 to teach at MSUB, then called Eastern Montana College.
In addition to teaching thousands of students, Khaleel has over the years helped out in MSUB’s grant studies and research department, the modern languages department and chaired the department of science.
Her former boss, Chancellor Emeritus Ron Sexton, said she was the right person at the right time for the jobs and will once again thrive in the classroom.
“She made sure students got the best from faculty and in turn faculty got the best from her,” he said in May. “Tasneem is always the first person to tout the success of one of her own. She took great pride in the success of her faculty because she was always one of them. Her return to the classroom and laboratory will be smooth and the students will be the beneficiaries.”
Her return to teaching also allows Khaleel to refocus on MSUB’s herbarium, a personal project consisting of a collection of preserved plants that she’s grown over the years, from a pair of small wooden cabinets to more than 16,000 specimens filling 20 eight-foot-tall cabinets taking up much of a laboratory room.
One of her goals for the herbarium is to digitize the entire collection and make each specimen available online through regional and national databases.
She’ll also resume teaching upper-level courses in the spring, starting with a 300-level plant systematics course.
Khaleel said that her decision was aided by her belief that the department “is in the best shape I’ve seen it in” during her time at MSUB, something with which colleagues agree.
“The College of Arts & Sciences is far better off now than any time in the past,” said Stan Wiatr, chair of the department of biological and physical sciences. “Dean Khaleel has raised the level of rigor, excellence and success in the College of Arts & Sciences to a standard that should serve as a model for the entire institution.”
In her office, Khaleel will spend the summer getting the room ready for the expected flow of new students and more use.
Maybe she’ll be able to find the time to hang a new calendar as well, but for now, Khaleel is focused that love of biology and teaching into something she can pass on to students.
“It’s getting somebody as excited about what you do, and your subject, as you are about,” she said. “Anybody can teach an ‘A’ student. But if you can get somebody who failed the first exam and get them up to an by the end, that’s real teaching.”