If music is the sound track of our lives, the composition that accompanies the journey of Ilse-Mari Lee must be a symphony—rich with varied rhythms, intertwining themes and intellectual substance.
Lee is Montana State University’s newest dean. Last fall, the Montana Board of Regents approved her promotion from director to dean as they elevated the MSU Honors Program to college status, making it the MSU Honors College.
But becoming a dean is only one of her accomplishments. Lee is a first-rate soloist, recitalist and chamber musician as well as an internationally recognized composer. Additionally, she is a scholar, an award-winning professor, a mentor to some of MSU’s most accomplished students and a devoted mother. Her numerous awards include the Montana Arts Council Individual Fellowship, MSU’s Wiley Award for Meritorious Research, and MSU’s President’s Excellence in Teaching Award.
Lee has accomplished all of this with a great deal of grace. Perhaps the secret to her doing so can be summed up in one word: music.
In fact, in the past 24 years that she has been affiliated with MSU, Lee said she has noticed that music is often a common denominator among some of MSU’s best students.
“I have noticed how many of our best students who applied to our (honors) program were also musicians,” Lee said. “We know that participation in music can positively impact students’ test scores and academic performance. And, that is just the beginning.”
Lee’s own life in music began near the beginning of her life in South Africa. The daughter of a piano teacher, the late Barbara van Wijk, Lee was 5 when she first began lessons with her mother.
“At night as I fell asleep I would hear Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven and Bach,” she recalled.
The family home was also rich with books and reading, activities that continue to define Lee today. Lee said her mother remains a profound influence in her life both musically and intellectually.
“My mother was a progressive soul,” Lee said. “When I was growing up, many books were banned in South Africa. However, my mother hid those books in the back of her closet. As a special gift, my mother gave me a copy of Cry, The Beloved Country signed by Alan Paton,” she said of the classic book about the struggle of black Africans in South Africa.
And while Montana is truly Lee’s home now, her South African roots are vital to the woman that Lee is today. She said much of her worldview remains influenced by her South African upbringing.
“When I was 14, riots erupted in Soweto when police officers opened fire on school children,” Lee remembered. A trip to Israel when Lee was a teenager was eye-opening. “I saw how the rest of the world viewed what was happening in South Africa,” she recalled. “It was the beginning of an awakening.”
Her excellence at playing the cello has opened doors for her throughout her life. She earned a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and won the prestigious Jim Joel Scholarship in 1983, following an intense three-day competition. Lee said that winning the prize, which funded three years of studying music in the U.S., was a turning point for her “because it was a testament to the mentors who believed in me. My life changed in an instant.”
Lee received two master’s degrees from Northern Illinois University: one in cello performance and the other in music theory and composition. She received a doctorate in cello performance and pedagogy from the University of Arizona. She came to MSU in 1989 and became an award-winning cello professor.
Nearly from her beginning at MSU, she also has taught honors students and has served on the selection committee for MSU Presidential Scholars at the request of Victoria O’Donnell, who was the director of the MSU Honors Program at that time. About 12 years ago she was asked to teach a popular honors course on music in society that she still teaches. Lee continues to make time for performance. She performs each summer at the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyo. She founded the MSU Cello Ensemble in 1998. While she was its director, the group toured Europe and China.
Lee moved from Howard Hall to the Honors Quads seven years ago when she was named assistant director of the honors program.
“My philosophy has always been: What can I do with my time to have maximum impact?” she said of the shift to the honors program. “I discovered that preparing a student for a major award is very similar to preparing a student for a concert or a competition. It is all about preparation.”
Lee has done an excellent job preparing her students for major awards. In the last year, University Honors students have won Rhodes, Marshall and Udall scholarships as well as a Fulbright Fellowship and four Goldwater Scholarships. In fact, MSU is among the top 10 institutions in the country in the number of Goldwater Scholarships its students have received.
“(Lee’s) dedication to student success is part of who she is,” said Brian Vadheim, an honors student who last year became MSU’s first Marshall Scholar that funded his study for a master’s degree from the London School of Economics as well as a master’s degree in engineering specializing in water science and governance from King’s College, also in London.
“She has helped and guided me since I arrived at MSU as a freshman, and she has always been willing to lend an ear and (too much) of her valuable time for applications, classes, or just advice. What makes Ilse such an invaluable asset to the MSU community is that she doesn’t just embody dedication to me, or to a handful of students, but she manages to impact the lives of all of the students that she encounters.”
Hilary Fabich, now in her second year studying at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom as the recipient of a prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, said Lee has an “extraordinary ability to look upon a student and see countless possibilities.”
“She encouraged me in academics, music, international development, research, travel, and leadership,” Fabich said, recalling Lee’s mentorship and guidance in helping her earn the scholarship. “Now, away at Cambridge University, I carry her with me as an inspiration and role model, and attempt to spread the joy and sincerity that flows so effortlessly from her. I know she reaches out to each student she meets, and her impact on our lives has been more than can be measured.”
Lee said working with students like Vadheim and Fabich has had a transformational impact on her.
“We are providing highly motivated students with access to an education that is equal to that of elite institutions in the nation,” Lee said. “The opportunity for our students to engage in research as undergraduates while interacting with world-class faculty members in seminar and small classroom settings is very special indeed.
“I feel very honored to be here…I feel as if I have found my niche.” ■