Around fourty students gathered in Kohlberg last night to meet one of four final candidates being considered to be the new Dean of Students at Swarthmore, Liz Braun. Braun is currently the Dean of Students at Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college in Massachusetts and is also working towards her doctorate in Cultural Anthropology through the University of Massachusetts. She holds a Masters in English Literature from Boston University.
The final three candidates for the Dean of Students position at the College will also be hosting question-and-answer sessions with students during the next two weeks.
The Dean’s Search Committee selected the finalists from a candidate pool that was filtered from over 150 applications received starting in the middle of September through two additional rounds of information-gathering to the final four. Search consultants from the firm of Storbeck and Pimental assisted in the process after interviewing different constituencies at the college in order to develop a picture of what the college community wanted from its Dean of Students.
“We wanted someone who could be warm and accessible … who had intellectual depth and was able to engage with the Swat community on that level … candidates who had a demonstrated interest in and had done meaningful things around diversity and inclusion” search committee member Urooj Khan ’10 said. “Most of all, we wanted someone who made sense for Swarthmore—someone who we could see fitting into the culture that exists here, and truly embracing it.”
The second candidate will meet with students on campus on the 28th & 29th of this month, while the third and fourth will be here the 1st & 2nd and 3rd & 4th of February, respectively.
The back-and-forth of the discussion touched on a range of issues including: multiculturalism, student-dean and inter-dean relationships, alcohol policy, and student health and well-being. In the discussion, Braun drew on her practical experience as a dean at Mt. Holyoke, in addition to academic insights gained from her own thesis research.
Braun jump-started the conversation by asking students at the event two questions of her own. Firstly: “What were your anxieties when you first arrived at Swarthmore?” Secondly: “Where have you found community at Swarthmore?” She responded to these comments by offering examples of programs at Mt. Holyoke that she believed contributed to a campus-wide sense of community. These examples included an annual soirÄ‚Å e wherein seniors surprise first-years, rallying them to serenade the president of the college, and events wherein alumni are invited to weigh in with current students at major decision-points (i.e. choosing a major). Following this, Braun invited student questions.
Diversity and Inter-Group Dialogue
Numerous questions posed to Braun concerned issues of diversity, multiculturalism, and inclusion. “Mount Holyoke is a place that wants you to bring your whole self to the campus,” Braun said. “But, ultimately, you need to hold attention to the fact that all of these things are at play for any given student at any given point in time.”
Following up from a question asked in an earlier chat session regarding her thesis research, Braun began the student Q&A; portion by discussing work from her dissertation, which looks at Mount Holyoke from a cultural-ethnographic standpoint. In this work, Braun studied the relationship between administrative and student perspectives on dean programs concerning issues of diversity.
“On the one side: the cultural organizational-administrative standpoint in terms of what has been put in place to promote and create a diverse, inclusive learning environment. And, on the other side, the lived experience for students on campus—what they get out of those programs,” she said. Braun discovered disconnects between these two sides. For example, in a pilot study she found that students of color at the institution often felt pressured to take on the responsibility to “educate the rest of the communities about issues of race,” despite the presence of administration-based programs to do the same.
In response to another question, Braun mentioned that she had established a preorientation program inspired by the Tri-Co Institute partly designed by Daryl Smaw, Swarthmore’s Associate Dean of Multicultural Affairs, whom Braun met at a conference. She also brought the University of Michigan-based “Intergroup Dialogue Project” model to Mt. Holyoke, wherein discussions are held in which “folks who have historically had conflict over some sort of identity axis [i.e. religion, sexuality, race, etc.]” engage in “community-building” and deep-discussion over an 8-10 week period during the school year, culminating with an “action project.”
On the topic of collegiate diversity, one student recalled significant tensions that emerged during his first year over Coming Out Week. Chalkings that year depicting sexually explicit images were called out by some as being inappropriate or triggering for survivors of sexual assault; in turn, he described, some individuals in the queer community felt violated by the criticism against the chalkings and a few offensive counter-chalkings. “If something like this were to happen again, how would you steer dialogue?” the student asked.
“Any time you get a diverse group of people living together in one community, there are going to be these kinds of moments that come up … the important thing is: how does the community deal with it?” Braun replied.
In her role as a dean at Mt. Holyoke, Braun has facilitated large-scale meetings and smaller-scale dialogues concerning sensitive issues arising on campus. “I need to personally be in the conversation, to hear what folks are saying,” Braun said.
Braun stressed that although, in her experience, campus-wide talk about sensitive issues eventually dies out, it is important to extract as much good from such events as is possible. “When something like that happens on a college campus, it can be the talk of the campus for weeks, and people are buzzing about it and, then, it just goes away,” she said. “When something like that happens, I’m always interested in what can be learned from that so we can continue to improve and build upon the community, so that in the future, resolutions can work better, or work so that, perhaps in the future, the problem would have gone in a different way.”
Similarly, another student prefaced a question by referring to an incident that occurred in 2008 wherein a Palestinian student’s dorm-door was vandalized with hateful remarks based on his country of origin. After contextualizing their question, the student asked whether Braun had had any experience in dealing with such conflicts, and what she had learned from her experience.
“I think it’s really important to empower the student in terms of what the response is … [seeing as] that student has already been violated,” Braun replied. “I really want to engage in a broader conversation while respecting the [targeted individual.]”
Braun contrasted the types of responses she has mediated in the past: from addressing the issue solely on a dorm-level based on a student’s expressed privacy concerns, to co-authoring with a violated individual a letter to the entire Holyoke student body after the individual indicated that they “wanted everyone to know that what happened to them was unacceptable.”
One student asked Braun how she would interact with students who choose to consume alcohol on campus and expressed concern about keeping Swarthmore a “safe space” for all students through the alcohol policy. Braun indicated that Holyoke’s policy was “based on an educational model, wherein the most important thing is … student safety.” As described by Braun, who received a brief description of Swarthmore’s alcohol policy and culture from two students, Holyoke’s alcohol policy under her administration does not differ strongly from that of Swarthmore’s.
When interacting and developing solutions with individuals faced with drug or alcohol violations, Braun explained that her primary concern was displaying compassion towards their unique situations. “What’s most important when it comes to alcohol and drugs is that, a lot of the times, if there’s excessive use going on, it’s just symptomatic of a larger issue. You have to address the specific situation,” she said, adding that in conversations with students she is much more “interested in what’s going on with [students with drug violations]” than, say, damage done to college property under the influence.
Student Health and Well-Being
“A lot of times, in my personal experience, taking care of one’s self [at Swarthmore] gets lost in the shuffle of trying to be ethically intelligent and struggling to not only educate one’s self but also to do good in the world,” a student said. That student went on to ask, “What ideas can you bring with you about taking care of one’s self, in terms of mental health, physical health, and spiritual health?”
“I am a huge proponent of the self-care piece [of student life],” Braun replied. She pointed to student-life programs at Mt. Holyoke that she initiated or expanded, including drop-in classes at their fitness center, weekly interfaith luncheons, and an event “somewhat akin to Midnight Breakfast” during final exams, called the “No-Study Zone.” Braun described herself at the event as wearing a “goofy” get-up consisting of a hard-hat and safety-vest, playfully questioning students as to whether they had brought any notes or books to the “No-Study Zone.”
“In many ways, [in advocating self-care] you’re fighting against the tide of what some students see as the college experience,” Braun said. “A lot of times, students are looking for perspective and permission, that not doing [a given activity, class, etc.] does not make them a less successful student, or a less valuable member of the community.”
Ultimately, Braun said, “you just can’t do enough for self-care. What’s going to work for one student … is not going to work for another student.”
Furthermore, Braun stressed that the Deans themselves should serve as “role-models” for self-care. “[Swarthmore students] all have the intelligence, the passion, the interest do to incredible work, but, if you don’t learn those self-care skills, you’re not going to be able to have the persistence, you’re not going to be able to stay in it for the long haul,” Braun said. “I remember having to learn that lesson, myself … One of the gut checks is: ‘Am I enjoying what I’m doing?’ … does it still bring you that joy, do you still have that ‘ah-ha’ moment?”
Accessibility, Transparency, and Accountability
“I think that two of the most important things I see for the Dean of Students position is accessibility for students … and also transparency. What are some things you see as important to you in those two roles?” a student at the Q&A; asked.
“One of the most important things I can do is to try to make sure that students can see me pretty much every day,” Braun replied. If she were to be selected as the Dean of Students, Braun said that she would “ask students for advice: what are some events I should definitely be at? What are some places where I should just hang out?” Braun also said that she has frequently held Dean’s Office hours at Holyoke’s campus center, and that she oftentimes invites students to her house.
In response to a previous question regarding transparency, Braun said that one of the things she tries to do is to “be as transparent as possible with students about what decisions that they can have an impact on, and those that they are not able to sway.”
One student raised the concern that students’ voices were not represented in some of the college’s key decision-making processes, bringing up the example of the Ad-Hoc Committee’s lack of student members in drafting the budget cuts proposal.
“The relationship between administrative and students has to do with students engaging in those issues, getting to help make decisions, instead of just making suggestions,” Braun replied. “I think it’s not fair to say to students ‘we really, really want your input’ … if that input does not have a direct correlation to the decision being made.”
At the same time, Braun related that Mt. Holyoke had also gone through some “painful” budget cuts. “[Budget cuts] are hard … because someone is always going to be negatively impacted. What you think is a core service or program, someone else is going to have another thing that they think is core to the institution,” she said.
Moreover, Braun said that, sometimes, it was impossible to “use all of the possible information [from students],” but that she would “be upfront when all input can’t be used.”
Braun ended the discussion with another question for the gathered students, asking about what they were looking for in a new Dean of Students—the expectations and hopes that they have for their future Dean.
“I want the Dean of Students to be the doctor of the community … to promote health among the community as an organism, and on an individual level,” a student replied.
“You really need to be very visible, someone who is very accessible … but also someone who has control and strength in the community, as someone who can be a mediator,” another student said in reply. “I think that a lot of problems arise on this campus because people are not brought to the same room to talk. I see the Dean of Students being someone people can trust to bring together those different groups to create a solution.”
Students with input and opinions as to the candidates are encouraged to write student Dean’s Search Committee members Urooj Khan ’10 (firstname.lastname@example.org), Leah Rethy ’10 (email@example.com), and Daniel Chung ’10 (firstname.lastname@example.org) and to indicate whether or not they attended a Q&A.;
In agreeing to coverage of the Q&As;, the Dean’s Search Committee strongly requested that comments be disabled for the articles concerning specific candidates, for issues relating to the privacy of candidates and the mechanics of the selection process. Letters to the editor, preferably from individuals who were able to attend one or more Q&A; sessions, are nevertheless welcome.
Disclosure: Urooj Khan ’10 is Features Editor for the Daily Gazette, but did not have any role in the production or editing of this article.