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Incoming Dean of Students Liz Braun

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February 18, 2010

Braun at a Fireside Chat in January. Photo by Brendan Work.

Rebecca Chopp announced Tuesday that Liz Braun, currently the dean of students at Mt. Holyoke College, would be the new Dean. The Gazette had a phone conversation with her Wednesday about her thoughts on the selection.

Daily Gazette: My most immediate question is: what were you first impressions upon hearing the news that you had been selected as the next Dean of Swarthmore?

Liz Braun: Oh, well I have to tell you Jack, it’s actually kind of a funny story. In addition to everything else I was doing last week, I had two wisdom teeth removed… I would encourage Swarthmore students to have that process done earlier rather than later. I had actually been off of work recovering from the surgery for a couple of days, and I was kind of just laying on the couch, wishing my teeth would stop hurting, and the phone rang Friday night. My husband looked at our caller ID—it said something like “unlisted number,” which, around here, usually means it’s a telemarketer. He picked up the phone, and this nice woman asked if Liz Braun was there. And he said, “No, she’s not here right now,” which is our pat response. So, then she said “Well, this is Rebecca Chopp, and I’m wondering if I could leave a message for her.” He very quickly backpedaled and said, “no, no, no, she’s here right now! She’s actually here right now, she can talk to you right now!” I got the news from Rebecca, and I was absolutely thrilled beyond belief. Ever since I had come to campus I’ve been very excited about the position from when I first read the posting—especially since my visit to campus, I enjoyed every minute of it. I have been waiting to hear this fantastic noise. It’s been great to get that phone call… I have—already—just a tremendous amount of respect for President Chopp. In addition to all the amazing things about Swarthmore, the ability to work with her was incredibly compelling.

DG: I’m glad you figured out it wasn’t a telemarketer! That would’ve been pretty tragic.

LB: It was very funny—I think President Chopp understood that my husband was just trying to run some interference for me.

DG: As you just mentioned, you visited Swarthmore… [where] you started and ended the Q&As; with questions, one of them asking the students what they wanted from their next Dean of Students… and, now, you’re the next Dean of Students! I was wondering if you could possibly recount what you feel you learned from interacting with those students and hearing their responses to your question, now that you’re going to be the next Dean.

LB: I have to say first of all… I was just so impressed with the number of students that turned out, which clearly said to me how engaged students were in the process. and the depth of the questions I was asked… the thoughtfulness of both the questions and their responses to the ones I had posed. It was something I was really looking for—being part of a really engaged community where I’d be working with students who really did care about both the institution and what was happening… That was terrific.

Some of the other things I really picked up on both in that conversation and in the other open forum I had with student leaders was hearing a lot about concerns around student self-care. I think that is a persistent issue for your generation, and something I want to be tuned-into as I transition into campus. As I talked about that night, there’s a lot of different ways to think about self-care. I’d like to look at what’s currently being done on campus, and really working closely with students to think about what types of things we might do to help students develop those types of life skills that are really going to help you as future leaders. Things to help balance the stresses of daily life—the intense rigor of the place—and also maintain the joy for what you’re doing.

Another thing that I heard in a number of different conversations with students was thinking about the sense of community. I was really happy to hear that a lot of students really do seem to find community at Swarthmore in a lot of different ways. One thing I was hearing from students was that we should think about more opportunities for students to connect as a larger community, as a whole community. I think that there are some challenges around that regarding space and venue that we might be wanting to think about in the next five to ten years. We should be looking at those moments when the community as a whole comes together. In my experience, sometimes those moments are linked to traditions—Swarthmore has some amazing traditions that I’m excited to participate in. It’s important to look at those traditions and make sure that they stay vital, but also that they evolve, to draw people into them and help people feel connected to the place.

The last thing that I heard not only from students but also from faculty and staff is that Swarthmore’s been in a significant state of transition for these two years… [the loss of personnel] plus the budget crisis has created a lot of challenge in the past couple of years. When you have that kind of rapid transition… it can leave folks feeling, sometimes, a bit unsteady. One of my key focuses coming into the institution will be to provide a sense of stability.

DG: My next question is a bit of a funny question, but also possibly a bit of an unfair question—you mentioned feeling an affinity for some of the traditions at Swarthmore, so I was curious: what’s your favorite tradition? What traditions or traditions really resonate with you?

LB: I will say that I’m intrigued to experience my first Pterodactyl Hunt. I have to say that the Hunt was a huge selling point for my husband. He was a UCLA grad, and he was a core memberof —and is still very connected to—the Science Fiction club at UCLA. He saw [the Hunt] and said, “Those are my people.”

I definitely am intrigued to see how Screw Your Roommate plays out. I think I mentioned this in my Fireside Chat, that one of my closest friends from high school—my best friend from high school—is an alum from Swarthmore… That’s actually one of the things that attracted me to the position, that I’ve had a long history with the college… I have very vivid memories of my friend Chris calling me up when he was in college about Screw Your Roommate, angsting about Screw Your Roommate.

I think, one of the other things that I did get to experience myself is all of the traditions related to graduation and commencement. I was able to attend my friend Chris’ graduation. As you can imagine, as a long-time college administrator, I’ve attended many, many graduations over the course of time. That one still stands out to me as one of the most meaningful and moving ceremonies that I’ve been able to be a part of. Some of [that feeling] is from the unbelievable setting of the amphitheater—which is pure magic as far as I’m concerned—which is just an amazing space for that graduating class to come together. Also, the tradition of going to the rose garden and everyone having roses pinned to their gown—it’s a neat way to show their connection to the institution. Now, I just have to tell this neat story about [my friend Chris’] commencement—it’s one of those things that tells me about the true, quirky spirit of the Swarthmore student. There actually was a student in his graduating class that sewed his own commencement gown in regal purple. The black gown was not cutting it for him—he was clearly cutting his own path.

DG: What did it look like?!

LB: He did sew it himself, so you can use your imagination. He was just making his own statement. It was also very funny—and I will date myself here—as his graduating class was the last one that didn’t have phones in their rooms. As many graduates crossed the stage, they left phone-cords and phone-books at the foot of the president. What I love about Swarthmore is that I feel that it’s a place where students feel a lot of ownership to the college and the feeling of the place… and that that’s really embraced and encouraged. It’s something that speaks to me with regard to the overall Swarthmore spirit.

DG: You’ve talked a lot about things that have indicated that you have a significant body of knowledge as concerns Swarthmore… but, I was curious, what are the kinds of conversations that you want to be having when you come to campus? What are the sorts of things you want to be learning about the Swarthmore community, how Swarthmore operates?

LB: The two questions I asked of [you guys at the Fireside Chat] were “What were you greatest concerns coming into the institution?” and “Where have you found a sense of community?” In some ways, those are two central pieces that I need to understand.

Swarthmore is a place that has a larger-than-life reputation. I’ve overseen the new student orientation program [at Mt. Holyoke]… and, one of the things I always think about is, “How are we doing a good job of helping new students come into the institution and set themselves up for success?” That’s something that’s in the forefront for me. Also, this question of community, and finding out where students find their connections—where do those things happen? By association, then, where are those things not happening? Those are some of the things I’m interested in.

I think, too, I want to learn generally more about what students love about Swarthmore, what frustrates them about Swarthmore. I find that, when you’re new coming into the community… [you don’t have] to work too hard to coax information out of people. I think that people are going to be pretty forthcoming. I think that that’s one of the things that’s neat about coming in as a new person—you’re going to be hearing what at’s the top of their list of concerns.

I think in terms of the ways of getting those types of information, it’s going to be really important for me to be very visible, very accessible, and to have lots of opportunities to have conversations with students in a variety of settings. Visiting with Student Council, RAs, and some of those more formal groups on campus, sure. But, also just hanging out in the coffee bar, or the science center, or the library, or the fitness center, or just walking around campus—being able to have those casual conversations you can have with students just bumping into them…

I’m going to be living in Hallowell House—it’s a beautiful, beautiful house, and I’m very much looking forward to living there. I’ve always lived close to campus, and one of the things I like about that is that I love to entertain. I love to have parties. I can imagine that we will be using our house quite a bit to, say, have large study breaks for students over at the house… and, something that I did for a number of years at Mt. Holyoke was having smaller dinners at the house—getting a schedule and having small groups of 5-7 students have dinner at my house… there’s something about sitting around a dining room table and just talking in that kind of setting that’s fantastic. I’d like to start a “Dinner with the Deans” series.

DG: To turn the conversation toward a different question—you worked for many years at Mt. Holyoke, which is obviously a women’s college. I was curious as to what your thoughts are on the transition between working at a college that’s entirely female and one that’s mixed-gender?

LB: I have loved every minute of the time that I’ve had at Mt. Holyoke… I really appreciate being part of a women’s college as a woman leader myself. I have worked with some fantastic colleagues here who have been role models for me… but, all my experiences prior to that have been in co-ed institutions… What I would say at the end of the day is that, culturally, I’m sure that there’ll be some differences, but in terms of the work I do with students, I think of gender as just one aspect of the incredibly rich identity that each student brings to the table… Gender might be one factor that’s playing into what’s going on for that student or how [a given conversation plays] out, but [gender] is just one facet. There’re issues in terms of class, religion, race, ability, sexuality… for me, as a Dean, I need to be thinking about all of those things simultaneously. Gender will absolutely be one piece of that, but it’s important to hold all of those things together.

The other thing… is that I was excited for the opportunity to come back to a co-ed institution partially because I am now the mother of a son, and for me I feel so incredibly lucky to be raising him on a college campus. I feel that one of the things he’s benefiting from is that he’s had all of these incredible adult role models for him, and he’s had fantastic relationships with the students at Mt. Holyoke—I love the idea of him having both male and female role models [at Swarthmore].

DG: We were just talking about Mt. Holyoke, and I was curious, if you had to pick one lesson—either broadly or specifically—that you learned at Mt. Holyoke that you’d like to take with you to Swarthmore, what would that one lesson be?

LB: For me, one of the things I’ve learned from being here is something that I’ve always carried with me through my career but that has been particularly salient at Mt. Holyoke, is how rewarding it is to really engage with students as equals, in partnership. That, hopefully, they’re learning something from me, but that I’m definitely learning lessons from them… as to how I should approach my work and my life… It’s what keeps me energized. [This dynamic] is constantly changing, it’s constantly energizing. Every day presents me the opportunity to learn something new about my work, about myself, about the world. There are not a lot of professions you can say that about.

Another thing I learned a lot about at Mt. Holyoke… was that, when I arrived, Mt. Holyoke was the most diverse community I had ever been a member of, across every axis. One of the things I’ve learned is just how valuable it is to be a member of a diverse community. My life has become so much richer, my relationships have become so much richer because of the experiences I’ve had really engaging with diversity. It’s one thing to just kind-of exist within a diverse community; it’s another thing altogether to really engage in that diversity head-on and think of what that means to you personally… in terms of how you live your life. I’ve been really indelibly shaped by the experiences I’ve had with students—and also with faculty and staff here at Mt. Holyoke. Taking responsibility for my own learning, my own growth, and challenging myself community—these are things I would like to take to Swarthmore. Another thing is the issue that everyone has a significant role to play in the college community in conversations about diversity. It order to truly be not only a diverse community, but an inclusive community… everybody has to be committed to it. Everybody has to play a part in it. Everybody has to really want it.

One of the things I wanted to say, to go back to your question about Mt. Holyoke as a women’s college, is that while there are some differences between a women’s college and co-ed institution, interestingly, one of the things that drew me to apply to this institution are some of the similarities—culturally—that I recognized between Mt. Holyoke and Swarthmore. Mt. Holyoke has been a community I’ve really thrived in, and… it’s important for me to replicate some of those things [in my next job]. Culturally, I think that the institutions have some real similarities: very passionate students who are very dedicated to intellectual rigor and pursuing their academic passions, balanced with an incredibly warm, caring community. Again, a diverse community that’s really committed to creating an inclusive learning environment. All of those pieces are very much in the forefront in these two places.

DG: Speaking of the linkages… at the Q&A;, and in the e-mail President Chopp sent to the student body, the topic of your dissertation research came up. If I tried to summarize it right now, it’d be terribly misleading, but I was wondering if you could summarize it yourself and tell us how it might inform your tenure as Dean.

LB: My research interests are very linked to my work as a Dean. First off, I don’t think I could possible juggle the two if they weren’t closely related. What I’ve found is that the research that I do helps me be a better Dean, and my work as a Dean constantly raises new research questions. In terms of what my dissertation is on, it’s looking at some of the things we’ve been talking about in terms of diversity and inclusion. It uses Mt. Holyoke as a case study looking at how institutions, predominantly white institutions — unfortunately, most institutions of higher education are still predominantly white despite the many gains that we’ve made in terms of racial and ethnic diversity—but looking at how those institutions, and specifically small liberal arts college, look to create a diverse, inclusive learning environment. It’s a multi-sighted approach where I’m looking at it both from the administrative angle—what sort of programs, positions, experiences is the institution creating and supporting toward that goal—and, on the flip side, I’m doing a lot of interviews and analysis with students with what is the actual, lived experience for students of those programs and of life on campus in general. I’m trying to understand how the college is meeting those goals and where there are disconnects. It’s an applied research project, and I hope that by the end of it, I’ll be able to draw some conclusions about policy implications within higher education… what are key issues for taking the next step forward? My focus is primarily on race, but [my dissertation] also looks somewhat at class and gender. I’m interested in taking things to the next level in improving the overall institutional environment. Some pieces of that include where issues of race are visible on the college campus, and where they are invisible—more hidden—and how that affects students in their day-to-day lives.

DG: As a minor point, I’m curious: Is this something you’ll be working on while you’re starting at Swarthmore as well?

LB: Yes, that’s the million-dollar question! I’ve been working on my doctorate in anthropology since I started it, ironically, the year that my son was born—he was born the day before I was supposed to start my first class in the anthropology program in 2005. Before that, I was working on a doctorate in higher education for four years, but I ended up getting sucked into anthropology. It’s been a long journey. I often say it’s like being a method actor—I really want to know what the students are experiencing on a gut level… the stress, the caffeine, the library, I want to experience it first hand. My plan is that I will have finished collecting my data by the end of this year. The reality is that I’ll be chipping on it through the course of the year… but, I’m also realistic that, starting a new job, it will take a little longer to finish. But, I’m really OK with that! The first year of any job on a new campus, the priority has got to be being visible, being connected, and really being focused on those pieces. It will get done all in good time.

DG: I wish you all the best in managing that!

LB: It’s fun to be able to commiserate with students over that. It’s been better since I’ve been done with my coursework—you can imagine that I’d be trying to write these final papers at the same time that my poor students are having their end-of-the-semester crises and melt-downs, and that was pretty intense!… It’s not unusual for me to be in the library here—it’s a fun way for me to get to connect with students.