Dean of Students Liz Braun on her Six Years at Swarthmore, Coffee, Doctor Phil and More

Dean Liz Braun came to Swarthmore almost 6 years ago, and The Daily Gazette ran an extensive interview with her. In the years since, the paper hasn’t interviewed her substantially. About two months ago, determined to rectify this gap in our coverage, I went to Dean Braun’s Coffee Talk and asked if I could interview her. She said yes, and we negotiated a date, a time, and (at her request) a list of questions.

This interview has been abridged and edited from its original length for clarity and concision, without changing the meaning of any part.

Eduard Saakashvili: Thanks for agreeing to the interview.

Dean Liz Braun: Absolutely!

ES: I came to you with this request at Coffee [Talk] with the Dean, and I also came to Dinner with the Dean last year. What’s the philosophy behind these initiatives? They’re all within the past years if I’m not mistaken, right?

LB: I’ve regularly had dinners at my house with students. But they were always intact groups, so I would do RA’s, leaders from the IC and the BCC, student government, and they were all great.

But what I came to realize over time was that I was only getting to really interact with certain segments of the student population. […] I wanted it to be something where students could just drop in and wouldn’t have to make a huge effort, but it could just be casual. […] One of the things that’s been really fun is that students have ended up connecting with each other at the coffee talks. Students that don’t know each other will end up striking up conversations about classes, or commiserating about something else. […]

The thing I honestly just love about it is the ways in which students’ faces light up when I show up with the coffee and the treats. Yesterday at the Coffee Talk, I said to some students that I feel sort of like the Santa Claus of caffeine, bringing joy to campus. And then the dinners, so this semester I’m doing dinners with RA’s at the house, but then my plan in the Spring is to bring back [Dinner with the Dean]. The dinners were fun because any student could sign up for them and so, as you saw, we got some really interesting conversations going just based on who happened to sign up that night.

ES: In terms of the coffee… what kinds of conversations have there been? Is it mostly, like, is the point to have really deep conversations with students or is it more of a maybe gesture of goodwill?

LB: I think that what’s interesting is the conversations have really ranged and some of it I think is just being that point of contact. […] Students get to see me, and so if there might be a more serious issue down the road or there’s something deeper that they want to talk about they’ll have already had some prior contact with me that might make lead them to think “okay, she’s gonna be helpful.”

But what’s interesting is, a lot of the conversations are often, not surprisingly, about stress, balance, figuring out how to negotiate time. I’ve ended up talking to a lot of seniors and a lot of times we have conversations about life after Swarthmore and how do you balance your commitments in senior year. I’ve talked with some students about making decisions about majors, and so it’s interesting there has been an advising component to it.

ES: You were also a student once. […] What kind of student were you?

LB: That’s starting to feel like a while ago now, but I was a college student. […] I was definitely a very studious student. […] I went to Mary Washington. […] It was a liberal arts college of about five thousand students, so in some ways similar to Swarthmore, but I would say definitely not the same level of intensity about academics.

But I was intense about academics, and so I was able to find a cohort of friends who had similar ideas. And so on a Thursday night a lot of times our peers would be out partying and we’d be the ones shutting down the library and just being generally geeky and really enjoying that aspect. […]

One of the ways that I was known on campus is, so our literary magazine was called the Aubad, and this was back when everything was paper flyers, and part of my job as editor was to write some kind of witty short piece that would be a flyer that would go on all the dining hall tables every week, encouraging people to submit.

ES: Were you involved in campus politics in any way?

LB: Not really. Yeah, that was just not really something that I was as engaged in as an undergrad.

ES: Did you engage politically in general?

LB: It’s hard to remember now. As a college student at the time when I was in college, we were obviously engaged in the Iraq war, so there was a lot of campus dialogue and campus conversations. So I would say less campus politics but more just kind of paying attention to what was going on more broadly.

ES: I wonder how your time in college informed your view of what an administrator should be.

LB: True, funny story: When I was a senior in college, a couple of my close friends, we were talking about life after college, and at that time I was applying to graduate school and my plan was to be an English faculty member. […] And several of my friends said: “You know what, I actually think that you would be a good dean.” And my response was utter horror and to be completely insulted. And I have a very vivid memory that I’m saying: “You think I would be an administrator?” Because again, like most college students, I think that there is often a sense of “Who are those people?” Or sometimes, just developmentally, in terms of the process that every college student goes through [of] establishing your sense of self and your own sense of authority and autonomy. It’s not surprising that college administrators or deans are not always viewed in the most favorable light.

My friends still tease me about this conversation, they say: “We were right!” So I think in terms of how it shapes the way that I approach my work here is: Number one is to always just be cognizant that I can’t always control how students might perceive me. […]

I think I really try, and the Coffee Talk’s a good example of this, or Halloween with the Dean, to give student exposure to me as a real person in the world, right? Or when students see me walking my dog around campus or playing with my son. I think it’s helpful for students in some ways to hold both that I’m the Dean but I’m also a real person who went to college.

I think one of the ironies about some of these perceptions that can develop is […] [that] the reason that I do this work, and the reason that I’ve been in this field for as long as I have, is that I love working with students. I learn from students, they challenge me, they make me be a better person, they help me think. I wanted to be in a job where I’d always be learning new things and where I’d always be challenged. And that’s what I get to do.

ES: You were talking about students viewing deans in an unfavorable way, perhaps. Do you worry about that at all?

LB: The main thing that I try to focus on is doing the best work, right? And just appreciating that you can’t always control how people might perceive you, it’s just not possible. […] I think there can be this sense that there’s only one way that someone in my position might interact with students, but I get to work very closely with student government, I spend a lot of time with the student press, I’m on the committee that reviews all of the Watson fellowship applications. […]

So again, I think that I’m at a point professionally where I can tease out, too, that whenever there might be critique or question, I always try to see, “What do I need to take away from that? What do I need to learn from that? How am I better informed going forward?” But also balancing that much of this isn’t personal, it’s more issues-based.

ES: The Daily Gazette, last year, for April Fool’s, ran this quiz where there were quotes, and people had to guess whether it was you or Dr. Phil. What did you think about that?

LB: I thought it was hilarious. And I will tell you that my husband was particularly proud that he passed the quiz, that he was able to identify all of the quotes which were mine, so he felt very good about himself. […] I felt like the Dr. Phil/Dean Braun quiz was awesome, but I have to say that for me personally the standout [from the April fool’s issue] were the faculty members reading from the RateYourProfessor survey, so I thought that was so clever. It was really great.

ES: To go back to Dr. Phil. What did you think was funny about it? There’s a joke in there, right?

LB: First of all, I always appreciate satire as a whole, right? When it’s done well. […]  think that one of my quirks is my sense of humor. I love humor. I was raised in a household where we were taught early on that humor was very important, and in particular the ability to be able to laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously. […]

I tend to speak in paragraphs, I tend to think in paragraphs, I’ve always been that way. I still remember when I talked to my thesis advisor advisor when I was writing my senior honors thesis, I just outlined what I wanted to do and he said “Okay, what you’ve just described is a book. This is a thesis, so we need to trim this back.” […]

I think some of what makes [the Dr. Phil quiz] funny is that deans are often also in the position of giving advice, right? And so kind of being that voice for the community, and so I thought it was clever.

ES: So you read the student press, is that something you do a lot?

LB: Every day. It’s often how I start my morning, with my cup of coffee and my Daily Gazette.

ES: Or your Phoenix, I guess.

LB: Or my Phoenix, right.

ES: Do you read everything?

LB: Um, probably not. I mean to be totally honest, but I do try to keep up with most of it, and it’s become a family affair. My mom also reads both The Phoenix and The Daily Gazette, it’s part of how she keeps up with what’s going on in my life.

ES: The Phoenix runs editorials every week where they’ll be like “administration do this, administration do that.” What do you do when you read that?

LB: As I said to you earlier, part of my job as dean, as you can imagine, I get opinions and feedback from pretty much every source imaginable. And I look at it as another piece of information that can help inform how I understand what student opinion is, what’s happening outside, what do we need to be thinking about.

ES: But does it matter to you if it’s a student whispering to you in a Coffee Talk meeting or if it’s a Phoenix editorial, is there a difference in stature there?

LB: I actually think they’re both important. I really do. […] There might be students that feel much more comfortable coming in to meet with me and talk to me one-on-one. Both of those opinions are really important and valid.

ES: I wanted to ask you a little more about the press. I’ve heard that as administrators there’s some media training, how to talk to the media. Is this true?

LB: It’s not something that’s done for all positions at the college, but as you can imagine there are certain positions where there is an expectation where you might frequently have to talk to the external press. And so people in those types of positions do get some level of media training. As you can imagine, it’s not the type of thing that people typically know how to do right out of the gate. There is some specialized training and, honestly, the primary focal point of it is just figuring out how to communicate effectively.

ES: So when you’re approaching an interview like this one, what do they tell you to do? What do you learn?

LB: Oh my goodness, it’s been so long since I have done it now. I can’t remember the specifics, but I think a lot of it is about thinking about your communication and thinking about being succinct in responses and yeah, I can’t remember the specifics. And at this point a lot of this is just ingrained because I’ve been doing quite a bit of it for a while.

ES: On Monday I sent you a list of questions, and then we narrowed it down and now we have a shorter list of questions. What do you do with that, how do you prepare for the interview?

LB: Honestly, I really didn’t have time to, my preparation was reading through the questions. What you had sent me, it was so wide-ranging and I knew we were gonna have limited time, so it was just going through and saying, like “Okay, this seems to kind of form a piece,” particularly in terms of what you had said to me about having it be a bit more of a profile and helping students understand a little bit more about me.

ES: I wanted to ask you about the Spring of Our Discontent. […] If you had to explain it to someone, how do you think about it?

LB: I think that that’s a good question. I think one of the most important things to know is just that it was an incredibly challenging time on campus for everyone. It was a really difficult time. But I think you also have to contextualize it in terms of when you think about the broader history of the institution. I think inevitably this is part of how change happens. This is part of how institutions can keep moving forward. […]

But I think the other thing to always remember is that I think in some ways that moment is important, but to me particularly, in my role, what I’m always thinking about is what do you learn from what happened in that moment? What message do you want to take away? And then what action do you need to take to help move the institution forward? And so for me, as difficult as that period of time was on campus, […] I really think it brought increased visibility and dialogue about some really critical issues on campus related to Title IX, diversity and inclusion, sustainability. […]

This type of thing has happened pretty much every campus that I’ve worked on, and so again I think It’s often interesting when you pull back big picture and look at institutional histories and I think there are these moments where things come together and then the most important thing to do is really listen to what you’re hearing.

ES: You said it was difficult… it was a difficult time for everyone. Was it a difficult time for you personally?

LB: Of course.

ES: What was difficult about it?

LB: I mean, obviously when there’s that much unrest on campus, and the level of tension and the level of distress. Distress, I mean that’s really hard. […] For me, I think, one of the things I really try to do is to just be present in the moment. And it’s difficult when people are critical, and there’s a lot of stress on campus in a whole host of directions. And there’s just a lot to manage simultaneously. There are other things that are happening in terms of individual students who are really struggling.

[Administrative Coordinator Susan Lewis knocks on the door.]

LB: Okay! I’ll be there in a second.

So trying to really balance the broad needs of the community, particularly in a time like that, there’s a lot of need.

ES: A lot has gotten better since the Spring of Our Discontent, sexual assault policies have improved for sure. There’s a bigger focus on diversity and inclusion – that’s also true. But there’s been a lot of talk about things that have been lost or things that haven’t been repaired. There was an article in the Swarthmore Review last semester which talked about the rift between students and administration. It was called “Whither the Utopian Consensus?”

LB: I don’t think I read that one, I’m sorry. [Dean Braun later told me by e-mail that she actually had read it, but didn’t recognize the name during our interview.]

ES: The point [of that article] was that there’s been this mistrust between students and administrators. Do you think […] that that’s been [one] consequence of the Spring of Our Discontent?

LB: It’s interesting to hear you say that because, from my perspective, I feel like my relationships with students have only grown since that period of time. […] But I guess what I would say [is], I would welcome conversation with any students about where they feel that there is a sense of mistrust or how we can continue to work on moving forward with that. And that’s something that I’ve worked with the student government on, and other student groups in general.

ES: Specific examples that were brought up [in the article] were the first-year only housing that was introduced last year, that was surprising to a lot of people, obviously the party policies…

[Ms. Lewis knocks again]

LB: I know, I gotta go!

ES: And the schedule changes. […] I think maybe there is a bigger perception of “they’re not on our side.”

LB: Again, I’m here because I wanna make things better for students. I do think that sometimes I’m in a role where difficult decisions have to be made. So taking a few of the examples that you’ve listed, the alcohol policy was one where there were specific decisions and changes that needed to be made, and that I understand were not necessarily popular with students. But, I don’t think you can generalize what all students thought about that. And that was a situation where, honestly, many students approached me privately and thanked me for those changes and felt really positively and felt like there’d been some real positive shifts in the overall social scene on campus as a result of that. […]

One of the other things you had asked that maybe you thought that we might talk about is regrets or things that I’ve kind of learned from. I don’t like the term “regrets,” because again I think that that indicates that you’re staying in one place. For me, the reason I work in education is, I want to always learn. And I think that one of the things that I really learned from the situation with the calendar change was just thinking differently about communication, and particularly communication about policy changes or changes in general. […] And also just creating earlier, deeper interventions for students to offer feedback related to that. […] I think similarly, if you look at the changes that happened with Martin Luther King Day, based on direct feedback that I got from students, I tried to, number one, give folks a heads-up about what was happening, why it was being contemplated, who the key decision-makers were, how students could give input.

And I’m just trying to be a lot more concrete about that, because you’re right, I think in the absence of that, people can feel like ‘what’s happening?’ or ‘why is it happening?’ And then lastly and I do think this is important because I think there’s been some general confusion about the changes with the housing piece, […] I think a lot of students were presenting it as sort of an either/or situation, where I really see it as this is a classic both and. […] I actually think the model of having a mix of class years in all the residence halls is really positive. […] But I also think it’s great to have a real array of housing options for different students. […] I can’t ever imagine us moving a system of having all-first-year residence halls, because I think it’s a real strength of the institution.

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Eduard Saakashvili

Eduard is a film and media studies major from Tbilisi, Georgia. He abandoned The Daily Gazette during sophomore year to focus on his career in club fencing. Big mistake.

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