Facing administrative turnover, Vassar looks toward future

Spring is a time of change both within Vassar and beyond its walls, and this year, the College community not only bids farewell to another cohort of seniors, but also sees significant shifts in its administration.

On May 8, President Elizabeth Bradley announced the departure of Dean of the College Christopher Roellke from his administrative role, noting his decision not to pursue a third term. After a sabbatical, Roellke plans to return to his position as Professor of Education and his work with the Vassar College Urban Education Initiative (VCUEI), which he founded in 2003. Also on May 8, Dean of Students Adriana di Bartolo announced via email the departure of Director of Health Education Renee Pabst, who has accepted the position of Chair of Health Education at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, NY; and Director of Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) Charlotte Strauss Swanson, who will begin a doctoral program in counseling psychology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. While they are not departing the College, current Director of Transitions and House Advisor to Davison and Josselyn Capria Berry will fully take on the role of the inaugural Director of Transitions.

Reflecting on Roellke’s administrative tenure, Bradley said, “It has been a pleasure to work with Dean Roellke this year as he has welcomed me to the College. Dean of the College is one of the most stressful jobs you can have, and very few people want to do it for more than 10 years, and I think he had a very impressive run here[.]” On February 12, 2017–2018 VSA President Anish Kanoria sent an email to the student body ad- dressed from the Dean of the College Review Committee, comprised of six students and faculty members and tasked with conducting a reappointment review of Roellke. The message invited campus community members to anonymously share their thoughts, noting that they were most interested in hearing from those who had worked with Roellke on the various committees on which he had served or chaired.

Roellke emphasized how his tenure as Dean has been an honor and a privilege, adding, “I feel like it’s a job that I was very well suited for…as my background is as an educator, and I believe this role, while it’s fundamentally about leading, is also fundamentally about teaching and learning.” Corroborating Bradley’s sentiment and looking toward his renewed engagement with the Education Department, he noted, “I think particularly in higher education leadership, it’s almost unheard of these days to do more than two terms, and so the timing was right for me and my family, and I think also for Vassar, and I’m really eager to get back to my roots in K–12 education and also continuing to promote access to higher education.”

Looking back on his signature achievements and objectives, Roellke pointed to the establishment of the first-ever Mission and Vision statement for the Dean of the College division, the 2017 revised version of which states, “The Dean of the College division educates and supports students in their intellectual, social, ethical and emotional development. In facilitating the academic and personal achievement of our students, we advance their goals both as individuals and as members of a diverse and inclusive residential liberal arts learning community.” Roellke noted that shortly after he began as Dean, the College faced the Great Recession of the late 2000s: “[It] presented both a challenge and an opportunity, the challenge being trying to maintain a high level of student affairs service in a period of time when we were sort of tightening our belt.” Despite financial difficulties, Roellke said, the College has been able to triple its commitment to financial aid over the past decade, while also diversifying the student body and making strategic investments in initiatives such as Campus Life and Diversity, Title IX and Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention. Referring to the latter two programs, Roellke recalled, “When I first came to Vassar, that whole domain was a fraction of one person’s job, and, given the national as well as the Vassar context on this, it’s very important that we make substantial investments in the area of sexual assault and violence prevention, and those investments are ongoing, but I think that’s an accomplishment.”

Roellke noted recent attention to the area of career development and life after Vassar, including the Internship Grant Fund and Sophomore Career Connections, and highlighted investments in mental health, including three new full-time staff in the counseling center. Roellke was also involved in creating crisis-planning mechanisms, including a response manual and technological tools for situations such as extreme weather or an active shooter on campus.

In addition, Roellke pointed to the transformation of dining services and of the All Campus Dining Center, which represents the culmination of a six-year project. Acknowledging mixed responses on the shift, he said, “Any change at Vassar comes with some trepidation, and there [were] a lot of folks that were worried about it, and I think that the 93 percent satisfaction rate in year one is a testament to the fact that it’s been a very successful transition, even though we still have more work to do.” Discussing the desire to ameliorate food insecurity among students through a non-transactional dining system, Roellke added, “We were learning from particularly our senior students that, maybe coming from lower income families, eating healthy and eating regularly was a challenge.”

Roellke emphasized the importance of learning both inside and outside the classroom, which he has championed through his work with the VCUEI. Such efforts necessarily require, as well as encourage, engagement with the wider Poughkeepsie community. Roellke said, “As we make explicit goals to diversify the student body, I also think we need to bring careful attention to our own local community, and I very much want that to be a two-way street. So not that we just use Poughkeepsie as a laboratory, but rather Poughkeepsie can also take advantage of the things that are on our campus that could be culturally and intellectually enriching.”

He identified one area in need of resources as maintenance of student housing: “We have some residential facilities that are the ‘haves’ and we have some residential facilities that are the ‘have- nots,’ and although we’ve tackled about 70 per- cent of the rooms during my time as Dean, there’s still 30 percent that haven’t gotten the attention that they need[.]” He also pointed to the need for greater investment in training faculty and administrators: “[W]e have a different student population than we had just a decade ago, and sometimes that requires new skills, new understandings, new vocabularies, and so as I reflect back on the last 10 years, I wish that we had a few more resources to devote to professional development.”

Contemplating the characteristics and qualities he would like to see in his successor, Roellke maintained, “I think the nature of this role requires a student-centered leader, who can bolster faculty commitments to the lived experience, and who can foster even greater collaboration among faculty, staff, students and administration.”

In terms of the broader direction of the College, Roellke stated that an ideal successor would embrace strategic planning and the Engaged Pluralism Initiative (EPI), as well as evincing a dedication to the hidden aspects of the job—that is, the work with internal and external audiences that may go largely unacknowledged but remains crucial to success in the role. Considering both triumphs and areas to which he would have liked to be able to pay greater attention, Roellke acknowledged, “I think it’s impossible to take on a leadership role like this that’s as student-facing as it is and not be yourself, so I would like to say that I’m really grateful that over the last decade I’ve been permitted to be myself for whatever strengths and weaknesses that may bring[.]” He concluded, “I also hope my successor will have fun in the job. I know that may seem silly, but the work is challenging, serious and important, but if you can’t have any fun along the way, I think that the term is likely to be short in the role.”

As Vassar begins its national search for Roellke’s successor, the role of Interim Dean of the College will be filled by Associate Dean of the Faculty and Academic Resources and Associate Professor of Sociology Carlos Alamo-Pastrana, a selection announced by Bradley on May 9. Bradley discussed Alamo-Pastrana’s experience and perspective, noting, “I’m really eager for him to come in with new ideas that aren’t at all even on my radar, and have him challenge everything[.]” According to official governance, the search committee consists of four members of the faculty elected at large by the faculty, three students and one administrator who is not among the President’s senior staff. Bradley stressed the key role of community involvement, noting that students, faculty, staff and administrators will have the opportunity to meet candidates during all-day visits.

While members of this search committee have not yet been elected, Bradley noted that she hopes the next Dean of the College will have strong experience with inclusion and diversity, a willingness to embrace initiatives such as EPI, an ability to build strong relationships with students and preferably a strong background in academic research and teaching. Pointing to health and wellness as a key area for continued investment, she described recent expansions in mental health care, increased support for transgender students, developments in religious programming—such as the establishment of a Muslim prayer space—and attention to safety for undocumented students. In terms of her own relationship with the new Dean, Bradley added, “I think we also want somebody who questions things, and is willing to challenge the status quo, someone who has initiative and new ideas to help us grow.”

Considering the departures of Pabst and Strauss Swanson, Bradley said, “I am sad to see them go, but I think also, as always, it provides an opportunity to think through these positions, to strengthen them.” She noted the wealth of feed-

back from students on improving SAVP, and affirmed that Strauss Swanson’s successor should have a deep understanding of the history and accomplishments in that realm.

Strauss Swanson reflected via an emailed statement, “This work is not easy and I feel so fortunate to have collaborated with many wonderful colleagues and students to collectively address sexual violence in our community. I see my transition into a doctoral program as a natural next step and a great opportunity for me to continue my professional growth.” Noting that she was hired as a coordinator and later promoted to a directorial position, Strauss Swanson recalled her work advocating for increased resources in violence prevention, including the creation of a full- time Violence Prevention Educator position and two additional student intern positions focused on prevention-based education, as well as her role in developing, implementing and analyzing Vassar’s campus climate surveys on sexual violence.

In terms of what she would like to see her successor accomplish, Strauss Swanson expressed, “I hope the campus community continues to promote policies that are survivor-centered and trauma-informed. I think there is also a need to expand educational programs during all four years and in course curriculums, engage student leaders in prevention work across campus and reach the entire student body with information about the support resources available.” Looking ahead to her personal objectives, she added, “My hope is to influence systemic change to improve [support] for survivors and to contribute to the growing field of violence prevention and response.”

Pabst, too, emphasized her enjoyment of her time at Vassar and the positive impact on the community that she believes she has left behind. In an email, she described some of her key achievements as creating a full-time SAVP position, in- troducing bystander intervention programs for sexual assault and alcohol, reducing the number of alcohol-related EMS calls by 40 percent while ensuring that 95 percent of students still reported feeling comfortable making the call for help and implementing the Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS) program for students who are seen for alcohol and other drug referrals. As for her new role, she elaborated, “I took the position at Hackley because it was too good of an opportunity to turn down on both a professional and personal level. The position at Hackley is a new position that was created to work with the community to design a K-12 health education curriculum, work with other departments and the larger community to integrate a new wellness facility and make Hackley a leader in student and community wellness—as a health educator it is an amazing opportunity and so exciting.” Expressing her appreciation for her student coworkers, Pabst added, “I just want to say a special thank you to all my current and past Wellness Peer Educators (WPEs) who have worked in the office over the past ten years with me.” On the topic of Pabst’s successor, di Bartolo noted, “We’ve changed the name of the health education position to health promotion and education, because we really want to ensure that this person is really promoting global health and wellness among our entire community.”

Berry, who is departing the Office of Residential Life but remaining at Vassar in the new role of Director of Transitions, expressed their enduring commitment to Transitions in an emailed statement, noting that they worked their way up from Student Affairs to Coordinator of Transitions to Co-Director to their current position as Director. They added, “Also important to note here-my personal story includes being a first generation college graduate, from a low income background. I entered into campus activism in college in a movement supporting my peers involved in Undocumented and Unafraid. I am invested in this work within higher education because of that entire picture.” Considering past accomplishments and looking toward the future, Berry said, “As a House Advisor, I had the opportunity to make my houses my own. [O]ne of the luxuries of living on campus is to be able to easily support our students as people. It is important to see them on their best and worst day, certainly AND everything in between … This same kind of everyday interaction exists as Director of Transitions also which is fantastic.” They continued, “In this new director role, I am excited to create change where it is needed. This may mean providing more structural support and interacting more with institutional policy and that is a shift for me.”

With an official start date of June 1, Berry hopes to devote their summer to building a strong foundation, noting, “Ultimately, I hope to continue to contribute to this culture shift, where it becomes automatic for different members of the campus community to think about low-income, first gen and/or undocumented students whenever they come up with a new idea.” In terms of their hopes for their successor, Berry maintained, “As House Advisors go through interviews soon, I do not want anyone to think of them as my specific successor. I want the incoming HAs to be their own professional. When people are looking to join the Vassar team, it is my hope that they are people who enjoy meeting new people, checking in with people, creative and ultimately will be the House Advisor their students need.”

Bradley expressed her enthusiasm for expand- ing the Transitions program, recalling, “I met with the Transitions students, I read the report that [Associate Professor of Sociology Eréndira Rueda] and her students did on focus groups over the summer…they identified all the things they need and what the issues were, and it was very clear to me they needed a director.” She af- firmed, “Transitions, as far as I see it, is a flagship program. I actually think it’s one of the best you could find in a college like this, where students who are first-generation, low-income, come in and are really, I think, supported.”

Echoing Bradley’s sentiment, di Bartolo said, “Capria isn’t going too far away, but we’re definitely going to miss them in Dean of Students and Residential Life…I think becoming an inaugural director of an area that is so important to the heart of this college, we have the best person in place for that.”

Summing up the effect of the administrative departures, di Bartolo observed, “It’s a bittersweet and exciting time for the [C]ollege, and I think anytime we lose somebody it helps us think about what are the needs of our students, what are the needs of the College … how are we looking at this as a really exciting opportunity to continue to meet the needs of our students?”


One Comment

  1. Dear Talya Phelps,

    My name is Lilli Specter, and I work with an organization that works to prevent suicide and improve college students’ mental health) and decrease instances of loneliness and isolation through the creation of spaces on campus where students can unmask themselves and feel loved and supported being their true selves.

    Having read your recent article http://miscellanynews.org/2018/05/27/news/facing-administrative-turnover-vassar-looks-toward-future/, I would be interested in discussing mental health on college campuses with you.

    Our Founder and President, Jared Fenton, (who I imagine would be glad to speak with you as well) started this organization started at Penn in response to the suicide of Maddy Holleran (a student at his school), and he did so with the understanding that students were suffering from an inability to share their true feelings with others. Jared later performed the first-ever mixed-methods research on the issues of social media, depression, Penn Face, and college students’ mental health.

    While our organization began at the University of Pennsylvania and grew to have over 600 members there, we now have chapters at Barnard College, Columbia University, Cornell University, Queens College, and more, serving hundreds of students each month. If you would like to see how the Penn chapter operates, below is the link to a segment CBS local news did about it a couple years ago.


    We run this same program at all our chapters, in addition to a program specially designed for freshmen.

    Thank you for bringing light to the important topic of mental health.

    Lilli Specter

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