Dean of College search narrows

Pictured above is the Dean of the College office, currently occupied by Interim Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana. Located in Main Building, the office provides space for students to consult the Dean. Courtesy of Jessica Moss/The Miscellany News.

The Mission and Vision for the Dean of the College position is as follows: “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…liberal arts learning community” (Dean of the College, “Mission Statement”). The four candidates seeking to fill that role are Vassar’s Interim Dean of the College and Associate Professor of Sociology and Latin American and Latino/a Studies Carlos Alamo-Pastrana, Director of Marist College Honors Program and Associate Professor of Philosophy James Snyder, UC Irvine Associate Vice Chancellor for Wellness, Health and Counseling Services Marcelle Hayashida and Rutgers University School Counseling Coordinator and Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology Caroline Clauss-Ehlers. Former Dean of the College Christopher Roellke, who declined to endorse a candidate, shared qualities he believes the Dean of the College should have. “I hope that the Committee will secure a candidate with a strong understanding of the higher education context, particularly as it pertains to highly selective, residential liberal arts institutions,” he wrote in an email. “I also believe bringing a positive, optimistic demeanor to this work is essential.”

Nine months after Roellke’s departure, Vassar’s Dean of the College Search Committee is in the process of interviewing the final candidates, one of whom will be selected by the Board of Trustees. The Committee is composed of Tamar Ballard ’19, Robin Corleto ’19 and Takunda Maisva ’19; Associate Professor of Chemistry Zachary Donhauser, Assistant Professor of Music Justin Patch and Professor of Earth Science and Chair of Earth Science and Geography Jill Schneiderman; Dean of First Year Students Denise Walen; and Director of Athletics and Physical Education Michelle Walsh. By order of the 2018-19 Governance of Vassar College, the professors on the Committee were elected, while the administrators and students were appointed. Their purpose is to find the new Dean of the College, someone who will meet the needs of Vassar’s varied community.

President Bradley invited all students to participate in 45-minute open forums for each candidate, after which they could provide feedback via a Google Form. Few students attended these events; audience size ranged from one to seven depending on the candidate, and no students unaffiliated with VSA, The Miscellany News or the Search Committee made an appearance.

The first candidate to host a forum, Interim Dean Alamo-Pastrana, spent his time addressing specific problems at Vassar and identifying possible solutions with audience input. “We’re terrible about conflict,” he told attendees. “We don’t debate when we’re upset with each other, and this isn’t just students.” Alamo-Pastrana did not shy away from what he saw as Vassar’s weaknesses.

“One question on the National Survey for Student Engagement shows that only 27 percent of Vassar graduates rate student services as excellent,” he said. Students from Vassar’s peer institutions, according to Alamo-Pastrana, rate their services as excellent 39 percent of the time. Mentioning his extended office hours, he encouraged students to visit to speak with him. Alamo-Pastrana voiced his support for Vassar staff as well as students: “I want to cultivate a workplace where all employees feel valued and supported.” He explained how a more supported staff could result in more supported students, as Vassar employees who work with students on a daily basis are often not consulted on student-related matters. When asked what he believed to be the most pressing issue at Vassar, Alamo-Pastrana answered, “Mental health.” On that subject, he asked what the audience thought the administration could, in his own words, “start doing, not stop doing.” He took notes on their responses and asked several follow-up questions.

Marist College’s Snyder chose to spend most of his 45 minutes asking what it was like to be a student at Vassar. “My current position at Marist is very student-focused,” he said, “and you gain trust, respect and credibility with students by showing up.” After listening to audience members share thoughts on Vassar’s student life, Snyder brought up experiences at Marist that related to the audience’s most discussed issues: mental health and diversity. In his first year as Director of Marist Honors College, Snyder relaxed the academic requirements and standards for Honors College students. “My colleagues thought I was foolish, but I saw it calm students who were worried about the future,” acknowledged Snyder. He added, “My decisions tend to preference students over the faculty.” Snyder is a philosopher by training, and at Marist he ran a set of classes about finding meaning and value in life, notions he would like to impress upon Vassar students as well. “Vassar seems like a very innovative place to me,” he observed, “and I want you to continue to have meaningful conversations and openness to change.” On the topic of diversity, Snyder also mentioned his experience at Marist: “We’ve had some catching up to do there, and we’ve done a lot of catch-up.” When asked what diversity meant to him personally, he answered, “Diversity to me is like a lifestyle the school has to live. We have to revisit it all the time.”

Hayashida is a Vassar graduate, class of ’96. A trained psychologist, she values her job in Counseling Services where she manages student wellness and health promotion. “I get to talk about the things I would read about for fun every day,” she remarked. In her current position, her responsibilities include disability accommodation, sexual assault prevention, childcare services and general health issues. Hayashida discussed her dealings with the hot-button issue of free speech on campus, recalling her words when UC Irvine announced that right-wing polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos would be coming to campus at the invitation of the College Republicans. “The best way to challenge speech you don’t like is with more speech,” she told her students, some of whom believed Yiannopoulos should be barred from speaking at all. Additionally, Hayashida noted her admiration for Vassar’s Engaged Pluralism Initiative (EPI). She said, “I’m glad the college has gone so far as to now celebrate engaged pluralism, where you can fully express all the talents of the student body.” Hayashida viewed the Dean of the College position as a connection between student voices and higher administrators. “What do students need? How do we manage a problem, fix it, tweak it?” she contemplated. “I will express the desires of the students, but won’t necessarily advocate for it, if I disagree.”

Clauss-Ehlers, the final candidate to host a forum, also voiced her admiration of EPI: “Collaborating with EPI is central to this role, and I would really view it as looking at intersectionality, at identity across different identities.” Clauss-Ehlers spoke often of how she linked administrative transparency to administrative success, in both the context of EPI and generally. “As a licensed psychologist in the state of New York, I have a professional responsibility to explain why it is I think this is what we should be doing,” she said. Her background in psychology has led her to believe that the mental health of students is a top priority for college administrators. She cited a study showing that 30 percent of young people experience depression and anxiety, adding, “What I would want to see for this role is both… micro-level, more individualized mental health interventions and larger [interventions].” To forge community on campus, Clauss-Ehlers would begin by listening to the student body: “I think the first step is listening to what people feel, being responsive to what is important, what’s been working and then what are the gaps.” Clauss-Ehlers also mentioned a goal to expand Vassar’s community beyond the campus. “I think it would be really important to make connections with Poughkeepsie to see what kinds of relationships and partnerships could be built,” she said.

Safety and Security, the Dean of Studies, the Associate Dean of Residential Life and Wellness, Student Growth and Engaged Student Activities, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and the Associate Dean of Professional Development report directly to the Dean of the College. The Dean must reman available to students, and, as most of the candidates noted, manages a wide portfolio that changes when a new person inhabits the role. One candidate remarked, “I could throw my sandwich out the window and hit someone who was qualified for this job here.”

In an emailed statement, the Search Committee offered some final words on their mission: “The search has been a collaborative process among Vassar students, faculty, staff. The committee is grateful to those members of our community who participated in the search.”

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