Students Update on Search for a Transformative, Accountable New Dean of Students

The transformation of the role of Dean of Students, from one of historical violences to one that can effectively address the harm done to members of our community, hinges on the careful appointment of a new candidate to the position. Today, after Elizabeth Braun’s resignation from the Dean of Students position at the end of the Spring 2018 semester, Organizing 4 Survivors (O4S) hopes to reconceptualize the Dean of Students position to have remain accountable to and supportive of the Swarthmore community.  O4S, a group of over 65 survivors, allies, and people affected by sexual violence that started last year and are still working to reform and increase sexual violence support systems – has a central focus on transformative justice. The phrase “transformative justice” necessarily has many definitions, because it is a community-engagement justice/accountability process that can look different for different communities; however, a primary tenant of the framework is a focus on the collective space. People do not only have to consider individuals affected by violence; we can look bigger, at how those individuals are situated in violent spaces. As O4S founder, Lydia Koku ‘18 stated in a previous Voices interview, “My qualms with Title IX were rooted in systemic inequality.”

One such historically violent space is the literal office and figurative position of the Dean of Students at Swarthmore College. Multiple student testimonies have attested to the ways in which the former Dean of Students, Elizabeth Braun’s, actions enacted harm to themselves and our Swarthmore community. In March of 2018, O4S called for Dean Braun’s resignation. First, as Dean of Students, Braun asked inappropriate, invasive, and unnecessary questions to complainants in the adjudication process for Title IX cases. Additionally Braun upheld inadequate sanctions in the Dean of Students’ role overseeing Title IX appeals. Secondly, Braun used the Dean of Students position to employ bureaucratic strategies (i.e. the creation of ineffective committees) to alleviate concerns without addressing the foundational problems of sexual violence and campus inequities. Lastly, as Dean of Students, Braun failed to understand the social realities students of color face as a white woman who, directly and indirectly, made racist, sexist, and homophobic comments to students. This is why up to three hundred students occupied Braun’s office over nine continuous days and argued for her resignation. Literally and figuratively, the office space of the Dean of Students should center students and their needs, especially students from marginalized communities.

The Dean of Students position has the power to oversee many of the staff members and offices that affect the handling of sexual, racial, and class-based violences on this campus. This career position has the capacity to transform what it means to be accountable to student needs on campus, enacting reforms anywhere from Title IX to Public Safety to CAPS. As of today, there are currently three candidates being interviewed for this position.  Now, as (anonymous) students connected to the search committee for the new Dean of Students, we feel it important to share updated, general information regarding the three candidates for the position. We hope to keep the Swarthmore community updated and to continue the conversation around the importance and impact of an accountable Dean of Students.

The Dean’s Search Committee, headed by Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton, began its work last year. They are aided by the talent search firm Isaacson Miller, which is a well-used firm that has picked candidates for presidents at Penn State, Nebraska State, and the University of Iowa. In short, this firm is steeped in the business of higher education, something important to recognize when we consider how transformative the candidates are for Swarthmore’s new Dean of Students.

Over the past semester, nominations were open to the student body and greater Swarthmore community. The search committee narrowed down the candidates and chose three finalists in February. By the end of last week, these candidates participated in conversations with a group of students and professors on campus. These students gave feedback to the committee, which will be included in their report, but the ultimate decision is primarily in the hands of President Smith--not in the hands of the students or the committee--meaning that the requests and opinions of students will not  be the ultimate deciding factor.

The interviews were conducted under strict confidentiality; therefore, we will not name the three candidates, in order to maintain our legal obligations to the search committee. Legally, we can, however, provide general information regarding the search committee process and candidates. Doing so is part of our commitment to transformative justice, because transparency and shared information are necessities for equipping the Swarthmore community with decision-making abilities.

As disclosed by students in the candidate conversations, one of the candidates has a significant background in transformative justice and activism. This has a very clear plan to change the way Swarthmore addresses student concerns and activism and is critical of the way the College responded to O4S last year. Multiple concerns were expressed about another one of the candidates, and interviewers were unsatisfied with this candidate’s responses to questions surrounding social justice and student activism. The third candidate, like the first, is invested in developing better ways to address student concerns, but has less experience and defined frameworks.

There are a few key themes that are consistent in their plans to address the problems that have faced the Dean’s office. All of the candidates express their desires to increase transparency and outreach to students. Furthermore, there are a variety of proposals to improve the high administration turnover rate and role confusion. Lastly, all three candidates have significant experience in similar positions at other institutions.

The finalist will be announced by the end of the spring semester and their transition will begin shortly thereafter. Just as O4S’s founding members dreamed up campus reform last year, ask yourself, in your wildest imaginations, what would an accountable and supportive Dean of Students look and feel like to you? Now is the time to articulate these dreams, to tell our community what we want a Dean of Students to do, and to hold Swarthmore College administration accountable to hiring someone that best fits this community we envision. When the news comes for who the Dean of Students will be, we hope this community update will help Swarthmore students be ready, with their eyebrows raised and expectations imagined for a transformative Dean of Students.