Full Interview with Dean Kate McCaffrey by Editor-in-Chief Alex Butcher-Nesbitt

Alex Butcher-Nesbitt: So, obviously you’ve just moved from heading up residential life, and I’m wondering how you compare the two roles and whether there are similarities you see that make it an easier transition, or whether there are differences and newer obligations that might make it more difficult for you.

Dean Kate: Well, I don’t know if I would use the word difficult, but I would probably say that there are lots of similarities. I get to work with the same staff at the associate dean/director level, which I’m really excited about; I get to connect with students, still, [but] in some different ways, and I’m enjoying the opportunity to branch out from the RA’s and hall staff … I’ve done that to some degree but I feel like in this role I’ve been able to do it even more so. I think what’s different in the roles, too, is that I serve on the President’s Council and so to be able to get to know our new leadership and be part of that group has been an exciting opportunity as well and to be on the leadership team of the college is something that I’m enjoying. And I think to have this opportunity with a new president is an exciting time — I never imagined I would have the opportunity here when it happened. I think when Dean Williams decided to leave it was a pretty sudden announcement that happened and so I’m honored to be able to step into the role and …  and to have that opportunity to work across staff and students, and really help in ways that I can to be able to enhance the student experience here and serve in that role, which I feel like I’ve done in my prior role over the last four years, but this is more broad than just the housing piece. And getting to work with the great folks who are on the team – that’s a perk, too. And being able to stay in the same place — it’s something that I’ve been thinking about career-wise, is this a position I would want to have at some point? And some point came earlier than I thought it would, so it’s nice to take advantage of the opportunity.

ABN: Is there now a vacancy at Residential Life, with your departure to serve as interim Dean? Or are you still keeping up with some of your obligations in that department?

DK: I am keeping close contact with the res life staff. Ed was associate director, now he’s interim director, and we’ve hired an AC who … [will] work with Ed on some of his associate director responsibilities. But there is a vacant position in res life, and so that’s why I’m still staying somewhat connected there. We’re [directors] all pretty connected on campus anyway.

ABN: So are they hiring for that vacancy?

DK: So, there’s an interim plan, and what I’ve heard is that they’ll be launching a search for the Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students position this fall, with the hopes of finishing the search by the spring semester. And then we’ll determine what [positions] need to be filled after that.

ABN: Do you have any idea of how long you’ll be in the position? Will it be through the academic year?

DK: I’ve committed for that; I think January is the shorter side of that, but it depends on whom they hire for the Vice President position and when that person is available and when their start date is.

ABN: Switching a little bit to your new role, how do you envision yourself as DOS?

I want to be accessible for students, and available, so some of the things that I did in my former role I’ve just started to do a little bit more of, around engaging with different student groups in different ways, so my hope is students see me as a resource and as someone they can come to if they have a question, and to be able to lead the staff who work in our division to be able to do the same. I think we have really talented, committed dedicated Student Affairs staff on this campus and so really my role is to maintain that and to be able to help us accomplish what we want to … for our students in this coming academic year.

ABN: Do you have a list of action items you’d like to accomplish? Maybe a top three?

DK: I have a really long list, and as other staff would tell you I always have a really long list, I’m somewhat unrealistic about what’s possible in the time that we have …. I think one … is the dining services renovation projects, and so I’m staying pretty involved with that project as it moves forward and hope to engage students in that … as well. So that’s a big one. I think the other one is, how do we help students feel comfortable here? And I think for some that can be more challenging than others … like seniors, I think you probably are pretty comfortable, but for first year student that can be more challenging, so how do we help them get connected to this community? And the other thing that I’ve started … is what does Wheaton stand for? Like what is it about us that makes us special? And [what are] our values as an institution, and what does that mean to be a member of our community, and what do we stand for together? And so I’m looking forward to having more conversations around that topic with students in a variety of different ways, and we’ll be working with some student groups including a couple of theme houses to put together some short films around that, which I hope will be launched sometime later this month. So I’m excited about … that project because … part of one of the challenges on any campus but especially one like Wheaton’s is sometimes it can be challenging to be part of a community like this, any community, and so being able to talk about this real stuff I think is important, and then being able to do something about it, and so how do we come together around some of our challenges and find ways to be better, together? It can’t be me or the president or someone saying “here’s how you need to be,” it has to be “here’s how we want to be and how we aspire to be and here’s how we want to do it.”

ABN: You’re certainly a huge part of that though, and I’m wondering if, when you think of what we as Wheaton community members value, there are words that pop to the top of your head?

DK: What I’ve heard from students … [largely] mirrors what we talk about with staff and faculty: that sense of community, people are friendly and nice, there’s a level of respect, and with that comes honesty and trust, and I think there’s this sense of collaboration, both in the classroom and outside the classroom, and so I think those were some of the key highlights of some of the conversations that we’ve been having since the summer. And there’s of course lots more words that can be used to describe Wheaton, but those were the ones that seemed to be the most resonating with others and myself.

ABN: I’m wondering if you see any large challenges ahead of you as you head up the Student Affairs division.

DK: To be transparent, this past week was challenging. Because I think we had some students who made some really … bad choices about what they did and their behavior. And so I think for us as a college, we have to now somehow remedy that with our community that’s nearby … And so I think that’s the challenge, is how do we keep in mind, wherever we are, on or off campus, [that] we have standards and expectations as a community and those need to be both in and out of our roads that surround us. And I think that’s probably the most pressing challenge on my mind, and on our minds, because we don’t want to have students disrupting our neighbors … and I think this past weekend we had complaints from all sides of campus, and so we need to figure that out in a way that makes sense, and still allow students to have fun and do what they want to do in a safe way that doesn’t disturb other people.

ABN: So that seems to be a recurring tension – between how much authority your office and Public Safety can exert without coming across as draconian, and between fun and student life. I’m interested in your take on that continual tension.

DK: I don’t think Wheaton is unique in that way, I think every campus deals with that in a different way, because no campus is really isolated … so having worked at multiple colleges, some of which were in more college-like towns than others, part of it is, how do we find a balance between what we can expect from students and what our neighbors can expect from us? And I think each year what’s hard about a campus is each year the students change but for the most part, the neighbors have been here for a really long time, and for them it’s, “oh, those Wheaton students are back!” And I think part of it is, it’s the first weekend back, I think people were seeing each other for the first time, excited to be back, and I know that and I get that, and I want people to have a good time, too, but at the same time we can’t do it at the expense of people’s safety … what is damaging peoples lawns and property, and peeing on porches, and waking small children up, and that kind of thing. We just need to figure out how we can prevent [that] from happening. And I do think to some degree it’s people making choices where their awareness level is diminished significantly and so they just aren’t aware of their surroundings, so they are just not aware of their surroundings or what they’re doing or how loud they are, and we just need to be more aware of that. … And how can we show the Norton community that we can do that? So that’s the action item. Don’t tell me, don’t speak it, do it. […]

ABN: Contrastingly, there anything that you’re really excited about, in regards to what’s coming up for the year?

DK: I’m just really excited at the energy I’m feeling on campus that started in early August, and I hope that we can sustain [the momentum]. I’m excited about the conversation I mentioned, around what do we stand for; and I [was] excited last Friday afternoon walking around the student activities fair — I’m always in awe at that event of how much our students do and how much they’re engaged in this community in so many diverse ways, and for a campus like us that’s special and that’s unique. So I’m excited to be able to see the performances, the programs, the plays the things that come from that. Because I know how hard students work to be able to do those things and to follow their passions and I love to see the outcome of that as it gets going in the semester, whether it’s in the studio, on the field, or in the lab, it’s fun to see. It’s hard, because I’m a student, too, still, and I really have other things I want to be doing than writing my dissertation … I need to get back at that.

ABN: That’s exciting.

DK: Yeah! So my goal is to finish it this academic year … . That means actually doing something with the document other than opening it on my desktop, but once we get through the first few weeks I can get back into a routine with it. […]

ABN: That’s a big year, for you then –

DK: And I’m getting married! In October, so that’s exciting. So everybody has to get used to a new name, including me, which will be fun. … I’ve decided that I will take Jim’s name, so it’ll be Kenny, Kate Kenny. So that’s fun. So just a little bit going on …. but all good and exciting things.

ABN: At the risk of taking a slightly darker turn, it’s no secret that your predecessor faced a lot of controversy over the years, from being declared just a little condescending at times to some sort of misplaced accusations of racism. Do you think that controversy is something that is part and parcel with the job?

DK: I do think that’s part of it. I think in any leadership position, you’re open to criticism, things taken out of context, saying things that you don’t really mean, because we’re human, or having things misinterpreted, and so I think that’s the risk of stepping up and being a leader. And so my hope is that if people are concerned they’re willing to have a conversation about that [instead of] just writ[ing] about it. But I know that’s sometimes harder to do, and that’s why I really want to focus on how we as a community can work together around some of our more difficult challenges, whether it’s …. drinking, social justice issues, how do we improve spaces on campus for students so they feel comfortable and want to be in them — and that’s why the dining piece is so huge — but I do think … you’re looked at differently [in a leadership role]. Every community has the same kind of thing, and I think it comes with that, being a leader certainly comes with that territory. I think someone told me that you just have to have a thick skin when you’re in a role like this, so I’ll be working on that. And I hope that I don’t need it as much, but I’m sure I will, its just part of the role. And I think given my experience, both here and other places, I’ve certainly had lots of different experiences that help me figure out how to manage what might happen here.

ABN: Are there elements of Dean Williams’ approach that you’d like to incorporate, and also maybe some things you’d like to change a little?

I think … her being the dean of all students … is really important, and I think she and others I’ve worked for have done that before, and that’s really important. Our students may be in difficult situations, but I’m the dean of all students. And so keeping that perspective is important and I think that’s something that she did really well, as difficult as that can be sometimes. And so my hope is that I can continue in that vein. I think you asked me what I would change? I guess I haven’t really thought about that. Everybody’s different, and I have a very diff style than she did about how I interact with students and what I do and so I think that alone is going to bring some different elements to it just because of my nature and my style. We’re different people and I appreciated a lot of the things she did and how she did them, but certainly I have a different style about that.

ABN: Dean W had her D-Logs, I’m wondering if you plan to continue that?

DK: My hope is that the short films that I mentioned will be a conversation starter that we’ll post in a variety of locations for people to give feedback … or write to me about. I’ll probably still communicate via email … but my hope is that the videos will in some ways take the place of that .… I’m also on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, and so as students want to connect with me that way, I’m happy to do that. I’m not as good about doing it a lot, but I’m trying to do it more frequently. […] I think another thing that I would [in terms of what I am] looking forward to is [that] I’m excited about where we’re headed with some of the work around the sexual misconduct [policy] .… [W]e’ve implemented some new training and new orientation programs we’re hoping to get to upper class students and have some real student interaction there and so I’m excited about some of the work we’re doing around that, because it’s such an important topic.

ABN: We got a grant for it, is that correct?

DK: Yep, we’re in the third year of thee year grant and our hope is to apply for an extension as well as to reapply for the grant so that we can continue some of the work.

ABN: What will the work involve?

DK: [The grant] has different prongs, so one is sort of having your policy and process in place, and having people trained who can hear cases as they come up. The other is awareness and education activities, and then training for faculty, staff and students …. One of the projects that we’ve been working on since we got the grant [has been] working with [Playwright-in-Residence] Charlotte Meehan … and she’s been working with a group of students to write a screenplay, and … will actually show the play in the spring. And so we’re excited about that, and seeing what that looks like. So that’s just one of the pieces of [the work facilitated by the grant] …. My hope is that one of the videos, the short films I mentioned, the one in October will be around the topic of sexual misconduct and violence.

ABN: Perhaps one of the ways your presence is most directly felt is through your close interaction with the Student Government Association, and I’m wondering how you feel about student initiatives this year, like the budgeting process that was completely revamped last year?

DK: I think it needs another year to see if [the budget changes] make sense, and if they work. Any time you make a change like that, it can’t happen overnight. You have to see how it works for more than just a year. I’m excited about the fact that this group is continuing some of the work but also taking on a lot of the work of redoing the constitution and making it up to date — I think that’s a hard job to do. And I’m excited to have them run their elections, and have a full group in the next couple of weeks, and then see where they want to take some of the ideas that they have. So I’m looking forward to being a part of some of those conversations.

ABN: I wanted to ask you a little about the dining hall renovations — what’s your take on them so far? Has there been any progress made on what students are going to do while Chase is closed for most of the spring semester?

DK: I’m excited about them. Actually, the architects brought in some sample furniture options today, and SGA exec and class officers were able to walk through and test them out and get a look at the plans. We’ll have the plans up soon … it’ll be announced shortly, probably by the end of this week or early next week. [Update: the plans are online and can be viewed here:] And then next week our goal is to talk with students in the dining halls during mealtimes, [with] both Aramark staff and our staff, about what they want to see during the transition. There’s a lot of logistics yet to be determined with that …. We have ideas about how we can make the temporary part tolerable, but we want to get feedback from students, too, about that: what do they want to see, what don’t they want to see? We’ve talked about having food trucks in, we’ve talked about having an event as dinner as an option somewhere else on campus, that people can get a ticket for and use their meal …. One of the Aramark managers mentioned … one night a week, maybe, we could do delivery service, or something like that. Do we want extended hours at the cafes? And, if so, what should those look like and what should the offerings look like? … So we just actually talked about that this afternoon, and next week our hope is to have people at certain meals asking questions of students … but also handing out a short quarter sheet survey to get some feedback about that. So that’s in process, and our hope is [that] by the end of the month we’ll have more ideas about that.

ABN: I’m wondering – there’s been a lot of talk, overheard here and there, about difficulties in getting off the meal plan, and how students often don’t feel satisfied with what’s on offer, and I’m wondering how some of those concerns will factor into the new dining services program. What might be in store for those requests in the future?

DK: Well, there’ll be more options for meal plans. Right now we have the “all you can eat” just in Emerson and Chase …. So some of the program is changing, especially in Emerson …. I think that’s going to be more flexible for students who want to go to the cafe and swipe and have a meal off their meal plan taken off …. I think [also] with our allergen-free zone in the new Chase space, we’ll be able to accommodate more student needs regarding the top seven allergens. [We’ll also have] a whole gluten-free area. I think the Balfour-Hood Café … is going to be more of an eco-friendly cafe, so more local ingredients, organic when they can, that kind of thing. And really, if you live on campus, other than in a house or apartment, we don’t have the space [and] we’re not set up to have people be cooking for themselves, and so I think we really want to get away from that, and so I think, as it stands now — and this has shifted this year a little bit as we’re anticipating these changes — … there’s very little reason to get off the meal plan, and I think we’re really working hard with our dining services staff to be able to accommodate most student needs. It may take a little work and a little conversation and working together to figure out what makes sense, but we’re really working hard to be able to have what students want.

ABN: You mentioned student input on the spaces and new furniture, as well as what’s happening during the spring; is there going to be input from students who have attempted to get off — or currently are — the meal plan? Do you know if there are plans to bring them in at all?

DK: I know as I’ve been talking with students I’ve been trying to get their input, and I think, yes, there would be reason to get that group together and talk about what they [are looking for]. Especially as we’re developing menus for the new spaces, which will give us a lot more flexibility in how we prepare and serve food, I think that will certainly be part of the consideration there.