What follows has been edited for length. For the full interview, including Dean McCaffrey’s thoughts on the upcoming dining renovations, look on our website, wheatonwire.wpengine.com.
Alex Butcher-Nesbitt: So, you’ve just moved from heading up the Office of Residential Life. How do you compare the two roles — Director of Residential Life and Vice President of Student Affairs — and are there similarities you see that make it an easier transition? Differences and newer obligations that might make it more difficult for you?
Dean Kate: 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, in some different ways … even more [than in my previous role]. 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 … to have this opportunity with a new president is [something] I never imagined I would have … here when it happened. … [I]t’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: 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: 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. It’s somewhat unrealistic about what’s possible in the time that we have, and so 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 it moves forward as well. So that’s a big one; I think the other one is how we help students feel comfortable here, and I think for some that can be more challenging than others … for first-year students 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 [a discussion on] what Wheaton stands for. What is it about us that makes us special? … 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.
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. … We just need to figure out how we can prevent that from happening … and 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: It’s no secret that your predecessor, Dean Williams, faced a lot of controversy over the years, from being declared just a little condescending at times to some actual 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 all 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, versus just writing about it, but I know that’s sometimes harder to do. … I think someone told me that you just have to have 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, it’s just part of the role.
ABN: Are there elements of Dean Williams’ approach that you’d like to incorporate, and/or maybe some things you’d like to change?
DK: I think her [approach to] being the Dean of all students [is] 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. … I guess I haven’t really thought about [what I would change]. Everybody’s different, and I have a very different style than [Dean Williams] 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.