So, what does a Dean do?
Most institutions have what is referred to as the senior student affairs officer. At some universities, their portfolio would include everything from recruitment and admissions to counseling. At other schools it might consist more narrowly of the student life portion, like housing and dorm life.
At Quest this role is generally referred to as the Dean. Sometimes it’s been referred to as the Vice President, sometimes Vice-President and Dean. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of consistency. But in this current iteration we’re going with the term ‘Dean of Student Life’. The portfolio I’ve taken on includes counseling, health clinic, career services, student leadership, sustainability, campus life and housing—and now also athletics.
We haven’t had a Dean since Melanie left. Can you speak to what it was like without her, and how you became Interim Dean?
We’ve been in a state of flux for the last few months. Melanie left to take on an opportunity in China, and Peter and I-Chant gave Student Affairs three choices: “Option 1: we find a Dean immediately. Option 2: we appoint one of you temporarily. Option 3: we wait and create a committee, and go through a national search process.”
We didn’t like option 1, because we thought it’d be difficult to find a qualified person in the middle of the year. The second option would create a vacuum in the current team, and it wouldn’t actually solve the problem of being down a person. The third option was that we could take the roles and responsibilities Melanie had and divide them amongst us while we waited.
So we said, “We’re going to self manage, and we think we can do it until the end of the year”. It worked really well. We’re a small team, we get along, and we’ve been together for three years with no turnover—a first for Student Affairs at this school.
We had an ear with the executive, but we didn’t have a voice. We created a liaison to the executive, and Krystle (tenBrink) took that on.
Eventually the search committee found someone they favored, they flew him out here, and we were ready for him to join the team. He was a likable guy, and we thought he could be an impartial listener, and speak to the values of Student Affairs. But in the eleventh hour they just couldn’t strike a deal. Being from Memorial in Newfoundland, I think it was a cost of living thing—you’re going from one of the lowest cost of living places to one of the highest—and you’re leaving a university that’s a hundred years old, and a public entity that receives almost half a billion dollars a year from the government, to an institution that receives no public funding, and whose salaries are low in the market.
When Marjorie came in and told us there was no deal, we actually cried. We were so emotionally and physically exhausted from holding it together for the whole year. We honestly believed we were going to be able to go back to doing our jobs without having these additional responsibilities.
I don’t think we ever appreciated the mental strain it had put on us. It was palpable. When Marjorie left the room saying she’d consult with the selection committee, and we just looked at each other like, “Now what?”
And then my dad passed away. He’d been sick for a while. Ten days after this meeting I just cleared everything I could from here, went to visit him, and he died 24 hours later. When I came back here, and was just trying to get myself busy to take my mind off things, Marjorie asked me if I wanted the interim Dean position.
I don’t think I was the most qualified person to get the job. I think part of it was I was the last person still standing when the dust settled. When Marjorie asked me if I wanted it, I reflected on one of the last things my Dad said. He had been born working-class poor, but had worked his way up to become the president of his company. I asked him how this happened and he said, by taking every opportunity that came. But I wondered why, because opportunities come all the time. And he said, it was just curiosity—he wanted to see what was on the other side of the door.
So when Marjorie asked me if I would consider it, I asked my family, and my family reminded me what my Dad said, which is when your community needs you, you step up.
I also took the position because Marjorie and I talked about the importance of sending a message to the community that things were O.K. We knew people were worried about Peter’s departure, and I-Chant’s change in position. We knew about the lawsuit Peter filed against the university. We wanted to send the message that things were stable, and we were optimistic.
It was strategic. We went through a search process, we didn’t find who we wanted—but we’ve still got Darren. And so I said, let’s get that out there so we can send some kind of message that things are stabilizing.
Can you speak to the communication between the Board, or the Exec and Student Affairs this summer—were you all notified ahead of time that Peter was going to be fired?
No, we found out the same time everyone else did. However, it would be dishonest of me to say some of us didn’t see it coming. The longer you’re around universities, the more you keep your ear to the ground, you start to see the signs. So I saw things weren’t going great.
But also, having meetings and being privy to the budget last year, I saw that there were improvements to the finances. There was no huge scandal that he and/or I-Chant did that led to this whole debacle.
Not every relationship works. I think that Peter was struggling to find a way that he connected with the Quest community. He was certainly not struggling as a financial administrator. But being a president, you have to be multifaceted, or you have to recognize where you’re not good at things and surround yourself with a team that can do it. I think that Peter struggled with building a team that complimented his character. He tried at the end to reach out to the community, but it was a little too late. And it wasn’t ever genuine. One of the things that this community needs is to feel like staff and faculty are human beings. We wanted to know things about him, but he kept things private.
I’m not at all surprised Peter lasted 22 months, because the relationship was struggling in the first year, and it takes five years to start making significant changes in an institution. So you either have really short presidencies, or you have really long presidencies. You follow on the heels of David Helfand’s seven years with one that’s less than two. That’s the way it goes.
How has being on the executive, meeting with the Board and the President, and seeing the budget affected your outlook on the future of the school?
I’m more confident than I was even six months ago. That confidence began with Marjorie, before I even took on this role. I think the board was extremely astute in selecting her to be our Interim President—not just because she was gone for a year and insulated from the political stuff, but because her disposition is so very genuine in all her relationships, and she acknowledges where her own challenges lie.
The first week she was here, Marjorie told everyone, “I don’t know a thing about being a president. I think in ecosystems, not corporate entities.” So she threw open the doors to the second floor and invited a bunch of us in to help. Instead of just the executive making key decisions, there were fourteen of us. Every question was thrown up on the whiteboard: “Here’s the problem, this is where we’re at. How do we fix this?” Instead of her making unilateral decisions, she consulted broadly and deeply. It was a very different way of approaching how to do this work. It allowed Quest to almost entirely recover from the situation in May.
We are still here today because of the Board’s swiftness and decisiveness in changing our lead horses. And then those horses in deciding they needed help, and that the help was here already. They just needed to let those people be a part of the process.
I wouldn’t have committed to taking on the role if I had been privy to things, saw numbers, and panicked. I took what I did learn to my family, who all work in business, and I learned things are not as bad as I thought. They’re not as bad as anyone thought actually. Things are not bad at all. I’m convinced we have a very good plan now, and I’m convinced George Iwama sees it too. He would never have taken his own personal risk to come here if he didn’t believe we’d be around for another five years. It was actually Peter who said this to me: “Nobody wants to be the president that closes a university.” And I was like, “Good! Glad to hear that’s the way you’re thinking.” But with George, we haven’t even talked in those terms. For him, it’s a matter of being optimistic about the future. And he sees a vision. I asked him about his plans, and he says he’s signing on for at least five years, long enough to make a difference.
What are you excited for in the near future?
I’m excited to work with the Student Affairs team. For four years we’ve gotten better and stronger at working together and delivering what we want to deliver to the student body. Just as Quest has created a paradigm shift in how we do undergraduate education, we have the opportunity to do the same thing in Student Affairs. It’s not just about doing the day to day. It’s about creating a culture and system that guarantees the perpetuation of a top-drawer experience living on this campus. That’s the realm of Student Affairs. And I’m so excited to sit down with the team and ask, “O.K, so what do we need to do?