Wilcox and Sams Leaving for NYU Abu Dhabi

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Two Deans will be leaving Swarthmore next January to take positions at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. Kelly Wilcox, the Assistant Director of Student Life and Academic Adviser, and Tim Sams, Assistant Dean and Director of the Black Cultural Center, announced their departure earlier this month. They will be joining former Swarthmore President Al Bloom, who is now Vice Chancellor at Abu Dhabi, and former Dean of Students Jim Larimore, who is Associate Vice Chancellor for Campus Life & Dean of Students.

It is an “anomaly” for so many Swarthmore administrators to leave in such a short time, said Myrt Westphal, Swarthmore’s Associate Dean for Student Life, but starting “from the ground floor” is a “very exciting proposition” for the many administrators that Abu Dhabi needs by the time it opens for its first class next August.

Wilcox, who will be the dean in charge of student learning services at Abu Dhabi, was contacted by the search committee for that position. “I wasn’t looking for another job,” she said, “definitely not. I love what I do here.”

Sams, on the other hand, found a listing for the position of Associate Dean of Students in the Chronicle of Higher Education and sought it out. He said that after more than twelve years at Swarthmore, he is ready to do something else. Yet for both of them, the familiarity of much of the team there was a significant draw: “I have a sense of what to expect,” Sams said.

Creating an International Liberal Arts College

The university in Abu Dhabi is a satellite campus of New York University. It aspires to have a truly diverse student body: “We will enroll a number of highly qualified students from the UAE and the Middle East as part of our globally diverse student body…[but] it is possible that there will be no majority at NYU Abu Dhabi in terms of nationality,” Larimore told the Gazette in an email.

The first class, which will begin classes in September, is expected to have around 100 students; the university will expand to an undergraduate enrollment of 2000 students over the next five years. It will begin at a two-building downtown campus, but will later move to permanent facilities on Saadiyat (“Happiness”) Island, which are currently under construction.

The university’s curriculum is based around the liberal arts tradition; all students take part in a core curriculum for the first two years, while the university offers opportunities to branch into 18 different possible majors. Strong relationships between faculty and staff will be cultivated by a small professor-student ratio, claims the NYU Abu Dhabi website, much like at Swarthmore. Faculty and students will live in the same residential dorms near campus, departing from traditional college layouts, although they will live on separate floors. “We think this will also foster a wonderful sense of community among all members of the campus,” Larimore said.

The university also plans to take advantage of its central location in downtown Abu Dhabi by offering students opportunities to go on regional excursions around the country and the region during long weekends or breaks between semesters, as a supplement to the traditional classroom education. “One of our goals is to break new ground in terms of pedagogical strategies, and to blend or bring into closer alignment opportunities for experiences outside of the classroom,” said Larimore.

Part of the university’s appeal for Swarthmore staff are its commonalities with Swarthmore’s foundational philosophy and in the campus culture they expect. “Some of the similarities include outstanding students taking classes from extraordinary professors, an emphasis on small class sizes and lots of opportunities for students to work closely with faculty, a close knit community that fosters learning and engagement outside of the classroom, and an emphasis on the cultivation of intercultural understanding and ethical intelligence as part of the educational experience,” Larimore explained in an email to the Gazette.

“It’s a unique model they have” at NYU Abu Dhabi, said Wilcox, “not just in that city but in that region of the world. I read a lot about how it’s not just the outcome, but the process that matters…and I could see [that ideal] manifesting in every realm of decision being made there.”

Leaving Swarthmore for New Opportunities

Al Bloom announced in May 2008 that he would be stepping down from the Swarthmore presidency a year later, in August 2009. Then, in September 2008, it was announced that he would become the Vice Chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi.

Later, in May 2009, Larimore announced he would be going to Abu Dhabi that July, after being contacted by a search consultant from NYU. He said he hesitated to leave, but was lured by the the opportunity to create a liberal arts college from ground up. It was also important that Abu Dhabi is the center of “an important place,” said Larimore. Since then, they and the rest of the Abu Dhabi team have been working to set up the university to begin classes just a year later.

Sams too was attracted by the opportunity to be an educational innovator, where he could find a “a clear merger between the theoretical and pragmatic ends of learning, putting even more teeth into the ethical intelligence model of training the best and brightest in the world.” At Swarthmore, his primary role took the form of supporting students as an adviser and an advocate in the administration. Dean for Multicultural Affairs Darryl Smaw said, “his voice will be missed…as we get caught up providing services, he reminded us that it’s still about students.” Before coming to Swarthmore in 1997, Sams served as the Director of Multicultural Affairs at Williams College.

Twelve years is unusually long to stay in one position, said Sams, considering that administrators average four or five years, but he continued to stay because he enjoyed the community. By the start of this year, however, he was actively looking for another position; he contacted Larimore and Bloom about opportunities in Abu Dhabi before noticing the advertisement in the Chronicle. He applied through an open search process, which was looking for four Associate Deans.

Sams will serve as Associate Dean of Students at Abu Dhabi. “I will have both…intercultural affairs and civic engagement…under my supervision,” said Sams, “and will be able to address multicultural and social justice education in a more seamless manner.”

Wilcox has also been at Swarthmore for a long time; counting her undergraduate years, she has spent fourteen of the last sixteen years here. She was a member of the class of ’97, then spent two years at a boarding school in Wales before returning, first as a field hockey coach and eventually gaining administrative roles both under Student Life and Academic Advising. She received her ten-year employment award last week. She was not planning to leave, however, until the search committee contacted her and particularly until after she visited the campus.

The decision process, she stressed, has been “extremely difficult.” After she visited the Abu Dhabi campus in late November, however, she “came away thoroughly impressed”; she was “blown away by prospective students, potential colleagues, the values behind the school, the values embodied by the people on the ground now planning.”

Her visit to campus coincided with one of several Candidate Weekends, where prospective students visit the school, and she had the chance to “sit back and hear the exchange” among students from five different continents. “They reminded me so much of Swarthmore students,” she said, noting for students’ benefit that “that was a tipping [point in the decision], so you can blame yourselves” for her departure.

At NYU Abu Dhabi, Wilcox will oversee Student Learning Services. Her position will involve supporting students in their academic careers by organizing study groups and peer tutors, as well as the creation of something along the lines of Swarthmore’s SAMs, in addition to directly supporting individual students. The international nature of the school, she said, makes that task much more complicated. She noted that she will “have to work really hard to think critically” about cultural factors, differences in educational backgrounds, and communication styles in her work. “I’m just really excited to explore that,” she said; “I’m going to have to learn from them and work alongside them.” She has been working on a Ph.D. in higher education administration at the University of Pennsylvania; this job, she said, will give her more opportunity to not just “stand on the sidelines and debate, but to get in there and be a part of it.”

Sams’s reasons for choosing NYU Abu Dhabi as his next step after Swarthmore are also based on his interest in approaching multiculturalism, though he takes a different approach to the matter. Rather than focusing on closing societal gaps in the U.S., as he says he does at Swarthmore, Sams seeks to test a model that is based on the assumption of plurality. “I believe that there is tremendous merit in the ‘speaking truth to power’ model of social justice, but I also believe that when you get the world’s best and brightest students you don’t simply say to them, ‘convince the powerful to be more inclusive’, I believe you take those students and teach them how to build new and liberating institutions, or what has been called ‘People’s Power.’” Sams cited the international mix of students as a different environment where this model might reach fruition.

“As an intellectual and student developer,” he said, “what I am interested in is the act of asserting people’s agency as free people. If I believe myself to be a free human agent who creates history, then I want to author my own history, not ask, as my only method of social change, to be a footnote or participant in other people’s history.”

Another factor in their departures might be the unavailability of opportunites for career advancement in administrative positions at Swarthmore. Dean Westphal said that professionals like Wilcox and Sams “need other experiences to become the best they can”; the very different environment of Abu Dhabi will help them develop their careers. Westphal noted is that at a small school like Swarthmore, “the administrative path is very shallow: it’s very hard to move up.” Although staff, including Wilcox and to a lesser extent Sams, can “take on many different tasks and learn different things,” it is more difficult “to move up [to] more responsibility and more salary.”

Both felt, too, that having worked with so much of the administration at Abu Dhabi will help them as they transition into their new jobs. “I have a sense of what to expect, by virtue of the president of the campus there and I know how to work with Larimore, the things that I know what to do,” he said. Wilcox agreed, saying that she is glad to have “familiar faces,” who she knows will share certain common values and goals for the institution as it moves forward.

Part of the draw for Wilcox is that NYU Abu Dhabi is an entirely new school, starting essentially from scratch. (“There are just not new colleges and universities started,” said Westphal. “To be on the ground floor conceptually, is just a very exciting proposition.”) The first class may only have 100 students, but administrators will have to figure out how to scale up to a 2,000 student university over just a few years. “There’ll never be a dull moment,” she said. That expansion process “is where I feel NYU’s presence the most; they set their goals high, but they also provide the scaffolding to reach that height.”

Wilcox noted, though, that before her visit she had some reservations about possible human rights issues in Abu Dhabi. Human Rights Watch, for example, released a report documenting labor abuses on Saadiyat (“Happiness”) Island, where NYU Abu Dhabi (as well as the Guggenheim and the Louvre) will have its main campus. Wilcox said that she “asked Jim Larimore specifically about that.” NYU, she said, “has some of the highest standards for rights and wages in Abu Dhabi.” They have “set the bar high,” and they “hope that others will follow suit…but ethically, they would not have moved forward until they addressed that.” The university’s Statement of Labor Values is available online. But, said Wilcox, “it’s one thing to read about it on a website, but what it looks like for the people involved with the project, in building the school, is something else.”

When asked about this, Sams said, “If there is some talk about social inequalities in the UAE, there are inequalities. There are inequalities in the U.S. and around the world. In some ways it is arrogant of us to pick on the social inequalities of other worlds, as a way of justifying our not being in those countries working in progressive ways. Education is a powerful social change agent and I hope to be part of NYUAD’s efforts in this regard.”

Replacing the Deans

Dean Smaw will be temporarily taking on Sams’s role as Director of the BCC, while another dean will be taking over Sam’s position as senior class dean. Dean Smaw said he wanted to “ensure smooth transitions…my goal is to work with students of the BCC as an advocate and listen to them, and continue the mission of the BCC established by Dean Sams.” Westphal said that she expected a search committee for a permanent replacement will be formed over the course of the next semester. The BCC is entering its 37th year.

Some students feel abandoned by his sudden departure. “Everyone was happy to see him go somewhere where is going to grow. But we wish we had more time to prepare,” said Charmaine Giles ’10, an active participant in the BCC. “In my eyes, we don’t have a dean anymore in January.” She worried that Smaw has too many responsibilities to be able to provide the same attention to the BCC as Sams did. Giles pointed to Sam’s responsibility of advising SASS, which she called one of the most politically active groups on campus. SASS’s current executive board is particularly young and would benefit from the support that Dean Sams provided. “There’s a fear of Swarthmore being taken away from us,” said Giles.

Wilcox’s roles are a little more disparate, including as an academic advisor, with the new Wellness Committee and Drug and Alcohol Resource Team, in Student Activities, and others. Westphal said that although she had not yet spoken with Dean Campbell about the specifics, she did not expect a single replacement for Wilcox: the wellness initiatives might fall under the Health Center, and most of the Student Activities work will probably go to Paury Flowers (the current Assistant Coordinator).

A certain level of restructuring for the Dean’s Office as a whole is to be expected anyway, said Westphal, with the new Dean of Students still to be decided. The Office consists of three teams overseeing Student Life, Multiculturalism and Academic Affairs; it has been structured that way for twenty years. Now, with new leadership, there is an opportunity to consider: “What is needed in all these areas? Are we overloaded with staff in some and underloaded with staff in others? [This] forces us to do some constructive thinking – a chance to say, how are we doing?”

Final Thoughts

Both deans expressed sadness at leaving the school that has been their home for so long, but also great excitement for the path ahead.

“There’s a pronounced expectation that we are to be educational innovators and operate outside the box,” Sams said, “as we create exciting and possibly unprecedented educational opportunities for our students. How does that look? I have no idea, but the challenge does excite me.”

“I think the words that I would use now to convey my appreciation and respect for Swarthmore, what it provided for me as a student and as a staff member for over ten years, would fall short at this point,” said Wilcox. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be extremely hard to say goodbye…I hope it’s just a ‘see you later.’”

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