On Aug. 30, The Phoenix’s senior editorial board sat down with Interim Dean of Students Jim Terhune. Terhune took on this role on July 30, just under a month before incoming first-years arrived on campus for orientation. The position of dean of students was left open by H. Elizabeth Braun, who resigned amid protest and controversy over allegations that she mishandled sexual assault cases.
Before taking on the year-long position, Terhune worked in education consulting. Prior to that, he was a dean at both Colgate University and Colby College. Terhune started his career working in student activities at his alma mater Middlebury College.
Terhune secured his current role at the college following a months-long search process by the Selection Committee for the Interim Dean this summer. The search committee included Professors Nathalie Anderson, Ben Berger, and Nsoki Mavinga; Emily Almas from admissions, Zenobia Hargust from human resources, Isaiah Thomas from the dean’s division; and Margaret Cohen ’19.
Cohen described what she was looking for in the interim dean.
“I was looking for somebody who would make an effort to get to know the students as an entire body and somebody who would, in general, be forthcoming and someone who the students would be excited about,” she said.
Ben Berger, director of the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility and associate professor of political science, was another member of the interim search committee, and also part of a committee solely consisting of faculty that considered candidates as well. Berger said that he was looking for a candidate who would be thoughtful about the role of the dean’s office and facilitate meaningful, rather than superficial, conversations across campus.
“I think everybody on the committees approached this by thinking to ourselves, ‘Is there a way that we think the dean’s office ought to work so all of the different consistencies on campus are satisfied.’ […] Our questions were partially informed by wanting to know ‘what does this candidate think about what a modern dean’s office should do,’” he said.
“[…] A lot of our questions were informed by a desire to figure out [if the candidates] would be able to convene different kinds of conversations and listen to multiple constituencies, really listen, not just make people feel good, but hear them, and implement some of the things that they’re talking about.”
The final selection was announced on July 24th, a little over a month before the senior editorial board sat down with Terhune.
In the interview, Dean Terhune described some of his goals for the year, like wanting to examine the work of the dean’s division and make sure that the permanent dean of students is in a good position to serve students next year and beyond. Though Terhune was certainly aware of specific issues students have raised with the college’s administration, such as Title IX policies, alcohol policies, dining hours, and student labor, he did not speak to specific questions on student priorities, explaining that he was reluctant to speak definitively on the topics without first having an opportunity to listen to students.
“My goals really are to work with this staff, in terms of thinking about the work of the dean of students’ office, both in terms of what’s happening on the ground, but also kind of taking a step back and thinking broadly about what the mission and purpose is for the program, with the idea that we can help position things nicely for whoever comes into the role as the next permanent dean to be able to take it in any number of different directions,” Terhune said.
Terhune also expressed that communication between senior administration and students was a priority for him, adding that he would be as transparent as possible with information that did not involve student privacy concerns.
“My orientation is really to be focused more on ‘what can we say’[…] When things bubble up on campus it’s because they’re important issues they are significant issues that impact students in really important ways. When students are expressing interest in learning more about that, it’s because they care,” he said.
“[I]t’s easy on August 30th in the afternoon in a hypothetical here to go, ‘This is how I approach these things.’ It gets trickier sometimes along the way. But I can easily say and comfortably say, like I said, my default position is going to be on the side of ‘How can we convey what is going on, how can we be as open as possible,’” Terhune continued.
To Terhune, part of that goal of transparency includes ease of access to senior administration.
“I think it’s important for students to have access to whatever member of senior staff has oversight over a particular area of focus and interest. I also know for a fact that the folks on senior staff want to have access to students and want students to have access to them in those ways. So I wouldn’t want to be seen as an obstacle to that, and to the extent that it’s appropriate in certain circumstances I could facilitate making those connections for students,” he said.
He stressed, however, that his role is not to act as an intermediary between students and senior administrators. “I actually feel fairly strongly that the dean of students shouldn’t get in between students and the other members of senior staff who have direct oversight over particular areas.”
Terhune also noted he would not only reach out to student organizations through “traditional ways” like meetings and community discussions, but also potentially by inviting student groups to dinner at his home, Sharples, or Essie Mae’s.
“I think there’s an awful lot of interesting things that one can hear and learn from students if you’re just able to just kind of figure out a space where you can get them in a place and let them start talking,” he said, also indicating he would work with the college’s Student Government Organization as the dean of students has traditionally done.
SGO President Gilbert Orbea ’19 emphasized his expectation that the dean make an effort to be informed of the campus climate and his interest in Dean Terhune’s goals for the semester.
“I’m looking for awareness, and when I say awareness I mean I want someone who is conscious of what is going on on campus. And not just what’s going on in terms of, ‘I’m having a coffee talk,’ not consciousness of ‘Sharples is salmon night tonight,’” SGO President Gilbert Orbea ’19 said. “I mean consciousness of what is gripping campus, what are people talking about.
[I want to know] what is he going to do with the staff that he has, the resources that he has, and the pull that he has, little as it be in his one year, to respond to that, to whatever the climate may be.”
Terhune was cognizant of the challenges that come from attending an elite institution, particularly for those who are less financially privileged.
“The sort of hidden inequalities that probably in many ways when you stop and think about it really are never all that hidden, right? … The notion for a long time I think was if we just give people access, then they’ll have an equal experience. And we know that’s not true. … It’s a little bit like peeling an onion, you peel back one layer, and you discover there’s several more to go. And so I think we’re not even half-way through the onion.”
Additionally, Terhune affirmed that the dean’s discretionary fund, which is used to help students from less privileged financial backgrounds navigate difficult situations, would continue to exist.
Crucial, though, will be how Terhune and his successor fare with Organizing for Survivors, the organization that conducted the sit-in that preceded Dean Braun’s resignation and the subsequent hiring of Dean Terhune.
Olivia Smith, ’21, a core member of O4S, feels that the dean should avoid repeating mistakes she felt Braun made.
“Just speaking for myself, but with the values of O4S in mind, we really lacked transparency and accountability with Liz Braun, and we want those goals to be elevated in a new dean,” said Smith.
“[…] I think that approachability is another big deal. And that means students who feel angry, harmed, are seeking change, but also hopefully students who are happy with what’s going on can feel like they can reach out, and it can be civil and we can not have to come to these big … I don’t want to call them extremes, but I want dialogue to be easier and I want structures of change to be better facilitated by the dean’s office.”
O4S has an upcoming meeting with Terhune scheduled.
Dean Terhune will only be a member of the Swarthmore community for a single academic year. This transition will culminate in the college hiring a permanent dean of students.
Featured image by Karin Nakano ‘2022.