Towards the end of Winter Break, Jim Terhune, Interim Dean of Students, emailed the student body to announce a new way in which students are assigned to deans. Instead of being assigned to a particular dean based on their class, sophomores, juniors, and seniors will each be assigned to one dean, with whom they will remain for the entirety of their college career. First years will continue to be assigned to Dean Henry. The motivation behind this change, as explained in the campus-wide email to the student body, is that it will enable students to establish lasting, close relationships with their deans.
“We believe the individual support we provide to students is the most valuable and important function the Dean of Students Office provides,” said Terhune.
The hope is that with stronger relationships, students will come to see the dean’s office as an indispensable resource for issues that may come up through the years, and will therefore meet with their dean more often.
According to Terhune, “by having students remain with the dean they are assigned … we hope to enable students and their deans to establish, build, and maintain relationships in ways that will better serve students over time.”
Terhune clarified that while this change might at first seem like a fundamental upheaval in the way in which deans and students connect, the change is actually not as fundamental as this.
“In practice the [previous] dean structure doesn’t actually reflect how the office functions in terms of supporting individual students,” said Terhune.
When a student comes to the dean’s office seeking assistance, they often do not simply go to their class dean and proceed with them from there.
“Most of those connections are made on an ad hoc basis as issues arise which means that they are overwhelmingly reactive to a problem that has arisen,” said Terhune. “A significant percentage of students actually work with one of the academic or other deans.”
Alternatively, a student might deliberately connect with one particular dean, who may or may not be their class dean, because they already have an established relationship.
The class dean system does not reflect how students perceive the current structure.
“Because the way that students end up assigned to a dean is not well known or understood, we have heard from many students, faculty, coaches, and staff that there is confusion that can serve as an obstacle to accessing the support the deans can provide,” explained Terhune.
Terhune believes that the change can make the system less confusing to students, thereby making it easier for students to get help from deans.
“The nature of the deans’ day to day work does not change,” he added.
The change will also allow the dean’s division to better manage the multiple roles that all deans play. Because every dean has more than one responsibility in addition to their role as a dean — Dion Lewis is the director of the Black Cultural Center in addition to being the current dean of the Junior class, for example assigning particular deans to particular students would allow the office to have more control over each dean’s individual workload, and will be able to tailor their assignments to their position with more consideration to their other obligations.
Tobin Feldman-Fitzthum ’19, a senior who is currently a SAM, initially had his doubts about the new system.
“It was sort of pitched as making it easier to find out who your dean was, which I didn’t think makes sense, so at first I was a bit apprehensive,” Feldman-Fitzhum ’19 said.
According to Feldman-Fitzhum, it would be easier to find out who exactly your dean is with the previous system, requiring just a quick Google search instead of navigating menus on the notoriously unusable and unsightly mySwat online student portal. However, he believes that the change will ultimately be beneficial and will hopefully turn out to be successful.
“What makes the change good is that you stay with the same dean across years. And that is really important,” said Feldman-Fitzhum.
He expressed excitement for the prospect of students building stronger relationships with their deans.
“I went to talk with the deans a couple of times but never built a relationship with them, I just went for a temporary problem or to vent,” said Feldman-Fitzhum. “You have to have a lot of faith in these people to just do that a couple of times, but if you go back to the same person you build a relationship. I was skeptical at first, but I actually think it’s a good idea.”
Feldman-Fitzhum did express some doubts about whether it would actually be possible to foster such a close relationship with a dean.
“The Deans are busy, and as much as there is an idea to build a relationship with them it will never feel as personal as going to a professor I trust, just walking into their office, which I’ve done way more than seeing deans,” he said.
Even if the change doesn’t lead to students gaining long-lasting relationships with their dean, Feldman-Fitzhum still believes that the change will at least “preserve everything that’s good about the deans now.”
“We believe the approach we are piloting offers important benefits that can help us to further improve the service and support we provide to students,” Terhune said. “But this is structured as a pilot because it is very much a work in progress and we are eager to assess and evaluate what works and what may need to change. I have every expectation that we will need to make adjustments along the way. And if in the end we determine this approach isn’t right for Swarthmore, then we will do something different.”