Administration, students examine deans’ role

The college administration has changed radically from what it was several decades ago, but Williams senior administrators agree that the relationship between their work and the student body has changed very little over time. Many members of the senior administration say they are following in the traditions of the school in working to develop a sense of community around campus.

Dean of the College Peter Murphy admitted that a gap exists between the students and administration. “(The) 2000 students are expecting – and the expectation is justified— a close relationship. But there is also always a practical gap,” he said.

While many administrators recognize that there is something of a gap between the two groups, they also agree that this breach may be unavoidable at any college or university.

But other administrators challenge the notion that there is tension between the administrators and students. President of the College Harry Payne, for example, said although there have been disagreements between students and administrators over some policies and decisions, he believes there has been an increase in cooperation over the past few years.

While Payne sees the Dean’s Office as the “principal agency of the administration working with the students,” Murphy was quick to highlight the difference between the administration and the deans.

Carefully delineating his place as a supervisor for a specific set of offices (such as the Health Center and the Chaplain’s Office), Murphy noted that there are other elements to the college administration, such as the Office of Career Counseling, Security and Dining Services.

The Dean’s Office has many supporters.

Payne, for one, said he senses that students appreciate the efforts of the Dean’s Office, and College Council Co-president Will Slocum ’99 agreed.

“I know that when student groups go to the Dean’s Office they generally receive the support they need,” he said.

However, some faculty members are more critical of the administration, noting that it is far more bureaucratic than it used to be.

Professor of Art History E.J. Johnson remembers the 1960s and early 1970s, when the administration consisted of fewer people, and the College moved at a different pace.

“It was so different because there was so little bureaucracy,” Johnson said. “A ‘modern administration’ has developed over time, and it certainly creates a maze for a student to make his or her way through.”

“It is not necessarily clear which dean does what,” Johnson added.

He noted that he primarily deals with the Dean’s Office when a student experiences significant problems in Art History 101, his most popular class.

“It used to be very clear what the Dean’s Office did— they dealt with students in trouble,” he said. “Now they do a lot more— they are counselors, advocates for students and much more.”

“It can be hard to tell which hat a dean is wearing at any particular moment,” he added.

But Johnson noted that the increased complexity of the Dean’s Office is reflective of broader trends in life.

“Life is just more complicated, and the growth of the administration reflects this,” he said.

In contrast to Johnson, Murphy sees the deans in particular, definable roles. To this end, Murphy explained that he has taken pains to decentralize the Dean’s Office. “I’ve taken time to spread the Deans Office out through the college, so that the interaction between the students and the Dean’s Office is particular,” Murphy said.

It is a style of management that Murphy thinks helps communication between different people in the college. “You should know people for real reasons,” he said. It is the Williams style to know people you work with— this is personal contact, this is what Williams is about.”

Murphy explained that administrators and students form relationships through work on common issues. “If you are on College Council, if you plan to study away, if you visit the writing workshop, and all sorts of other things, then you see Deans all the time. You see the Deans that work directly on the things you are working on.”

Despite this co-operation, many would agree the administration and students remain separate. Steve Birrell, the vice president for alumni relations and development, stressed that “as a student, you mostly relate to the faculty, and to a much lesser extent to the administration.”

Johnson, too, recalled that when he was a student he felt a breach between the administration and students.

“I don’t think that I had any desire to talk to (administrators),” Johnson said.

Faculty members are supposed to bridge the gap between the student body and the administration, but Murphy said this does not always work out in practice.

However, as a faculty member who once taught full time, he still looks back with fond memories.

“When I taught full time, I would read through the names at graduation and recognize at least half of them— that was wonderful,” he said. Murphy realizes that the number of students he knows now has dropped: “I feel that it is more fun to know many of the students on campus, but since I teach much less now, I know fewer.”

Students were not particularly effusive when discussing their relations with the Dean’s Office or the broader administration.

“Sure I’d like to know them better, but will it change anything if we have more interaction with them? And how do you do it?” asked Ken Benton ’01.

When asked what he thought about striving for increased dialogue between the administration and students, Benton replied: “I don’t see it being too helpful.”

Patrick Eagan ’01 said he wishes that the administration would make more of an effort to reach out to the students.

“It seems to me that the administration should extend a hand to the students,” he said. “You only know about them through organizations like College Council, and you never interact with the deans or the president as a regular student.”

And one student who asked to remain anonymous added: “You only meet the deans when you get in trouble. I know from first-hand experience.”