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Demystifying the Deans

Campus | April 25, 2016

“The administration”—it’s a term we Tufts students throw around almost daily. Some use it resentfully, some warily, and some admittedly without knowing much about it. Others use it endearingly, thinking of the dean who helped them withdraw from a class or made Tufts feel more like home. Many Tufts students also seem very confused about the role of a dean.

The Tufts Observer surveyed 80 students asking them a series of questions about deans at Tufts. The survey questions tested students’ knowledge of the roles of Tufts’ deans and asked for personal testimonials about their own experiences interacting with the deans. Only about half of respondents could confidently answer our question about the roles of a dean.

In an effort to untangle and translate the administrative body in both Dowling and Ballou Halls, the Tufts Observer has collected data and testimonies from students and administrators. This includes a series of interviews with six deans. Deans are a small but significant portion of the administration, and tend to have more direct interaction with students. Deans’ perceptions of their role and students’ experiences do not always align, and these connections break down where the deans are spread too thin. Increased student understanding of the dean system and the other resources available can help relieve some of this pressure.


What is the role of the deans?

Tufts deans see their role as providing support to and advocating for students. Carol Baffi-Dugan, one of the liberal arts alpha deans, described a dean’s role as someone who helps students navigate administrative entities. “What we do is support students, but also interpret and clarify university policy for students,” she said. The deans do this administratively, both interacting directly with students and providing referrals to other departments, like the Academic Resource Center and Health and Counseling Services. Baffi-Dugan, along with Jean Herbert, Robert Mack, and Jason Rife, are alpha deans—deans responsible for a sector of the undergraduate population by last name. They are designated as a first point of contact for students with any sort of academic or personal concern. For example, deans advise students struggling with mental health. Significant numbers of students, they report, come to them with heightened amounts of anxiety about their grades and overall academic performance. The deans recognize these issues, and, as Dean Baffi-Dugan said, the “thing that’s challenging is the amount of pain that students suffer from.”

Dean Rossi said, “[Our role] really is to try and help students navigate some of the unique challenges they’re facing… I think sometimes students need to go arm in arm with an advocate to find a creative solution.” Baffi-Dugan said that the goal at the heart of their job is to “get students graduated,” whether this means working directly with students or directing them toward the services they need. Finding the time to help everyone, though, is difficult, and not all students report feeling able to access their deans in the first place.

How accessible are the deans?

Although Dowling Hall may seem intimidating to some—Dean Rossi described it as “… a labyrinth of cubicles after you cross the moat and the drawbridge outside”—the creation of the building itself stemmed from a move towards increased accessibility. Dean Glaser explained that the construction of Dowling Hall in 2000 brought together many departments previously sprawled across campus. “The idea was an integrated service model—one stop shopping was what we called it,” said Glaser. Dowling Hall is home to many administrative bodies, including Undergraduate Education (where the alpha deans’ offices are located), Student Services, Financial Aid, the Academic Resource Center, and the Career Center. “Increasingly, the various players on this campus are working closer and closer together… The last thing a student wants to do is be so worried that they don’t know who to contact that they don’t contact anybody,” said Dean Baffi-Dugan. “We all talk to each other—you can’t go to the wrong place.”

Many students do feel comfortable reaching out for support when needed. Dean Herbert reported that most of the meetings that occur between students and alpha deans are initiated by students. When asked directly about how they regard the deans’ accessibility, just as many survey respondents gave the deans a 5/10 for accessibility as those who gave a 10/10 rating. When asked how confident they feel in their abilities to connect with the deans in the future, on a scale from 0 being not confident at all and 10 being very confident, most students put themselves at a 5 or above.

However, many students still have difficulty navigating the deans as resources. This disconnect between students and deans lies in the reality that some students do not know who the deans are or which deans they are meant to connect with. Of respondents to the Observer’s survey, 18/81 of survey respondents did not know who their alpha deans were. Furthermore, when asked what an “alpha dean” is, only 13/73 respondents answered correctly. Most guesses were similar to “dean of all deans” or “a dominant dean.”

Other students hesitate to reach out to the deans because the feel doing so will be fruitless—that they won’t get an appointment, or that the deans won’t be able to do anything for them. Sophomore Claudia Mihm described talking to friends who are pre-med and struggled to schedule a meeting with Dean Baffi-Dugan. “In order to meet with her this fall they had to schedule it last year,” Mihm said. Senior Rachel Wright explained that after having a mental health crisis, she attempted to set up an appointment with her dean for help managing her workload. “I emailed him and tried to get in with him, and the ball was dropped… I don’t know what my dean looks like, which I feel like says something.” Wright was unsuccessful in arranging a meeting with her dean to seek help.


How helpful are the deans?

Of the 81 survey respondents, 55 felt they had had positive experiences with the deans. With many survey responses ranging between “people were helpful and ready to listen” to “they’re so nice,” it seems that for some students, deans fulfill their promises. However, according to other students, the deans do not answer emails, or don’t follow through on offers to help. Several students reported that they had reached out to a dean who failed to complete the task they offered. Mihm, who suffered a concussion last semester, sought support from her alpha dean. “Her original email gave me a lot of hope because she was very on board…” However, Mihm’s dean did not email Mihm’s professors like she said she would. Mihm reflected, “…it was just really frustrating and infuriating and…added a layer of stress that I really don’t think should have existed because all she needed to do was send an email.” When reaching out to her dean, Wright said, “Instead of starting a conversation and being there to advocate for me academically, it was like, end of conversation in one email.”


What challenges prevent the deans from filling their role? How are the deans addressing these challenges?

All of the deans interviewed noted that the sheer volume of students they advise causes consistent difficulties in terms of administrative logistics, primarily scheduling. Dean Rife explained, “The biggest challenge is time. There’s just so much going on. As a faculty member—this sounds naive—but I had no idea how complicated the university is.” The structure of the administration can be hard to navigate, which only slows things down. Having the alpha deans as a first point of contact for students, while simplifying some administrative processes, can cause a significant amount of demand for time in the deans’ already-busy schedules. According to Dean Mack, many students make half hour appointments with their alpha deans for advising that they could have obtained in other, less busy departments. The deans highlighted the importance of College Transition Advisors (CTAs) in helping to minimize this issue and streamline getting students help.

The CTA positions were created for exactly this reason—to reduce traffic in Dowling resulting from students going directly to their academic deans, who are responsible for upwards of 1,100 other students. Dean Mack, who oversees the three CTAs, describes their role as “…first year holistic support people who are a one stop shop for students no matter what the problem is.” The CTAs—Joie Cummings, Danielle Vizena, and Eliza Yuen—are trained to advise students on the transition to university life as well as academic challenges or questions that may arise. They are able to answer many of the questions and address concerns that students tend to make appointments with their alpha deans to resolve, like choosing to take a class pass/fail, figuring out major requirements, or taking the first steps toward studying abroad.

Of course, though there are other issues that necessitate a meeting with an alpha dean—like getting medical forms signed—ideally students would utilize the CTA services to a greater extent, leaving the alpha deans more able to effectively give attention to students, like Mihm, with pressing issues. The way the dean system operates now, some students describe falling through the cracks. As one survey respondent said, “I think some of them try their best, but inevitably have too much on their plate, and the functioning of the school as a business comes ahead of student’s well-being.”