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November 13, 2015

The Dean’s Advisory Council: behind the scenes with the Dean

“When students come here, do they think about the students they start with? Or the students they finish with? Do students feel any kind of relationship with their entering class?”

Dean of Students John “Jay” Ellison brought these questions of class affinity, or how students identify with their peers, to a recent meeting with the Dean’s Advisory Council (DAC).

The DAC is an advisory group composed of nine undergraduate students and two undergraduate co-heads. The DAC was formed under the leadership of former Dean of Students Susan Art, who retired in the spring of 2014. The group meets with the Dean and a rotating cast of academic advisers in the College three times a quarter to discuss a variety of topics pertinent to student life on campus.

The current undergraduate Council members are Olivia Markbreiter, Xinyi Ge, Raymond Fang, Melissa Li, Brandon Kaplowitz, Molly Robinson, Shae Omonijo, Agwangnjoh Tchadi, and Zach Wehrli.

Each meeting typically consists of a list of agenda items generated by the Dean. For the next and last meeting of the quarter, however, the Dean will be soliciting agenda items from the students on the Council.

“The old model used to be that students would submit agenda items, and then they would be curated by the co-heads for discussion. That ended up with a lot of topics that weren’t what [the Dean] had on his mind or that weren’t in the purview of his office,” fourth-year Claire Fuller said, a co-head of the DAC.

“The Dean of Students office here...is really concerned with the academic side of student life,” Ellison said.

The Dean of Students office has traditionally overseen the College advising programs and the College Programming Office (CPO). The office also recently established two new offices: the Center for College Student Success (CCSS) and the College Center for Scholarly Advancement (CCSA). The CCSS supports students who come from under-resourced backgrounds, such as first-generation students and students who might be undocumented or have problems with their citizenship. The CCSA advises students on scholarships, fellowships, and postgraduate opportunities.

“For the [next] meeting of the quarter, we are going to be soliciting agenda items from the students. It’s a good balance because [the Dean] can get the most use out of it as possible and students can also feel like their voices are being heard,” Fuller said. 

As co-heads of the DAC, Fuller and third-year Daly Arnett helped select this year’s Council members. The DAC’s application process is unique in that students are nominated by advisers, resident heads, students currently serving on the Council, and/or the dean of students himself, rather than through campus-wide elections.

“The idea is that the advisers will put forward students who they see as being engaged in a wide variety of campus activities, students who might have a perspective on a lot of different groups on campus,” Fuller said. “Because it is a council meant to serve the Office of the Dean of Students and Advising, it makes sense that they do nominations this way.”

Although Council members aren’t elected by their peers, Arnett said the selection process helps the Dean and the co-heads maintain a consistent level of diversity within the group.

“Diversity is our number one goal, in terms of diversity of interest and diversity of involvement. We’re looking for students who would be respectful in an environment...where we often talk about contentious issues; where one student or another may have a lot at stake,” Arnett said. “We’re looking for people who would be able to respectfully discuss some of the problems the University does face: people with a keen interest in fixing those problems and making the University as great as possible for all students.”

Ellison said consistency is another defining characteristic of the DAC.

“I tried to find a way so that I could have a group of students who feel comfortable talking frankly to me. I want a group that I could feel some consistency with so we could continue a conversation over the course of a quarter or a year. The DAC gives me a group of students who get to know me a different way [and] who get to make suggestions for how I contact other students…I want people to know that they can come in and talk to me,” Ellison said.

The Council differs from other representative bodies, such as Student Government and Inter-House Council, in that its goal is to advise the dean of students rather than to serve as a legislative body.

“[The Dean] will bring things that he has already made a decision on or things that he’s thinking about in advance [because] he wants a student perspective. [The Council] is a way for him to be aware of what the campus climate is like. [For example], we recently talked about how to make the new offices for fellowships and student support more accessible and how to make [the Dean] a more accessible figure on campus,” Fuller said.

“It’s really a concentrated town hall,” Arnett said. “How do we represent the voices of 5,000 students? The way we do that is by getting a small cross-section of as many communities as possible so that [the Dean] can use us as an advising body.”

Ellison said meetings focus on issues and problems that are affecting student life in real time.

“The Council plays a big role in my thoughts on how to communicate with the student body and how to make sure I’m hearing from the student body...I can’t fix a problem I don’t know exists, and I also can’t let students know what I do unless I find a forum where they will listen, learn, and engage with me. Agenda items are relevant to the moment. Our winter quarter meetings will really depend on what happens between now and then.”

Arnett said that the Council also benefits from its small size.

“Since we are nine people for the entire year, we really get to know each other, and we’re able to cultivate a culture of openness and understanding within the group,” Arnett said. “[The Dean] is able to tap into each student and realize what voice they are representing on campus…I think our size is really to our advantage, and it’s different from other organizations similar to us on campus.”

Arnett and Fuller expressed their interest in not only being advocates for positive change on campus, but also changing the student perception of the Dean of Students office as a whole.

“[The DAC] is a really good vehicle for transparency for the Dean of Students office because we have become ambassadors for their program,” Arnett said. “People think the administration [makes] decisions without student input, and that’s not what [Dean Ellison] is about. He makes a lot of decisions with our input…He wants our advice in terms of how to make [the result of these decisions] clear to students.”

Fuller said the DAC’s main goal as a student advisory group under the Office of the Dean of Students is to open as many avenues as possible for productive conversation between the administration and students.

“Legitimate critiques of the administration are more productive when you know the people who are making those decisions. Clearly our intent is not to make everybody love the administration. The DAC isn’t a propaganda council.”

Both Fuller and Arnett said that student animosity toward the University is caused by the fact that the administration is a powerful body that is often shrouded in mystery.

“A private institution sometimes needs to make some decisions that will upset people…Through the DAC, I’d like to see the [student perception] of Jay Ellison change. I want people to know who he is; that he’s a really nice guy...very concerned with student issues and how we actually feel,” Arnett said. “[We want] people to feel more comfortable going to him and…with him making decisions for the University.”

Ellison echoed this sentiment, stating that student animosity is often rooted in misunderstanding.

“There are a lot of decisions that have to be made for the long-term...and students don’t necessarily know what’s going on, and I think that does cause some concern with students,” Ellison said. “What the DAC does is help me be as transparent as I can be. Not everything can be transparent, but they can help me make sure I’m communicating [information] in a way that students realize is transparent.”

Editor’s note: Clair Fuller was a former associate Viewpoints editor, and Features Editor Raymond Fang is a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council.

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