Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1997-1998 index

Distributed May 14, 1998
Contact: Mark Nickel

Dean of the College/Dean of Student Life

Task force recommends new models for two student affairs offices

A task force studying the organizational and working relationships of the offices of the Dean of Student Life and the Dean of the College has submitted its report to Interim Provost Sheila E. Blumstein. The task force recommended two models for restructuring the offices in a way that will avoid duplication and help unify the academic and social elements of the student experience at Brown.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The two main offices responsible for the quality of student life at Brown University - the Dean of the College and the Dean of Student Life - have been drifting apart in recent years and should be brought into a closer organizational and working relationship, according to a report presented to Interim Provost Sheila E. Blumstein.

The 26-page report is the product of an eight-member task force charged by Blumstein in February to conduct a formal review of the offices of the Dean of the College and the Dean of Student Life, the first formal review since a separate Office of Student Life was created in 1979. The task force met 20 times in two months and based its findings on more than 40 interviews, with additional written and email responses from staff.

While it did not recommend specific changes, the task force did suggest two structural models that the University's academic leadership could use in redesigning the administration of undergraduate student affairs.

"The task force has presented an extraordinarily thoughtful report and has demonstrated a profound and sympathetic understanding of the administrative complexities involved," Blumstein said. "Brown University is defined primarily by the high quality of its undergraduate experience, both academic and extra-curricular. This report will be of immense value to senior administrators as we consider organizational changes to sustain that high standard over time."


Scope. Since the 1960s, Brown's undergraduate deanery has grown in response to the increased complexity of student life on the nation's campuses. Where the Dean of the College and the Dean of Pembroke College once had eight associate and assistant deans to serve 3,600 undergraduates, the Dean of the College and the Dean of Student Life now have 25 associate and assistant deans for nearly 6,000 undergraduates. In addition to addressing more issues in undergraduate life - diversity, women's issues, drug and alcohol counseling, careers, ethnic and racial programs, disability services, etc. - the deans offer expanded academic advising required by the open structure of a curriculum with more than 1,800 course offerings.

Responsibilities. The report observes that the undergraduate student experience cannot be neatly divided into academic and social components. While the two offices divide their responsibilities roughly along those lines, they have shared an overarching responsibility for the "common enterprise of learning." That sense of a shared goal, while still present, "is no longer as central as it once was," the report said.

Overlap. Because the same campus issues affect life inside and outside the classroom (alcohol and disability issues, for example), the two offices have developed programs that appear to overlap. Some overlap, the report says, is appropriate, but it is also problematic because programs and focus areas have often developed from personal interests rather than from a rational decision process that would assign one office primary responsibility.


Resistance to change. The report acknowledges that almost everyone interviewed felt current reporting structures were proper and effective, even persons who had concerns about how their office was functioning.

Perceptions of hierarchy. Many interviewees noted that the two offices were perceived to have unequal levels of prestige. The task force called for more and stronger links between Student Life and the faculty and between Student Life and the Dean of the College in order to highlight the educational role of Student Life.

Structural. Both deans acknowledge that current administrative structures are too flat, with too many direct reports. For example, nearly two dozen directors and assistant or associate deans report to the Dean of the College.

Separation of the two offices. Although a separate Office of Student Life was established in 1979, the Dean of Student Life continued to have an office in University Hall. Many students were unaware there were two offices until the early 1990s, when Student Life moved to its current quarters at 26 Benevolent St. The task force found a pervasive sense among staff members that the two offices have drifted apart in recent years, both in terms of their underlying philosophies and their level of interaction. Most interviewees saw this as a loss. The task force found this polarization is worsening under the current structure and called for steps to restore a stronger working relationship.

The collaborative model

Under this model, the University would retain its current two-office model, but the offices would be brought closer through joint working groups and other structural changes. Working groups on overlapping issue areas would include staff from both offices, as well as the directors of academic centers with a particular interest in the area. The model would be further enriched by the direct involvement of faculty and faculty committees in the work of these joint groups. Such a structure would acknowledge the work already underway in each office and would encourage productive collaboration while diminishing overlap.

The task force envisioned working groups in 11 areas: public service; orientation; disability services; alcohol and drug dependency; women's concerns; diversity issues; peer counseling and academic advising; spiritual concerns; violations; international living; and community building.

The 'new dean' model

This model redefines the Dean of the College position, making it one of the major academic and administrative positions within the University. The new dean would have three direct reports:

The task force found this model appealing partly because it would create a position that controls a substantial portion of the University's resources. Unlike the dean's office under the current structure, the "new dean" would be able to direct additional support to important priorities and could better implement an academic vision.

This model would create some very challenging administrative positions. It would offer the potential for greater rewards and "could bring [the University] into the next millennium with a new sense of purpose."

The report emphasized that the task force was not committed to either model and warned against "excessive zeal" in striving for organizational perfection. Most people interviewed by the task force said the current arrangement is serving the University quite well and did not think significant problems would arise if Brown made no changes at all. Nevertheless, the report said, "... we must make renewed efforts to integrate the academic and social life of students and to reinforce the notion that Brown needs a vigorous proponent of undergraduate education, especially as we embark on the path of strengthening our graduate programs."

The eight-member task force included four faculty: William Crossgrove (chair), professor of German studies; Meera Viswanathan (vice chair), associate professor of East Asian studies; Wendy Edwards, professor of visual art; and Ferdinand Jones, professor emeritus of psychology. Katherine Lewis, University registrar and dean of curricular research, was the administration representative. Two sophomores, Carey Jaros and Seth Andrew, represented the Undergraduate Council of Students, and Deborah Vernon, a doctoral candidate in engineering, represented the Graduate Student Council.