Honesty, willingness to listen are important for new dean

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of opinion columns about what current and former students want to see in the new dean of student affairs. To join the conversation, e-mail jay.buchanan@yale.edu.

When I first got to Yale as a freshman in the fall of 2001, Dean Richard Brodhead (now president of Duke) urged my class to view our education here as more than just the sum of our classes. Instead, he revealed that we would learn just as much from each other, through our unique residential community and our extracurricular activities, as we would from books and faculty. If Brodhead was right — and my four years at Yale College confirmed that he was almost always right — that makes the dean of student affairs a very important figure in our education.

Recently we have been lucky to have Betty Trachtenberg occupying the office. Although she has a reputation for being tough, Dean Trachtenberg has been careful to provide fair, clear rules while allowing for a great deal of creativity and freedom. This has resulted in an environment that encourages diversity and initiative, something that the next dean of student affairs must be focused on preserving.

Within any bureaucracy, it can be frustrating to determine the rationale behind a decision or even what the individuals involved feel about a subject. But whenever I would meet with Dean Trachtenberg, whether as chair of the Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee or through the Yale College Council, I would never leave confused about her opinions. From the first time we met, she was always completely clear and forthright about her perspective, and even better, she would always be sure to explain the factors that led to her conclusion. I found this was true whether it was in the context of a one-on-one meeting or a larger group such as the Committee on Undergraduate Organizations. And you could be sure that the opinion she told a student in her office would be the same one she would give Dean Salovey or any member of her staff. The next dean of student affairs will need to be as independent and confident as Dean Trachtenberg so that the administration’s interactions with students are consistent and rational.

Dean Trachtenberg’s willingness to present her honest opinion has led some students to believe she is intractable or unwilling to listen to new ideas. In reality, this attitude is more of a challenge to students to present well-researched and reasoned proposals. The first few times I discussed with Dean Trachtenberg the UOFC’s or YCC’s finances, she was skeptical about the need to change the way they were funded. But once we brought detailed budgets and research about our peer universities, she recognized the strengths of our arguments and became convinced. Because of her willingness to accept new and innovative proposals, the UOFC is now an independent organization under student supervision, there is a student activities fee to fund campuswide events and both organizations have seen their budgets more than triple.

The way Dean Trachtenberg approached student proposals also revealed another quality that the next dean should have: a willingness to allow students room for originality while emphasizing their individual responsibility. This reasonable approach is reflected in the way the YCC and UOFC are now financed — giving them the resources and freedom to support a variety of campus initiatives, but letting them know they had to be fiscally responsible and spend judiciously. It is also reflected in the enlightened way her office has prioritized safety and health over burdensome regulations.

Finally, the next dean of student affairs will need the same patience and honesty that Dean Trachtenberg possesses. Although administrators may stay at Yale for decades, individual student leaders are constantly refreshing. An impatient or unjust administrator could use this fact to pull the wool over students’ eyes. By using their superior access to information or by simply demonstrating a lack of interest in educating students, such an administrator could present a distorted view of what others have done in years before, thereby dissuading students from tackling worthy causes. But Dean Trachtenberg approached her job as an educator in the field of leadership. I was constantly surprised at how willing she was to that share information about things that happened before I came to Yale even when that history strengthened my point of view over hers.

I urge Dean Salovey and those that will be searching for the new dean of student affairs to consider these qualities that have made Dean Trachtenberg such an asset to the University. Ideally, her successor will take a firm but fair and honest approach. After all, allowing us room to innovate and making us responsible for our ideas is the best way to make sure we are benefiting from that huge portion of our Yale education that happens outside of class.

Elliott Mogul graduated from Yale College in 2005 and is a second-year student at the Law School. He was president of the Yale College Council during the 2003-2004 school year.

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