When former Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg — known as the “dean of deans” among student affairs administrators nationally — announced last November that she was stepping down this summer, “Betty T” left big shoes to be filled in the Yale College Dean’s Office. But Trachtenberg’s successor, former Middlebury College Associate Dean Marichal Gentry, steps into his new post well-equipped to tackle the challenges of a large and diverse student body like Yale’s, former and current colleagues said.
Gentry said he has spent much of the last three weeks meeting with members of the Yale College Dean’s Office and other administrators with whom he will have contact in his new role. Recently, Gentry said, he attended training sessions for this year’s freshman counselors and helped them prepare to lead discussion groups related to racism on campus.
“The people here at the Yale College Dean’s Office set up a schedule of people I needed to meet, as many as possible before the start of school,” he said. “I’ve been going to their places so I can learn my way around campus.”
Middlebury College Dean Tim Spears said Gentry was well-known on Middlebury’s campus for his accessibility to students and his support of undergraduate organizations like Distinguished Men of Color and varsity athletics teams. In addition, Spears said, Gentry served as the adviser to the campus’ student-run radio station — where he hosted a weekly gospel-music show named “Good News with Marichal” — and enlivened student life by bringing engaging speakers, such as New York Times columnist William Rhoden, to Middlebury.
Gentry’s even-handed management of discipline cases earned him the respect of colleagues, Spears said. As the administrator tasked with bringing students before Middlebury’s equivalent of the Executive Committee and explaining to them the charges they faced, Gentry made sure students understood how the process worked and why they were appearing before the committee, Spears said.
“I would also say that he ran a pretty tight ship in that process and was always very clear with students about what the guidelines were,” Spears said. “He was pretty firm in holding the line when need be … For the most part, given the difficult circumstances, [students] felt like they were treated fairly.”
Spears said he thinks Gentry’s experience with Middlebury’s system of multiple “commons,” which is similar to Yale’s residential college arrangement, will allow him to interface smoothly with individual college deans and masters while staying focused on College-wide issues.
Among the most noticeable differences from life at Middlebury are Yale’s larger student body and urban environment, Gentry said. After driving to work while at Middlebury, Gentry said he now uses the 13-minute walk to and from Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall to clear his mind.
Rather than actively seeking to address specific problem areas, Gentry said he will spend his first months on the job getting to know the contours of undergraduate life and responding to problems and students’ concerns as they arise.
“I think it would be unwise to just come in and do that,” he said. “Yale has been here for a long time, so I want to just observe how the year goes and continue to talk with my colleagues and continue to see what students have to say about student life on campus.”
Dean of Freshman Affairs George Levesque — whose portfolio of responsibilities belonged to the dean of student affairs until the creation of a new position three years ago — said Gentry’s enthusiasm and his experience at Middlebury will be helpful to the entire dean’s office.
“I think it is helpful that he comes from an institution with similar kinds of students but comes from a different institution,” Levesque said. “There is something good about that — some fresh perspective on what we’re doing, and why and what we can improve.”
Laura Chandhok ’08, a freshman counselor in Davenport College, said she found Gentry to be friendly and interested in listening to students when he sat in on the counselors’ training. Gentry calmed some counselors’ fears about a new format for the freshman address — in which incoming students were asked to read part of a book by Tatum over the summer and then invited to hear Tatum speak during the opening days — by drawing a parallel to his own newness at Yale, Chandhok said.
“I think students will find him very approachable and easy to work with,” she said. “I have a good feeling about how visible he is going to be on Yale’s campus.”
Gentry graduated from the University of the South and earned a Master’s of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before being appointed associate dean of student affairs at Middlebury in 1999.
Also joining the dean’s office this fall is Shelley Lowe, the first assistant dean for Native American affairs. Lowe, who has been the facilitator of the Native American Indian Studies Program at the University of Arizona for the past six years, will direct the Native American Cultural Center at Yale.