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October 11, 2000:

Student life 2000 and beyond
An interview with the vice president for campus life, Janet Dickerson.

In July, Janet Dickerson became Princeton's vice president for campus life replacing Janina Montero, who left last winter for Brown University.

Dickerson, the university's first African American vice president, came from Duke University, where she was vice president for student affairs for nine years. Before that she was dean of the college at Swarthmore College for 10.

She met with PAW in early September to talk about herself and Princeton.

Is your new job similar to the one you had at Duke?

It is more similar than different, although I have different areas of oversight.

For example I have oversight for athletics here, at Duke I didn't. At Swarthmore I did have oversight for athletics. Here I also have religious life, which is different, although I've always had nice dotted-line relationships with the people in religious life. And I have undergraduate student life, which I've had every place. Plus I have Frist. And health services, which includes counseling here. And I did have oversight of that at both Duke and Swarthmore.

That's a pretty big job, isn't it?

It's pretty big, yes. And I'm coming into a new culture at a time when there are constructive but interesting and challenging campus changes going on and when there are budgetary pressures and tension.

I am the person who represents these groups before the Priorities Committee and at a time when students are changing, and not just Princeton students.

What does that mean in terms of programs and budgets?

It means we have to think whether we should be doing things differently or if there are new things we should be adding.

Is there something new on the horizon?

Yes. One of the things I'm working on right now is a job description for a director of a new center for community service. It hasn't emerged yet. What we're trying to do is work on its creation, and that means identifying the mission and getting feedback from a variety of campus constituents about what service actually means in the Princeton context.

What do you think of Princeton so far?

I have this sense that this is a place where people find joy in thinking and where the public art is stimulating and where people are awed by others. I hope in most cases they are aware of their own awesome gifts.

I wasn't sure I would be received well. I didn't know it would be like. You just never know. And it's just terrific.

Do you have a directive from the trustees?

I wouldn't say I have a directive. I have heard from a few individual trustees that they would love to see us work to develop of strategic plan that would talk about our mission and our strategies for achieving a set a realistic objectives in the next three to five years. There's not an expectation that we will fix campus life.

How much did you interact with students at Duke?

A lot. I loved that part of the job. You can't really represent students if you don't know what they're thinking and not arguing with them.

What about here at Princeton?

I'm a little worried here that I will have less chance to have direct interactions with students. There are a lot of layers. I hope that we can interact. I expect that we will. I want to save a certain number of hours every week so that I can see students.

Do you expect to interact with alumni?

Yes. And when I'm traveling, I will be available to meet with alumni groups.

Also, already I've received emails and gotten messages from some alumni, mainly from the Black Alumni association and others.

What do the black alumni say?

They sent me a copy of a videotape about the history of the black presence at Princeton. They just want me to know they are glad I'm here. To the extent they can be engaged or useful they want me to know that.

I think there are real concerns about the campus climate for African American students and other students of color. There are hopes that we can work together with others to make things feel more inclusive and more comfortable for students.

Tell me a bit about the campus climate.

Campus climate is a priority, and I think the Frist Center will help us immeasurably with that.

Can we talk about race for a minute?

I grew up in South Carolina and went to segregated schools and didn't ever even talk to a white person who was my peer until I went to college. So this was in the 1950s and 60s. It's a different world from the world my children know.

Jim Crow was painful, and I'm coming here from Duke, so I got to think for nine long years about what happened and how deeply did these policies impact people.

It's just exciting to realize that we're in an environment and in a time where we can change all those things. In a time where students - through their research, their understanding of the biological and anthropological implications of race, and through political science and history - can help us unlearn things that were passed along. It may help us get to a new epoch that will be different and more exciting and more lovely and just more elegant in general.

How were race relations on campus at Duke?

Strained, although it was going through many changes, most of which are good. It was strained though in part because - as it turned out, and this wasn't something that was necessarily done intentionally but an unanticipated consequence - of the residential policies that Duke had for a number of years, which led to the segregation of campus. It was basically on a socioeconomic level. There were different prices for different residence halls, and the fraternities, which are self-selecting, are right in the middle of the main campus. It contributed to an institutional segregation that people didn't fully understand until we started taking it apart.

I think the presence of major league division I sports can also contribute to some challenges on a university campus where you have athletes who get athletic scholarships and frankly there are discounts when that happens. Historically they were treated separately and differently from their peers. Now we worked at Duke to build bridges and overcome that so that freshmen athletes lived on the same campus as the rest of the first-year students.

Do you feel like you left Duke with work undone or were you ready for a change?

Well, there's always work to be done. These are campuses. As soon as you educate a group of people a new crop comes in. Actually I did a lot of work at Duke, and I feel proud of the work I did. I made some contributions that helped Duke grow. I think it was time for a leave. I'd been there nine years; 15 years at Swarthmore, 10 years as dean. I think ten-year segments are just about right for me. Frankly this work is frustrating. You get mad at people, or students start acting crazy. What can I say? They are challenging. I'm glad to have been at my previous institutions long enough so that students knew I really was working for them. And even if I had to say no to them, it was because I loved them.

I'm looking forward to being here long enough to make some kind of impact as well.

Let's talk about alcohol.

It's a perennial problem.

Most people are more conservative about alcohol and about sex than they like to brag about. So our current campaign [of posters announcing that 60 percent of students stop drinking after four drinks] remind people that they're doing all right and they don't have to keep up with others. It doesn't mean they have to take on unhealthy practices.

Is there anything new going on?

We're in the process of hiring a new health education specialist, and we'll be looking for a person who understands youth in this contemporary time.

Is it hard for adults to understand today's youth?

One of the things I know is that our students come to Princeton already knowing more than a lot of us know. They get it from television. I started looking at Real World [on MTV], and the stuff they're doing, it makes the little dormitory programs that most students put together look like Mr. Rogers.

What does that mean, then?

We have to think about what are we saying and how do we engage students and have them tell their stories. They are more compelling, and people want to hear from them.

And we have to think about how do we engage the biologist and others into telling the cognitive story. That your brain is your most important asset. And that alcohol and other drugs can damage your brain. And in some serious cases, it can kill you.

What students want to hear is the science of it because they will respond to that. They're not necessarily going to respond immediately. If someone is being led by the heart and the emotions, they might do something foolish once or twice, but students at places like Princeton know what a valuable assets their brain is. And my job is to remind them that we're trying to nurture the brain. The heart, too.