life 2000 and beyond
An interview with the vice president for campus
life, Janet Dickerson.
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
She met with PAW in
early September to talk about herself and Princeton.
Is your new job similar
to the one you had
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.