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2 ‘Swing Deans’ at Bates Switch Jobs Annually, for Students’ Sake

Posted by jcmaziquemd on January 3, 2011

2 ‘Swing Deans’ at Bates Switch Jobs Annually, for Students’ Sake
By Beckie Supiano

This summer, Carmita L. McCoy will switch jobs at Bates College and move into a different office. She’ll do it again next year, and the year after that.

Ms. McCoy is one of two staff members who share a unique role at Bates, trading places annually. She works one year in the admissions office, where she is associate dean for multicultural enrollment, recruiting students from underrepresented backgrounds. The following year, she shepherds them through their freshman experience as associate dean for student transition. Then she’s back in admissions, recruiting a new class.

The college came up with the positions, known as "swing deans," as part of a broader effort to increase the diversity of the student body and enhance the experience of students of color, as well as those who are first-generation collegegoers or who are from rural Maine. Bates has a history of diversity: The college was founded by abolitionists, and it counts Benjamin Mays, who mentored the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and was president of Morehouse College, among its alumni.

But the college had fallen behind its peers in the share of students who were from minority groups. Turning those numbers around wasn’t the easiest thing for a liberal-arts college located in Maine. And Bates’s small minority population made it harder for the students who did enroll.

"I think it’s hard when the numbers are as low as they were," says Tedd R. Goundie, dean of students. "When you look around, it’s hard to find someone who looks like you or has a similar background to you."

The college’s president, Elaine Tuttle Hansen, has made diversity a major focus and created a position, special assistant to the president for diversity initiatives, to centralize those efforts. Several years ago, Bates underwent a campus-culture review, designed to find out whether it was welcoming enough to students of color. That provided the backdrop for a casual conversation between Wylie L. Mitchell, the longtime dean of admissions, and Roland S. Davis, director of the office of inter­cultural education and associate dean of students, in which the idea of the swing-dean arrangement took form.

Michael M. Martinez, the college’s other "swing dean," tells potential applicants, "If you decide to go to Bates, I’ll be there with you through the whole process next year."
Brian Wedge for The Chronicle
Michael M. Martinez, the college’s other "swing dean," tells potential applicants, "If you decide to go to Bates, I’ll be there with you through the whole process next year."
The two men knew that students from minority groups, who are often personally recruited, connect with a particular admissions counselor. The counselor knows many of them well and might even know their families. But once those students arrived at Bates, that admissions-staff member is back on the road, recruiting new students.

"What a simple solution," Mr. Mitchell says. "What if we could have that admissions person … what if they’re part of not just recruiting them, but receiving them?"

The idea was included in the college’s application for a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Bates didn’t get the grant but de­cided to create the positions anyhow, with its own resources. Ms. McCoy, who started as the first swing dean in 2007, was a natural fit. She had been director of student affairs at the Maine College of Art, and before that she had worked in admissions, including at Bates.

Finding someone who had worked in both fields and who knew the institution was quite a coup for Bates. "I thought it was the best of both worlds," Ms. McCoy says.

Charting a Course
In the admissions office, the swing deans focus on recruitment, interviewing prospective students and meeting with high-school counselors and leaders of college-access groups. In their work with freshmen, they hold one-on-one meetings as well as focus groups where students discuss their experiences on campus as faculty and staff members listen. The swing dean works with around 90 freshmen at a time, out of a class of about 500.

By their sophomore year, the thinking goes, students will have found many other people on the campus they can turn to as needed. But that doesn’t mean the swing dean forgets about them: Ms. McCoy has written letters of recommendation for seniors who are applying to graduate school years after she worked with them as freshmen.

It’s not that minority or first-generation students are needier or can’t cut it without extra help, Ms. Hansen says. But students whose parents went to a place like Bates, or who attended boarding school, are already likely to have a strong network in place to help them chart a course through college. A swing dean can provide that support to a student who might not already have it.

Cristal Martin agrees. Ms. Martin, a first-generation student, came to Bates from Wichita Falls, Tex., and is now a sophomore. She remembers her freshman-year roommate calling her mother and talking about what was happening in her classes. The roommate’s mother would sometimes proofread her papers. "I thought that was really nice," Ms. Martin says, "but I can’t do that with my parents, as much as they want to help."

Somewhat by coincidence, the newer swing dean, Michael M. Martinez, who just started at Bates in December, had advised Ms. Martin when she was in high school. Mr. Martinez, who replaced a dean promoted to another position, had directed the Academic Success Program, an organization that helps Texas students navigate the college-admissions process. So he had experience with these issues from the other side of the desk. He has just started at Bates and is in the admissions office this year.

For Mr. Martinez, one main appeal of the job is being able to take the time to craft personal solutions for students who are facing obstacles. He looks forward to being able to tell students and parents, "If you decide to go to Bates, I’ll be there with you through the whole process next year."

Another student who has already gotten to know Mr. Martinez is Chris Boyd, a sophomore psychol­ogy major from Memphis who sat on the committee that hired him.

Before arriving at Bates, Mr. Boyd saw his dean, Ms. McCoy, as "just the lady who e-mailed me from Bates." But when his transition to life on campus was bumpy, she was there for him. Ms. McCoy helped Mr. Boyd when he struggled to adjust to the college’s academic rigor. The turning point came, he says, when he earned his first A. She still checks up on him with the occasional text message. "Carmita is the reason that I stayed at Bates," Mr. Boyd says.

Having swing deans has had another benefit for Bates: The offices of students and admissions are able to work more closely together, since a staff member flips between them each year. Knowing how students from one high school or community-based group have fared at Bates helps an admissions counselor connect to the counselors at the schools that are sending those students.

Bates leaders are cautious about claiming success for the swing-dean program or holding it up as a model for other colleges. After all, the first group of students to go through the cycle has yet to graduate. But early quantitative results are looking positive: Bates has attracted more applicants from underrepresented minor­ity groups since the swing deans were put in place. About 17 percent of the current freshman class is from underrepresented racial groups, com­pared with 10 percent in 2006.

The retention of minority students is also mostly going in the right direction. It dropped over all for minority students who started in 2009, but for African-American students, it was the highest it had ever been, higher even than the college’s overall retention rate.

It’s hard to say how much of this change can be attributed to the swing deans—after all, the college is working on many fronts to enhance diversity. But everyone involved believes that the personal touch makes a difference.

And there have been qualitative improvements, too. "I feel a palpable sense," says Mr. Goundie, the dean of students, "that students from under­represented groups feel a much greater sense of belonging on campus than they did before."

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