Spears’s Departure Triggers Questions

Acting Dean of the College Sylvia Spears announced that she would not seek a position as permanent Dean.By Blake S. Neff

No sooner did Dartmouth’s scattered children return for Winter Term than the College announced the formation of a committee to conduct a nationwide search for a new permanent undergraduate dean. Almost simultaneously, it was announced that current acting dean Sylvia Spears would not be applying for the position and would instead leave the office when the end of her term arrived in June. Somewhat peculiarly, Spears indicated that she would be willing to remain at Dartmouth in some other capacity, although she was not sure just what that would be. 

In Spears’s tenure as acting dean, and her previous role as the head of the Office of Pluralism and Leadership, she has weathered a not-inconsiderable amount of student criticism, some of it from this newspaper. In the spring of 2009, barbs were directed at OPAL over its overreaction (along with much of campus) to the scandal of AsianStereotypegate, where a student’s ill-advised jokes following the selection of Jim Kim as president triggered a campus firestorm. Last summer, the Review was similarly disappointed by the school’s unilateral closing of the Connecticut River, where Spears dutifully played her role in the bureaucratic stonewalling of student and alumni opposition (“Dock Blocked,” August 23, 2010). 

The most notable controversy with which Spears is associated, though, is the torpedoing of the Alcohol Management Policy shortly after she assumed office as acting dean in the Fall of 2009 (“Sylvia Spears Keeps it SEMPle,” October 15, 2009). The AMP, while certainly not anyone’s first-choice policy, had the general support of Greek leaders as well as previous dean Tom Crady, and would have replaced the Social Event Management Procedures, which originated with the widely hated Student Life Initiative and were due for retirement. It also would have fixed the festering sore of keg policy, the lack of resolution of which has forced fraternities to inefficiently rely on dozens of cases of Keystone Light for parties. Given the short timeframe which Dartmouth students operate within, the decision to start from scratch was an unfortunate move which only further prolonged the far too drawn-out process of reforming College alcohol policy.

Nevertheless, Spears, by all accounts, cares deeply about the College and its students, and her personal friendliness and openness towards students (among whom she remains broadly popular) are excellent qualities for any dean to have. Additionally, whatever her personal opinions may be, she has not attempted to fundamentally alter Dartmouth’s identity like a certain former president who shall not be named.

Furthermore, Spears has had several accomplishments that even the notoriously hard-to-please Review can appreciate. In the wake of the College’s massive budget shortfall last year, she led a reorganization of the Dean’s Office that saved the school several hundred thousand dollars per year. Not only that, but to do so she actually eliminated her old job, a bold and unusually austere move for the notoriously inflated Dartmouth bureaucracy. Additionally, she has recognized the need to do more than “raise awareness” about the College’s scandalous sexual assault rate, and has taken actual action to address the problem.

Following the announcement that she would not apply for the permanent deanship, Spears spoke with the Review to reflect on her tenure and offer some advice to her successor. When asked to name the accomplishment for which she was most proud, Spears stayed student-focused. She cited her “totally surprising” reception of the Green Key Award at the 2010 COSO Awards for outstanding outreach to students as a particular high point, and in general felt that she had great success in communicating with and understanding the student body.

Spears also frankly discussed instances in which her communication with students broke down. She was willing to admit that the closing of the Connecticut River docks could have been better handled.

“Regretfully…information comes to us in a time that’s not convenient …and we’re in a position where we have to make a decision,” she said, referring to the abruptness of the announcement of the River’s closing. She expressed hope that some “good news” could be announced for the 13’s prior to their own sophomore summer, but unfortunately left it at that.

Spears continues to offer little clarity regarding her personal future, perhaps because she herself is not sure what she wishes to do. She cannot return to her previous post at OPAL, since as Dean she downsized the position. In her interview with TDR, Spears reiterated earlier comments to The Daily Dartmouth, stating that her future remains up in the air but that she would love to have some sort of future with the College.

But Spears is also eager to show her determination to focus on those agenda that remain to be done before her tenure ends. The reorganization of the dean’s office is still ongoing behind the scenes, an effort she says she would like to have completed before leaving. She’s also, she says, looking forward in particular to the graduation of this year’s class, whose members were all freshman when she first arrived at the school.

In discussing the demands that will be placed upon her successor, Spears emphasized the need to remain open and available to the student body. She took pride in her self-imposed rule that all emails from students be responded to by the end of the day — the author got his response to an interview request in under 20 minutes at 8:30 in the evening — as well as her practice of attempting to directly help students who email her even when the student should technically have approached a subordinate dean. 

While not explicitly stating the new dean should follow the same practice, she clearly implied that her ideal replacement should have a similar commitment to students. 

Spears also mentioned Dartmouth’s unique nature even within the Ivy League, and emphasized that the new dean absolutely must understand and respect these traditions. She also noted that the dean must always do his or her part to further President Dickey’s ideal of cultivating a strong body of student ready to change the world.

With Dean Spears entering the home stretch of her tenure, the attention of those deeply interested in college politics is shifting towards the search for her replacement. This search would appear to be a mundane matter, with the usual committee of faculty members, administrators, and a handful of students established to draw up a list of finalists for President Kim and Provost Folt to evaluate. 

However, in a twist that will no doubt leave Dartmouth veterans completely unsurprised, an open letter published by eight students on January 16th has raised a stink over the issue. The letter, which was emailed out to campus on January 17th with a formidable 354 cosignatories (and which has since gathered another 300 signatures), begins by praising the work of Spears as both dean and as OPAL head, before proceeding to criticizing the College for an alleged lack of transparency and an insufficiently diverse dean search committee.

Questioning the manner in which Spears announced her decision not to seek a permanent position as Dean, the email asks, “What efforts were made to convince Dean Spears to opt in to the selection process? What were the circumstances around which she came to her decision? If Dean Spears is open to staying at Dartmouth in a different position (as she stated she was) what caused her not to throw her name in the hat for the deanship?”

These seem to be odd questions to address to the Dartmouth community at large. It’s up to Spears to elaborate on why she did not choose to pursue the permanent deanship, and so far she has decided to remain mostly mum on the behind-the-scenes decision-making process. Students who are appreciative of Dean Spears ought to express this appreciation and encourage Spears to apply for the permanent post. However, they do not serve her by deliberately sparking a controversy, which is apparently what the letter aims to do.

As for the search committee itself, the letter laments not its current membership, but the lack of non-Greek students, “students of color,” and of course, those “from across the sexuality spectrum.” 

Although the addition of more members to the panel may indeed ensure that a more representative range of student voices are heard, it bears pointing out that this particular demand lends itself to constant expansion. Even going beyond which “students of color” warrant a panel spot, one could naturally ask what other groups warrant inclusion to avoid being “voiceless.” Must every major (or minor!) religious faith have its designated representative? What about the political spectrum? Should the Review get a token committee member as well? 

As undeniably amazing as that sight would be, this all strikes us as a bit too much politicking over what should be a brisk and disciplined search for a permanent dean who will, it’s worth remembering, ultimately be chosen by the president and provost anyway.