The Roast of Rebecca Biron

President Phil Hanlon’s brilliant mind brought us a number of notable personnel decisions, the highlights of which include Provost Carolyn Dever, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Inge-Lise Ameer, and Dean of the Faculty Bruce Duthu. In contrast, observers of the College have given relatively little attention to Dean of the College Rebecca Biron. To be fair, for the duration of her tenure, the once prominent Dean of the College role was a shell of its former self, with the Vice Provost for Student Affairs assuming most of the Dean’s traditional responsibilities.

With Vice Provost Ameer’s unceremonious termination, the Dean of the College has reassumed its former primacy in matters of student life. As a result, Dean Biron’s expanded role should warrant renewed attention. Still, she managed to stay under the radar until one of her recent personnel decisions brought her management style into sharp relief. It is finally time for some daylight.

Understanding Dean Biron’s role in the College’s bureaucracy requires an understanding of the unfortunate history of her office. Recall that her most immediate predecessor (excluding Interim Dean Ameer) was the ignoble Charlotte Johnson, whose craven response to the Freedom Budget protests is the stuff of legend.

Dean of the College Rebecca Biron: Unqualified and Inept (Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College)

Dean of the College Rebecca Biron: Unqualified and Inept (Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College)

She will forever be remembered for her clarion explanation of President Hanlon’s moral leadership: “The President’s top, sort of, chief responsibility, is chief fundraiser, right?” Needless to say, her ability as explainer-in-chief was matched only by her managerial expertise. Her own predecessor, Sylvia Spears, was cut from the same cloth. Together, they lasted a collective five years.

Given this persistent turnover and inability to find someone remotely suitable for the Dean of the College role, President Hanlon and Provost Dever tried a new tack. They would layer over the Dean of the College with the newly created Vice Provost for Student Affairs; the Dean would be charged with implementing the new housing system while the Vice Provost would handle most everything else. And we all know how that worked out.

By now, it is clear that Dean Biron has failed her original mandate of administering the housing system, to say nothing of her expanded role. Her termination of Associate Professor of Engineering Jane Hill’s role as house professor is only the most public example of her bungling incompetence. We only know the details of this particular incident thanks to Professor Hill’s uncommon courage in speaking up about her mistreatment at Dean Biron’s hands, but there is undoubtedly a pattern of mismanagement. Associate Professor of Biology Ryan Calsbeek disappeared in the fall under suspect circumstances likely similar to Professor Hill’s.

What transpired against Professor Hill is the archetype of everything wrong with the College’s administration. The narrative of events paints a picture of an out-of-control and excessively political bureaucracy. In other words, it is business as usual in Hanover. According to Professor Hill, she committed the grave sins of missing a few meetings, contacting the Center for Professional Development, and failing to remove the word “fellows” from a flyer.

It is not hard to believe the veracity of Professor Hill’s claims, especially considering that she was not the first professor to go. Incompetence may be the norm at the College, but that does not make Dean Biron’s pattern of behavior any less troubling. First, there is manner in which Professor Hill was fired. Dean Biron gave her no indication, beyond a few minor complaints, that her performance was not up to par. Then, Dean Biron unceremoniously dismissed her in the middle of an academic term without any prior notice or an opportunity to review her performance. The way the entire affair was handled reeks of gross unprofessionalism. Any marginally able Dean would provide feedback, opportunities to improve, and then a warning upon failure to improve before resorting to termination.

Moreover, there is also the nature of the complaints themselves. In short, they are laughable; Professor Hill is guilty of nothing more than a lack of complete and absolute deference to her bureaucratic overlords. It is absurd that the most damning complaint Dean Biron could muster against Professor Hill was that she contacted the Center for Professional Development when instructed not to. Indeed, the stated reasons for the dismissal are more an indictment of Dean Biron than of Professor Hill. Dean Biron is leading a student life apparatus that hover overs respected, tenured faculty members and micromanages their every move. And when they expect to be accorded more dignity and respect, not to mention autonomy, they are fired.

Professor Hill was by all measures uncommonly effective and dedicated. Students liked her, and she clearly took the initiative in crafting the best programming she could for her community. She is exactly the type of person the ill-conceived housing system needs if it is to have any hope of succeeding. What happened was unfair to the students in her house community, and it was certainly unfair to her. Professor Hill uprooted her home and family on the expectation that she would serve as a house professor for a four year term. That she could be so capriciously dismissed in the middle of an academic term with weeks to vacate her house is unconscionable.

By now, we have seen that Dean Biron is incapable of handling the most basic of administrative responsibilities relating to the housing system. Of course, given the brilliance of their prior personnel decisions, President Hanlon and Provost Dever’s response is for Dean Biron to assume more authority. It appears that performance is relative, with Dean Biron being marginally more competent than the famously inept Vice Provost Ameer. However, that does not change the fact that that Vice Provost Ameer’s departure foisted upon Biron a job that she neither signed up for nor is capable of doing.

Given the sad legacy of the Dean of the College office, we need a competent dean with the inclination and ability to wrangle the expansive and ever-expanding bureaucracy. Rebecca Biron is not that dean.