Dickerson connects with University community

Ruth Stevens


Janet Smith Dickerson, vice president for campus life, has made a point of meeting with many people since coming to the University in July. She is using what she learns to work with her staff on formulating a strategic plan.

Princeton NJ -- Late one Saturday night, she was out riding around in a public safety patrol car. Another weekend, she was on a bus with the football team. And yet another evening, she was in the Frist Campus Center celebrating of all things Ground Hog's Day with her staff.

"I've just been out roaming around," quips Janet Smith Dickerson, the University's vice president for campus life.

But there's an agenda behind her eclectic schedule. Dickerson, who joined the staff in July from Duke University, has been focused on two objectives: getting to know the students at Princeton; and building trust with her staff.

Her schedule is a reflection of the variety of areas she oversees: the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students; the Department of Athletics; Health Services; the Office of the Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel; and the Frist Campus Center. In addition, she is charged with working with the Graduate School on graduate student life issues.

Bringing the staffs from these diverse units together is a major challenge, Dickerson says.

"We've been working on a strategic planning initiative," she says. "We had a committee in the fall draft a working mission statement. We are slowly but surely finding ways to articulate what it is we want to do as a team of people and what it means to be thinking about students' health and safety holistically, so it's not just the responsibility and duty of the Office of the Undergraduate Dean to talk about alcoholism or of the health center to deal with mental health issues. These are issues we're all embracing."

Talking to students

Part of that process is getting a better handle on today's students. In addition to the forays in the patrol car and on the team bus, Dickerson has been attending musical and theatrical performances, going to meetings in the residential colleges, touring The Daily Princetonian offices and just generally talking to students.

"I've been trying to get a good sense of what the students do with their time what their lives are like when they're not in the classroom," she says. "I've had such wonderful mentors. People have shown me the way and tried to clarify for me how things are organized around here. It's not a transparent place."

When describing today's students, Dickerson brings up influences such as the Internet, international travel and increasing pressures to achieve.

"The students who are first-year students now were born around 1982," she explains. "Their experience of the world is pretty different from those even born in the '70s. They're used to Internet access 24 hours a day with instant responses to just about anything you can think of from anybody and everybody.

"The students who get to places like Princeton or Duke are often pressured not only by their own desires to achieve but by parental and community expectations that they're pretty perfect," she continues. "And, you know, they're not so perfect."

Dickerson also characterizes many of today's students as "quite cosmopolitan," knowing more about the world through real and virtual travel than many on her staff.

"So, in a way, we have a shift," she says. "Our youth are teaching us about a number of things. They're ahead of us and, yet, they're naïve in some other ways. We need to figure out how to shift our educational program and our approaches to recognize and respect those differences."

According to the working mission statement, Dickerson and her staff "strive to create an educational environment that encourages leadership, citizenship, collaboration, and respect for cultural and intellectual diversity" and hope to promote "soundness of mind, body and spirit."

Dickerson has taken that message to heart with her own staff. "One of the things I've been doing is building trust with the people in my units, who for some period of time have felt that they really weren't even entitled to ask for resources," she says.

Last fall, Dickerson went to the Priorities Committee with a significant request for funding. "While we didn't get even half of what we asked for, we got more than any of my colleagues expected," she says. "It enabled us to really advance the process of providing the infrastructure to build community and collaborative programs between the units. It also provides money and support to fund some student groups."

As part of the strategic planning and budgeting processes, the campus life staff identified 10 issues for the next five years, including: dealing with the extra demands on the staff and facilities caused by the increase in the student body approved by the trustees; handling the increasing diversity of the students; and sustaining the momentum generated during Frist's inaugural year.

Rather than designating funds for certain programs, the Priorities Committee allocated $185,000 to Dickerson to put where she sees fit. Campus life initiatives also received additional funding through the recently announced increase in endowment income spending.

"I'm so glad to be here at this time in Princeton's history," she says. "I'm fortunate to be here at the time when there's some relaxation of this endowment spending rule because it makes it somewhat easier to say, 'If money will solve this problem, I'll get you the money.'"

Lightening up

While all this planning has meant hard work for the staff, Dickerson is quick to point out the importance of lightening up from time to time.

"One of the things I've been trying to do is remind people how much fun it is to work at a place like Princeton, where we have gifted students and reasonable resources," she says. "We're better off than a lot of other places. We're a place that has great values we give grants to students so they don't have to pay loans. There are things we can smile about."

Plenty of staff members were smiling about the whimsical Ground Hog's Day party this past February.

"The goal was to relax and be informal and find ways to talk across boundaries," she says, "and also for staff members to spend some time with their own partners and families. I want people first to feel centered at home, because that'll give them energy to do their work here."


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