by Christian Diaz, staff writer
Deb Myers has had an eventful first year at Warren Wilson as director of student life. Throughout the year her performance as Dean of Students has been questioned by Student Caucus and a significant amount of community members. Myers started her job amid structural changes to student housing. These changes combined with the resignation of several beloved community members throughout the year caused a lot of displaced anger. Myers has been the victim of personalized vandalism, the scapegoat of student frustration and a divisive figure in our tempest-in-a-teapot brand of school politics. Nonetheless Myers tells The Echo that she is going nowhere for now. As the school attempts to move forward and heal, Myers reflects on the previous year and looks forward to the next.
How would you describe your first year as Dean of Students at Warren Wilson?
It has been a learning year. I have learned a lot about Warren Wilson. I have learned a lot about myself and a lot about the community here. I have learned about how we are the same as other places that I have worked at and I have learned about how we are different.
What goals have you accomplished during your time here?
One of the goals that I have had was to really understand student life. Not only on the side of the students but my staff as well, what their roles are, what their passions are about and how they support students. My personal goal for this year was to learn about Warren Wilson, to find where there is opportunity for growth in our community and what our challenges are. I wanted to understand what the great unique things are about this place. I learned a lot about that this year. This year shifted my thinking about how I do my job and how to best be successful here.
What surprised you?
What surprised me most is all the different stuff that comes to me, all the little nuances and all the things students need support with. I knew one reason I chose this as a career is that I never know what is going to happen. Even if my calendar is full and I know that I’ll meet with The Echo at eleven, you just never really know what’s going to hit that day. The amount of times that happens is what surprises me. The demands on my time have surprised me.
How would you compare working in student life here to your previous job at Southern Oregon University?
Warren Wilson is not the first unique place that I have worked at. I don’t think I came here with the expectation that this would be nirvana. A lot of people maybe come here with that [notion] but I think I had my eyes wide open that when you have so many passionate people together in a close place, nirvana is just not possible. There are a lot of struggles that come with [a tight-knit community] as well as really fabulous things.
Working here is just so different from working at Southern Oregon University. The students at Southern Oregon are similar to the students here, if you were to define the population. Working at a state institution, at a bigger place with 5000 students was different. One thing I like about working here is that there is not as much bureaucracy. I worked with a ton of bureaucracy [at Southern Oregon University]. It was really hard to find an arena to express ideas there. That’s not the case here.
One thing that drew me to Warren Wilson that Southern Oregon didn’t have was the strong sense of community and passion that people have for this place. This is definitely not just a place people see themselves going to school. The identity of being a Warren Wilson student or employee is really strong. It’s not just a job or a place you go to school, it’s a part of who you are.
Is the lack of bureaucracy an asset or a hindrance in your field?
I appreciate the lack of bureaucracy. Southern Oregon was a part of the whole system of state universities. Anything anyone ever wanted to do had to be checked in to what the other six universities in the system are doing, how it compares, what the legislature is. It was very externally political. That is hard, especially when you feel like you want to support students in doing the right thing, even in regard to social justice. There [was always] an external force that feels like they have a say about it [that you have to consult]. I really appreciate not having to worry about that anymore.
What is Student Life working on now?
Retention is still a main priority, it is huge. Especially now that we are looking at admissions numbers, we are very concerned about enrollment in the future. It is going to become a bigger and bigger issue. Part of the problem, despite the retention assessment, is that we just don’t know why students are staying or leaving. It is surprising just how much we do not know.
The boards of trustees and I are talking about retention. The board is also preparing a statement in response to the alcohol policy that was proposed last year. We are definitely going to talk about community. The board will also focus on government and hiring a new president, of course.
Speaking of community, how do you propose the community move forward and heal from the recent string of hostile activity that has taken place on campus?
We need to talk about it. I hope everyone takes a moment to discuss it. I think we need to figure out more ways for students to communicate their concerns to the administration. Caucus is well attended, but it’s a consistent group and they only meet for an hour a week. I’m not sure how much of it gets distributed to the rest of the student body. I do not know how many students actually read the caucus minutes. I do not know that if students have a concern they feel like caucus is a place to bring it.
I hope we find more ways to communicate with each other whether that be through formal or informal processes. How does your average student who doesn’t engage in caucus or isn’t very involved in the governance system find a voice here? I think that’s something we need to pay a lot of attention to. I don’t think a lot of students are comfortable just setting up an appointment and talking to me. Maybe that is not even appropriate sometimes. How do we make sure everyone has a voice in a way that is comfortable for people? Some might argue that everyone does have a voice but I’m not sure that those venues are really working right now.
Is some dissidence just a part of the job?
No question. There is always some of that. As a dean of students you can never make everyone happy. No matter what I do someone is always going to get frustrated. If I act in a certain way a certain group of people will be frustrated, if I do the opposite another group will be frustrated. I am never going to make everybody happy. I cannot have that be my goal because I will never succeed in that. I do think that is going to happen. I also reflect authority, and not everyone is comfortable with authority. I embody that for a lot of folks. That will always be difficult. I do not think we should have as much dissidence, especially in the way it has played out this year.
Dissidence yes, the way it’s been communicated, no.
I do not think that the very vast majority of students approve of [destructive behavior] or think that is a good way to get your message across. It is not a good way because I do not necessarily know what people are trying to tell me.
Has student life thought about any pragmatic policy changes that might curb the rate of vandalism on campus?
People have told me this year that vandalism has worsened. There are a few things that might change. We are in the process of hiring a director of student life. That person will have a residence life advisory committee that is going to help that person with really specific residence life issues so that the student life committee does not get so overburdened anymore. That individual is also going to work on our conduct system with a group of students to figure out a way to make our conduct system work a little bit better. I do not know what that is going to look like. I think we should look at other schools and figure out how it works at other places. Maybe we should look at schools that are like us and see what works for them, or what does not work as well. I think most people would agree that our current system does not work real well. I am not satisfied. I know several students are not either. It sounds like that has historically been something that depending on the year has worked or not. I think we need to make that more robust.
I also think it needs to come to a point where students say that they do not want that in our community. There’s a certain amount that we can do through formal process, or that I can do or say. It needs to come to a point where students say “we’ve had enough of this.” Ultimately that will be the most effective way to address the issue. Maybe we need to figure out a way to empower students to do that more.
Has the recent hostility expressed toward you made you reconsider working and living here?
I am staying. I think there has been a rumor about that out there. I have no intention of leaving. I do not want to leave. I like it here. Sure there has been stuff that has happened here that has made me really uncomfortable but that has not ever made me want to leave. I have had some moments where I question what I am doing here, but I think everyone has moments like that no matter what job you are in or where you are. I am staying. Also, I have not moved out of my house on campus.