More Listening Than Talking

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Getting to know Dean of Students Katherine O’Dair.

As a nervous freshman at Miami University in the small town of Oxford, Ohio, Katie O’Dair had become accustomed to rejection. Her attempts to join the student council, the campus activities board, and an international ambassadors program had all been in vain. Though she recalls feeling “pretty down about it all”, she was thankful for the support she received from upperclassmen who encouraged her to keep seeking out opportunities to get involved, especially those about which she was truly passionate. Eventually, she found her place on campus, as a mental health counselor for the greater Oxford community and as an active member of her sorority.

As of this past August, Katherine O’Dair is now Harvard’s Dean of Students. While she has many ideas about what she would like to accomplish in this role—many of which are shaped by her own college experience—her main goal is “first and foremost, to meet the students.”

“Since I’ve only been here for a month, I’m doing a lot more listening than I am talking,” she explained. “Part of my approach to learning the culture and the community is to talk to individual students and to talk to students in groups…I like to hear their stories.”

Even as I peppered her with questions about her new role, Dean O’Dair made sure to ask about my own experiences and opinions about life on Harvard’s campus, jotting down my answers in a small leather notebook.

Though she is new to Harvard, O’Dair is not new to college campuses. She had previously worked as an Assistant Dean in the Division of Student Life at MIT, and subsequently worked in progressive leadership roles pertaining to student life at Boston College. While these campuses are no doubt very distinct, she is adamant that no matter the institution, her approach to working with college students has not changed. “Our role as administrators is to be supporters of students,” she explained. “It is not to create the community for the students.”

However, O’Dair has started her job at a time when many feel as though Harvard’s administration has done just that, and has grossly overstepped its boundaries in supporting student life on campus. In May, Dean Khurana rolled out controversial sanctions against membership in unrecognized single-gender social organizations. Starting with the Class of 2021, members of these organizations will be barred from leadership positions in college-recognized groups, holding team captaincies, and garnering recommendations to the Rhodes and Marshall fellowships. On this past Tuesday, Dean Khurana announced the establishment of the Single-Gender Social Organizations Implementation Committee, to the dismay of many. Harry R. Lewis, one of this policy’s many dissenters, equated this sanction to a Harvard “values test”, arguing that these sanctions threaten freedom of thought and of association.

When asked about this recent controversy, Dean O’Dair is well aware of the “strong opinions on all sides.” Interestingly, she herself was a member of a sorority in college, yet “believes in the spirit of what [the administration] is trying to do.” While she intends to help implement these sanctions, she also is very interested in hearing what students have to say. “What I want to do is listen to students’ own experiences on this campus. What we have to do is ensure that we are providing social alternatives for students. If there are gaps, then we need to fill them.”

Most Harvard students would agree that there are certainly gaps that need filling, especially when it comes to our social lives. Strictly regulated dorm parties and the lack of 18+ clubs in Boston and Cambridge leave students with few options to socialize outside of unrecognized single-gender organizations, and even then, some of these groups are notoriously exclusive. This exclusivity is not limited to the social lives of Harvard students, and exists in the sphere of extracurricular activities as well. At one point or another, whether we punched one of those supposedly evil final clubs or tried to comp a Harvard-recognized group, we have all been like Katie O’Dair, the Miami University freshman: rejected.

When addressing students at a leadership forum last week, Dean O’Dair spoke of combatting this exclusivity, at least in the realm of Harvard-recognized extracurricular activities. She is a proponent of “lowering the bar” for freshman involvement in these organizations. “If you are going to say no to a freshman, help them understand that there is a way to get involved,” she explained to me. “Invite them to your event anyway. Let them know that there are other events they can participate in even if they can’t be on the board or publish their article. It’s really important for everyone to know that those first few months in a freshman student’s experience are critical to their engagement on campus, and are really important for helping them find a sense for who they are and how they fit into the community.”

Lowering the bar for anything at Harvard is indeed a lofty goal (ironic, yes?) – and not one that all students want to reach. Harvard, by nature, is an exclusive place. Is it really possible for a university with one of the lowest acceptance rates in the country to be truly inclusive in all regards? This seems unlikely. Regardless, Dean O’Dair has made it clear that she is willing to listen to suggestions from students, and work with them to change aspects of student life at Harvard for the better. “I’m a systems-thinker,” she said. “I can’t understand or fix the system until I hear the students’ stories about how they navigate the system.” She has a lot of listening to do – Harvard is certainly a complicated system, for students and dean alike.

Caroline Gentile ’17 ([email protected]) feels #blessed that she was not rejected from the Harvard Independent and encourages you all to comp!