Interview with VP Dickerson

by Brian Reiser ’13

How did Princeton differ from the other colleges at which you worked:Earlham, Swarthmore and Duke?

Swarthmore and Earlham are much more social justice colleges, because of their history of Quakerism. Princeton students remind me in some ways of Swarthmore students, but I would say it was more the norm at Swarthmore that students were intellectually fearless, willing to challenge the status quo and raise questions. So there were a lot more demonstrations there and more interaction between the administration and the students. I wish we had more activism on campus.

Duke was activist in a different way. When I worked there, I was returning to a community that, like my own community, had had a deep history of racial segregation. That was a challenge. Being in that environment reignited some of the awareness that I had as a young person about the challenge of social change in an environment where power was held, in this case, by whites. It was also an environment that was undergoing terrific change. I knew when I was going there that I would have to help the University become a more modern university.

Like Duke, we have a rich diversity, not just a visible diversity, an invisible diversity as well. For example, conservative students have an excellent voice here, who are really smart in their strategies and tactics. I’ve enjoyed that frankly.

It seems like you’ve focused a lot of bringing out this “invisible diversity” and making it visible, and providing a forum for the exchange of ideas, an example being Sustained Dialogue. What prompted you to get involved with SD? What need was it meeting that other groups were not addressing as well as they could?

Sustained Dialogue was here at Princeton before I came. It was a chance for people of all backgrounds and, this is an old-fashioned word, stations in the community to participate in ongoing conversations and to share their stories. And I think that as they continue to do, their goal is not to champion any one philosophical view or ideological view, but to help people make connections with each other. I learned some important things in that group. I heard students say that people of lower socio-economic classes were less likely to enjoy their experience. As the co-chair of the Undergraduate Life Committee, that became one of my initiatives, looking at equity in access to the Princeton experience. I also learned about the lack of access students with disabilities might have. We’ve now established a Disabilities Services Office.

Religion is an important aspect of student life. We now have a Muslim coordinator and a Hindu coordinator on campus, and the Office of Religious Life seems to have an expanded role and purpose. How would you characterize religious life on campus? How would you evaluate the state of inter-faith dialogue?

The Religious Life Council is a place where a selected group of students of faith are really working together to make sure that inter-faith and intra-faith dialogue are vibrant and live on campus. Before I came, religious life at Princeton was thriving, and in fact one of the things that I really appreciate about the religious life program here is that it has been an agent of change for many, many years. I would say the ORL has been the midwife for a lot of programs, like the Student Volunteers Council, and the LGBT Center, and other agencies that didn’t have a place here until they were put forth by the ORL. It’s also been a place that has been very receptive to students of conservative backgrounds. But the ORL has been a profound champion of social justice

I really think I made minor changes to the RL program. It made sense to get a Muslim coordinator here, and it was important to have someone of Hindu faith here. We have the CJL, Chabad, and we have a very active ministry of different Christian groups; I’m just glad that we have a place where students, staff, and faculty feel that they can express themselves as they choose, no matter which God they serve. And I have become more engaged in my own personal faith as a result of being an environment like this. One of the things I’ve appreciated about the Princeton religious life program is that it is not just lip service, things like Convocation and other inter-faith services are deeply and beautifully orchestrated inter-faith services, with music and voices from all religious traditions. So I think it’s helping us all be prepared to be citizens in a global world where religion has significant meaning and where wars are often fought over misunderstandings of those meanings.

In important decisions like the formation of a LGBT Center or gender-neutral housing, what role do campus dialogue and student opinion play?

Well, let me say first of all that we do not make our administrative decisions based on student campaigns. I’ve been trying to thread a narrow needle trying to figure out what are the right things to do. If we go back to the first principle of making a Princeton experience broad enough and with enough options and choices so that every student can feel comfortable here, then it’s easy for me to think about what kinds of policies and practices we might put in place. So for example, a number of years ago we heard from students who wanted to have single-gender housing, so that women who wanted space and privacy would have access to that. Also, as a result of efforts from some individual students, again not a campaign so much as a recognition that there are students who might feel more comfortable living in substance-free housing, this was something we could make a case for and persuade the university to let us do.

So the same issues really emerge with gender-neutral housing. Not so much from the LGBT community, but with a narrow group, the transgendered community. Now there are some people in the world who might say they are not open to acknowledging that there are transgendered people or that they might not deserve rights. It turns out that I have LGBT people in my family as most people do; I have friends and family members including one who is transgendered. I recognize that while this may not be the solution that will please the majority, the more we do to make our many minorities here feel like this can be a place where they can feel comfortable, the more it lifts up the majority and there is less division between the majority and the minority, whatever it means to be the “majority.”

The Anscombe Society has been very active and we’ve been meeting regularly for the last five or six years. We’ve talked about issues with freshman orientation, like Sex on a Saturday Night. And while we have never stopped producing the Sex on a Saturday Night program, they have been able to give voice to the content of that program. I know there’s been a more recent controversy about having over a Center for Abstinence and Chastity. And we talked about it, I listened, I referred the matter to the President and the Provost, and we’ve heard what they had to say about that issue.

I think my job is to listen to all the students, both those who are morally traditional and those who identify themselves as non-traditional. We all deplore the hookup culture. And we’ve definitely tried to make this a healthier place, a less stressful place, a place where it was less likely that students were carrying sexually transmitted diseases.

When we made the decisions about the LGBT Center and gender-neutral housing, it was done with recognition that while there would be some controversy, there would also be some opportunity in this for all of us to feel more comfortable in the community and to bring some stuff out of the closet, frankly. I come from South Carolina, a state where on one hand a lot of stuff was in the closet for a long time, and on the other hand there was other stuff going on. There was crazy-making in the South. Part of the crazy-making comes from not acknowledging the reality and humanity that we all share.

You wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Princeton in response to a satirical article it ran in January 2007 that used Asian stereotypes to parody Jian Li, a Yale student who filed a civil rights complaint against Princeton for its affirmative action policy. When do you feel it is appropriate for you as an administrator to get involved in campus discourse?

I have tried to stay above that, for the most part, but sometimes we can’t avoid some controversy. When I have gotten involved, it has been in consultation with other members of the administration. We have also recognized that sometimes it is more useful to have a more moderating voice that can contribute to the conversation. We like to point out that there are occasions when it’s important if we’re going to be in a civil community, for people will be respectful of the values and experiences of others.

Many universities have problems with the ROTC and the military’s

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, to the point that they don’t allow ROTC on campus. How does Princeton deal with this issue and find a place for ROTC on Campus?

In the early 1970s, the faculty and the President went through some soul-searching and came up with a decision to sustain ROTC on campus despite the fact that we don’t necessarily agree with some of their national policies. I work with the ROTC on campus very effectively as the liaison, because for me, it’s another element of the diversity we have in the community. And if we’re going to have smart wars, if we have to have wars – and I’m a pacifist, I have to say that – we need to have really talented people who are engaged in the management of those conflicts. So the University continues to put quiet pressure on the military about issues like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But at the same time, we can contribute to that change from the inside by developing young scholars who are also members of the ROTC. They may be the new leaders in the future, who can help us go through whatever changes we need to make to ensure that our military receives all people.

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