Replacing Janet Dickerson

by Toni Alimi

Vice President Janet Dickerson’s October announcement of her retirement from Princeton University in June certainly came as a hard blow to the University.  Among many other achievements, in her ten years here, she masterminded the University’s push for four-year residential colleges, the re-opening of Campus Club, as well as the opening of the Carl Fields center and Community House.  Her influence and presence on campus will, indeed, be sorely missed.

The University has now begun its rather daunting task of finding a suitable replacement for her, and, to that end, has formed a search committee of twelve people, chaired by Executive Vice President Mark Burstein.  According to Mariam Rahmani, a senior on the search committee, the committee includes three student representatives – two undergraduates and one graduate student – who act as “full participants of the Search Committee.”

Because Vice President Dickerson has left such massive shoes to fill, it is rather interesting to note the criteria that the search committee is using to determine which applicants are best suited for the job.  As a University official, Vice President Dickerson was a tremendously unique candidate.  Apart from her obvious qualifications – she spent thirty years at three other colleges before coming here – Vice President Dickerson is both African American and a woman.  In replacing such a unique administrator, then, what criteria is the search committee employing?

To answer this question, it is necessary and important to look specifically at the University’s intentions in finding her replacement.  While I attempted to contact Executive Vice President Burstein for his take on this issue and his opinions on how the search committee should nominate and select candidates, neither he nor other members of the search committee were available for comment.  The ongoing selection process is confidential, and the only person available for comment was, in fact, senior Mariam Rahmani.  While she assured me that “everyone is confident that the search is going well and that the new VPCL will be someone who will help Princeton move forward as it continues its pioneering mission in higher education, a mission that combines commitments to academic excellence, rich co-curricular life and diversity,” she unfortunately could not divulge any details on specific applicants, nor did she give specific characteristics the Search Committee is looking for in candidates.

Despite this reticence on the part of the committee members it is possible to gather some quite telling information.  Per an October 2009 web story on the Princeton news website:

“Members of the search committee for the new vice president for campus life are Mark Burstein, executive vice president (chair); Kathleen Deignan, dean of undergraduate students; graduate student Trenton Franz; Michael Jennings, the Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages and chair of the Department of German; Robin Moscato, director of undergraduate financial aid; senior Mariam Rahmani; Terri Harris Reed, vice provost for institutional equity and diversity; William Russel, dean of the Graduate School; junior Jordan Sawadogo; Nicole Shelton, associate professor of psychology; and Sankar Suryanarayan, University counsel.”

“Administrative diversity” has become a buzzword among Ivy-League and similar caliber institutions, and, for the past five to six years, Princeton has begun to take steps to promote a spirit of gender, ethnic and racial diversity within its administration.  According to a 2006 Princeton University Web Story, in 2004 President Tilghman formed the Diversity Working Group with the expressed mission of “promotion of a diverse work force at Princeton.”  This group has actually focused its efforts on “people of color among non-faculty employees at all levels” and currently audits the University policies that may undermine the University’s diversity-related goals.  My personal – and hopefully the entire campus’ – wish is that whoever replaces Vice President Dickerson will do so because he or she is so qualified, and not because he or she is African-American or a woman.

In 2006 President Tilghman implemented more measures to promote administration diversity efforts.  The same article cited above stated that Terri Harris Reed, who had at that time been serving as Associate Provost for Institutional Equity was to be promoted to the position of Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity.  Perhaps most shocking, however, is that the University created two new administrative positions – “one in the Office of the Provost and one in the Office of Human Resources” – to create the additional administrative capacity to support Princeton’s diversity-related initiatives.  At very least, such a measure is profligate and irresponsible – essentially increasing short and long term administrative costs to force an image of diversity that otherwise might not exist.  Apart from this it is offensive, purposefully creating a job position so that the University can get more minorities on its payroll.

The goal of maintaining demographic equality across campus is a noble one, because it ensures that no group of people is disenfranchised based on race, gender or ethnicity.  Indeed, this attitude must begin with the administration.  The ideas behind President Tilghman’s steps in this direction are commendable and should be duly lauded.  Nevertheless, one obviously hopes that the University’s attempts to promote a spirit of diversity in its administration does not compromise administrative quality.  I stress that, with Vice President Dickerson, this was certainly not the case.  Her reputation and experience preceded her, and she has more than proven herself through her service in the last ten years.

Even now, as we lament her retirement, we must understand that Vice President Dickerson’s success stemmed first and foremost from the fact that she is talented, diligent, and has a heart to serve this campus – and not because she is an African American woman. Ultimately, her announcement of retirement would certainly not have been an issue of this magnitude if this were not the case.  Rather, it is a testament to her success that the University is undertaking such a developed and lengthy process to bring to the University a suitable replacement for her.  Nevertheless, I hope that the University will recognize this and continue to search for her replacement with the quality of the candidate – and not his or her particular demographic – in mind.

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