Legacy and Integrity: Dean Susan Allen at MIT

(or How To Be an Effective Dean for Student Life)

by Teresa W. Lau


Three years ago, Susan Allen arrived at MIT as the advisor to student
activities. Since that time, several facets of student life have
improved, largely through the attention and commitment of Assistant
Dean Allen. From student activity finances to event registration, from
mediation@mit to the Committee on Campus Race Relations, from the BSU
(Black Student Union) lounge renovation project to administrative
advising of GaMIT (Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgenders, and
Friends at MIT), Dean Allen has been a driving force behind so much
positive change at the Institute, that her departure is a serious
loss.
	In light of the above, it is frustrating that some factions of
the MIT community seem to have reveled in singling out Dean Allen with
nitpicking virulence to criticize her (often brave) stances on various
issues and her work in reshaping administrative policy. Dean Ayida
Mthembu notes that Dean Allen has been an innovator on this
campus. [She] doesnt hesitate to do the right thing, whatever that
might be, and people get flak when they're visibly vocal. Certainly,
any administrator who maintains visibility on issues of racism and
refuses to ignore or erase effects of inequality is often dismissed or
vilified. And Dean Allen, a Black woman who unapologetically spoke out
and advocated for change at MIT, not surprisingly became a target for
both student and administration backlash. As graduate student Robin
Chapman explains, she's not someone they're necessarily used to
listening to and hearing no from. As such, students have felt
empowered to resist her.
	Criticisms that were leveled at Dean Allen during her time at
MIT most often showed an incomplete understanding of the complexity of
issues that impact upon student life at the Institute. Indeed, Dean
Allen is one of the few administrators who has the vision and
sensitivity to truly foster campus community and student empowerment;
her work has been dedicated to students and their needs through
education, understanding, and respect.

Toward Clarity: Policy and Structure

	As advisor to student activities, Dean Allen explains that one
of her first priorities was to put some order to things in the way
student groups were treated, advised, and governed at MIT. This was no
small task; at the time of her arrival, most procedures and
regulations for student activities lacked organization, clarity, and
enforcement. There was no structure in place within the Office of
Residence and Campus Activities (RCA) that connected the
administration of student activities with the finances of student
groups. The process of planning an on-campus event was confusing, and
the rules governing registration were unevenly enforced. The ASA
(Association of Student Activities), the group responsible for the
administration of student group recognition and office allocations
(among other functions), lay dormant. Additionally, Dean Allen's
position had no explicit communication with either the administrator
of student accounts (currently Eleanor Crawford) or the administrative
assistant for the Undergraduate Association (currently Lelo Masamba),
both of whom play an integral role in the day-to-day operations of
student groups. Recognizing these obstacles, Dean Allen saw [her] job
as involving making connections, and creating a student activities
office that had an understandable structure. Within the next year, the
re-organization of student accounts, the development and fostering of
student leadership and creative problem solving, and the drafting of
an official Alcohol Policy and Event Registration Process marked the
change and restructuring of RCA through Dean Allen, as she, all the
while, sought to maintain an emphasis on making people aware of the
whole process.
	These re-assessments and changes of policy pertaining to
student activities became a popular target for criticism and venom,
doted on like a spoiled child by some parts of the student
population. The RCA enforcement of the 1989 MIT Audit Division's
policy of no outside student group bank accounts was a particularly
contested issue. Dean Allen described the situation as an issue of
things making sense for 250 student groups. Her efforts focused on
developing strategies and structures within RCA and student activity
administration such that student groups could adhere to Institute
policy while also enjoying an accounting system that would meet their
wishes. Again, hammering out a workable solution was no small feat,
considering the high percentage of groups which suffered from poor
financial management. Student groups were operating with negative
balances (often without being aware of their situation), they had no
records of their financial transactions, and money was being lost
through irresponsible accounting, poor documentation, and questionable
bookkeeping. While a few student groups may have enjoyed a level of
convenience in outside accounts, the dire financial situation of many
other groups, as well as the confusion and disarray of the system as a
whole, demanded a fundamental re-structuring of student group
accounting. Through the combined efforts of Dean Allen, Eleanor
Crawford, and Lelo Masamba, the accounting system has improved
tremendously; groups now enjoy descriptive records of their
transactions from as far back as 1991, a process for making account
transactions that is straightforward, and a drastically shortened
turnaround time for obtaining funds.
	Dean Allen also engaged in the development and implementation
of new policies associated with RCA, from the now-established Alcohol
Policy to the Event Registration Policy. In her own words, the work
required in holding an on-campus event is an involved process, but one
that need not be confusing or inflexible. Dean Allen's goal has been
to create policies that document and make explicit MIT's legal
guidelines and motivations, while at the same time outlining a process
that creates as little red tape as possible. By structuring Institute
concerns in this way, Dean Allen has made it possible for student
groups to find creative alternatives, making arrangements for people
that wouldn't otherwise be possible. And the new policies have simply
resulted in events going off without the hitches that there used to
be.
	Similarly, Dean Allen has worked with student government
groups, and especially with the ASA, to implement structures and
organize procedures for clearer understanding of and among student
groups. ASA was effectively inactive a few years ago, and has since
become one of the motivating forces in restructuring student
government. Office allocations, bulletin board space allocations, and
student group recognition processes have all been resurrected, and as
such the organization of student activities on campus has
progressively improved. They've come a long way in three years, Dean
Allen remarks. The re-assessment and implementation of RCA policy has
been an undeniable factor in allowing the ASA to become the active
group it is today; ASA's revitalization reflects another way in
which Dean Allen's work has encouraged and facilitated student
activities at MIT.
	On a broader scale, administrative support of students across
the Institute has also been a focus for Dean Allen. When filling the
position of advisor to student activities, the Dean's Office wanted
someone who could change things and who would come in with skills to
accomplish that change, according to Dean Andy Eisenman, who headed
the search committee that invited Dean Allen to MIT. The development
of both the mediation project (mediation@mit) and the student judicial
system (going into effect February 1 of next year) highlights the
knowledge and skills base Dean Allen has brought to this campus. Not
only has Dean Allen accomplished positive change by creating new
structures of support and recourse for students, she has also
consistently brought issues and concerns of diversity and fairness to
these efforts from the training of mediators, to the development of
the mediation program in general, to the consideration of judicial and
disciplinary problems.

Toward Progress: Sensitivity and Support

	One remarkable example of her dedication to addressing racial
diversity at MIT is represented by the establishment of the Committee
on Campus Race Relations (CCRR) in 1993. Dean Allen's commitment to
fostering communication and understanding around issues of race and
diversity is nowhere more distinguished and inspiring than through her
role in the creation of the CCRR convening the initial group that
sought to make diversity a prominent part of MIT dialogue,
participating in a national tele-conference on campus racial climates,
forming the ad-hoc committee on race relations, and drafting the
proposal sent to President Vest for an official Institute race
relations committee. Sensitivity to the campus atmosphere around race
and racism, and an incisive understanding of the changes needed for
progress characterize her most influential and far-reaching
accomplishments in the last three years. Ironically, Dean Allen is
conspicuously absent from the membership of the CCRR, though she
observes that the group is doing what I [had] wanted it to do.
	Though she was not included in the Institute's formal
committee for addressing campus race relations, Dean Allen continued
to be a vital part of the efforts in dealing with racial tensions and
incidents at MIT. She was among the first administrators to notice the
implications of the monkey image produced on the cover of the
first-year picture book for the class of 98. Recognizing the potential
harm to African American students on this campus with widespread
circulation of the cover, Dean Allen sought to defuse the situation
before protest and student mobilization became imminent. For
first-year students to be introduced to race relations at MIT through
anger and conflict with the picture book cover would have done more
harm than good. Indeed, the timing of the picture book cover could not
have been much worse. After the insulting and ineffective manner in
which the administration dealt with the controversy of shouted racial
slurs at PBE, after the pioneer efforts put into the creation of the
Intuitively Obvious videos, and in the midst of an atmosphere of
profound disenchantment and discouragement within the African American
student community, the offensive cover would have had far-reaching
effects on continuing race relations at the Institute. Those who
balked at the president's action regarding the picture book cover
clearly did not take into account, as Dean Allen had, the prevailing
climate on campus at that time.
	In recounting the picture book incident, Dean Allen recalls,
there was a situation [at her previous position at the University of
Massachusetts, Amherst,] where the students of color were protesting a
new policy of the administration. And one part of their complaint was
with the administrators of color, for standing by something obviously
harmful to communities of color on campus.  When the picture book
cover crossed Dean Allen's desk, it was clear that the repercussions
of the monkey image asking what intuitively obvious meant would be
significant. Twenty years ago when I was [an undergraduate] student
and pushing the administration for change, we hoped that things would
be different in twenty years, Dean Allen explains. So here it was,
twenty years later, and it was obvious to me that the administration
should act on it before the students had to deal with the hurt.
	Through her position in the administration, Dean Allen has
maintained this consistent awareness of the impact of Institute policy
and campus controversy on student life. While the details of her job,
as Dean Eisenman describes it, puts her on the interface between the
students and [the administration of] MIT, Dean Allen has gone beyond
the usual involvement of planning events with students and student
groups to proactively establish communications and support. Robin
Chapman points out Dean Allen's interest in working with students as
an investment in them learning about how to function within the
regulations and framework of the Institute. They teach you so little
of that here. She sees the importance of her role as a lesson in
coping and dealing with the real world, while learning to find
creative solutions. Indeed, Dean Allen's administrative support of a
variety of campus groups has consistently been a fostering not only of
administration-student communication, but of student empowerment. Her
efforts focus on making students aware of the processes and vehicles
for change in the administration; or as MIT graduate Kristen Nummerdor
puts it, she works with you to explore all the possible options, and
then helps you to shape a plan of action so that you are able to meet
your goals and effectively make a difference.
	Many student groups and individual students have had the
opportunity to work with Dean Allen in this way. Graduate student
Deirdre Lawrence recognizes how Dean Allen has helped in so many ways,
just by letting me know what kinds of issues or meetings were coming
up [at the Institute] that would affect the BGSA (Black Graduate
Student Association). Dean Allen's administrative support of GaMIT has
been invaluable, working with the group's officers as acting Advising
Dean for the last year through the Metal Detector Policy, in the midst
of hate incidents, during conflicts and harassment from within the
administration, and around difficulties with R/O week. The BSU also
enjoyed the community and administrative connections established by
Dean Allen throughout the three year-long project of its lounge
renovation. And through some of Dean Allen's efforts, the Thistle and
other campus publications in need of more support have become an issue
for the administration. "In each of these situations, Dean Allen is
consistent and genuine," says Chapman. "She doesn't play favorites,
and she doesn't let people get away with things. But [Dean Allen] is
so creative; she's always ready to work something out with you."

Making Connections, Making a Difference

	"By creating networks and establishing communication between
students, student groups, and the administration, Dean Allen has been
instrumental in foregrounding the notion of student activities on this
campus, [in creating] a strong Institute understanding of the
importance of student groups," as Dean Ayida Mthembu explains. In the
interest of student development, student voice, and student agency,
Dean Allen has fostered connections and increased communication within
the Institute. Dean Eisenman observes that Dean Allen has strengthened
relationships with other areas of MIT by establishing contact between
RCA, the Campus Activities Complex, the Campus Police, and even the
Housing and Registrar's Offices as a part of improving the event
registration process. Through Dean Allen's efforts, the mediation
process and the new student judicial system both represent new
structures within the Institute focused on bringing people with
differences together. Dean Allen's approach to issues of racial
diversity and understanding have also centered around encouraging
dialogue between disparate groups. Dean Mthembu sums it up well in
saying, "It wasn't a dean's position when Susan arrived, but she's
turned it into one."
	Dean Allen's skill in cultivating communication is described
by Dean Eisenman, who notes that she is always open for discussion and
willing to change her mind or ready to stand her ground depending on
the course of the discussion. She wants to let people be heard, and to
talk things out. "[Dean Allen has] an honest way of dealing with the
fact that there are differences, engaging in a process that is fair to
people. One of the things that she'a always brought is integrity."
Lelo Masamba comments that Dean Allen is "people-oriented and fair-
minded."
	When asked to reflect on her work at MIT, Dean Allen explains,
"there are a lot of things that have been started that I won't be able
to see through to the end. Most of those things were good projects
that I've wanted to be a part of." She concluded by noting that "some
of MIT has worn off on me, and I hope that some of me has worn off on
MIT. But I wouldn't expect that my leaving would be that big of a
deal." On the contrary, many of us do indeed lament the departure of
Dean Susan Allen. The legacy of changes in Institute structure and
policy that she has fostered will positively affect student life for
years to come. And the influences, lessons, and support enjoyed by
students who have had the pleasure of working with Dean Allen will
help us in the rest of our time at MIT, and in our lives after leaving
the Institute. As Dean Mthembu declares, Dean Allen has given us a
"model for making something out of nothing."



I would like to thank Deirdre Lawrence, Robin Chapman, Lelo Masamba,
Kristen Nummerdor, Margaret Jablonsky, and Andy Eisenman for taking
the time to participate in interviews. Thanks also to Dean Ayida
Mthembu and Assistant Dean Mary Ni, who were both vital to the
formulation of this article. Finally, I thank Dean Susan Allen for her
interview and for being one of the reasons I have thrived at MIT.

This article was written with the help of Kristen "Nummi"
Nummerdor, who also thanks Dean Allen for her wisdom and support.


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