Complicated Messes and the Joys of Student Growth: Reflections on Kathleen Deignan’s 46 Years of Leadership in Student Affairs | Jarvis

written by: Judy Jarvis

Kathleen Deignan was a leader in college and university student affairs for 46 years, retiring in 2023. Deignan was Dean of Students at Princeton University for over 25 years and worked in other student affairs roles at Princeton and Amherst College. In nearly half a century in higher education, Deignan worked under eight college and university presidents and led during times of significant cultural and political change in the country and higher education.

On the occasion of her retirement celebration, Deignan’s Office of Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS) staff team compiled a video tribute that featured over 80 former and current administrators at Princeton University. Colleagues repeatedly used the word “integrity” to describe Deignan and her work, as well as “kindness” and “sense of humor.” Others called her “steadfast,” “trust-worthy,” “compassionate,” with “razor-sharp reasoning,” “fierce intelligence” and a serious “backbone.” The range of people represented and the sincerity of their comments in the video speak to Deignan’s broad regard, as well as the collaborative and mentorship work she prioritized in her years at Princeton University.

2024 marks the 100th anniversary of the ACPA-College Student Educators International organization, and as we reflect on 100 years of student affairs, it is instructive to learn from Deignan’s experiences in and reflections on her career and the field. Deignan spoke with me, her Princeton University colleague, in the fall of 2023, in a two-part interview. We discussed how the work of a dean of students has changed and remained the same over her 46 years in the field; the importance of weaving in diversity and inclusion work to generalist student affairs offices; the complexity of conduct and discipline work; and advice Deignan would give to new practitioners, among other topics. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Judy Jarvis: Your first year of working in student affairs was 1977. What is something from your first year of working in student affairs that is still relevant to this day?

Kathleen Deignan: A couple of things. Ever since I’ve been in this field, we’ve been concerned about student safety and well-being. Today we use the term ‘well-being,’ which wasn’t a term we used back then. But whether it had to do with student social events or alcohol or drugs or hazing or whatever—ever since I’ve been in the field, people who are doing the work I do, have been concerned about how we give students the independence they want and allow them to emerge into this world of young adulthood while at the same time, keeping them safe.

The other thing that even back then we were thinking about, was how students learned from the experiences outside the classroom and what we could do as administrators to enhance that. How can we balance giving students, as individuals and as groups of students, the opportunities to make their own decisions, enjoy their own successes, learn from their own mistakes, while simultaneously setting appropriate limits and boundaries? So, I think those are two things that seem like through-lines: safety and learning.

JJ: And the inverse of that—what are some things that in the late 70s/early 80s that were central concerns of dean of students offices that are really not central in that way anymore?

KD: I wouldn’t necessarily say that there’s anything that we were concerned about then that we are unconcerned about now. But one of things that I have noticed is that we talk less about  the role alcohol plays in students’ lives. There was a time in the 80s and 90s when it was THE topic.

Everyone was struggling for an answer. When the drinking age changed [in 1984], colleges were really challenged. Prior to that, colleges were able to sponsor and monitor student events where alcohol was served. There was less tension between education and enforcement.

JJ: You didn’t have to be the enforcers in the same way when people are basically all drinking age.

KD: Right, exactly, and you could have all kind of events where alcohol was available. I think we’ve seen a real shift in what students are consuming – away from what was primarily beer, to now, a great deal of students pre-gaming with hard alcohol which is more dangerous. In those early days following the change in the drinking age, there was a lot of consternation among administrators about clear and consistent messaging. How do we enforce the law and institutional policy while at the same time encourage students who chose to drink to do so responsibly?  It was a constant subject and it dominated the conversation. But now I don’t think it is the central focus of most professional conversations that I’ve been in, in the last 10 years.

JJ: What is the new central focus?

KD: Well, I think there are a number of them. Sexual misconduct emerged as an issue that people were paying attention to. As you know, colleges and universities across the country came under fire for the ways in which they were handling or not handling sexual misconduct and so that emerged as a big topic.

Diversity and inclusion has emerged as a critically important issue. I think that it has moved more into the mainstream of conversation than was the case years ago. Higher education in general has moved from saying, ‘here are specific individuals designated to do DEI work—good  luck,’ to asking ourselves how do we embed these principles in every office, every department across campus? How does everybody absorb these as values and goals? That’s a shift.

JJ: Our field is increasing racial justice work and other equity work into offices that are not just DEI offices. But there’s also backlash to DEI work. What are the most effective ways to increase marginalized students’ sense of belonging on campus and navigate that backlash?

KD: I think you have to have a two-pronged approach. One is, continuing to support the specific DEI efforts that we have, like identity-based centers, programs and professionals throughout the institution. Particularly for students who have encountered racism or homophobia or other forms of bias, I think they need to have access to spaces that, by design, are there to affirm them.

The other is to have all student affairs staffs – residential life, financial aid, student engagement, counseling and crisis management, etc. – reflect the diversity we see in our student population. It’s really important, not just for students who  identify as being part of a marginalized community, but for students who don’t, to encounter people in their everyday work, who may not share their identity, but who can help them address challenges and meet their goals.

JJ: To what degree was addressing suicidality a part of the safety work in the 70s and 80s or is that something that’s also really changed?

KD: That’s really changed a lot. If you look at the trendlines around mental health in general suicidality and many other forms of mental illness and mental health challenges have risen.

I’m not a psychologist so I’m not equipped really to try and explain why we see that trend line, but there are a lot of factors involved. They operate in concert with each other to move mental health distress rates up. If I’m thinking chronologically along my own career: we had alcohol, we had sexual misconduct, diversity and inclusion—mental health is now a central feature of the work that deans do. When I first started in this field, we tended to focus more on homesickness, struggles to find a friend group, loss of relationships. Now the issues are more complicated, they’re deeper.

JJ: Is there anything that you wish you’d known about working in student affairs before you started? What you would say to people who are starting in the field right now?

KD: I never ever regretted my choice to work in student affairs. I kind of tumbled into this work. I thought, ‘oh I was an RA, that seems good’ and I had a friend who was in higher ed so I thought ‘let me try that.’ It’s not like I spent a lot of time thinking about it the way I think college seniors think about their careers now.

That said, I don’t think  there’s anything that, had I known it earlier, would have taken me down a different path or would have caused me to make different decisions. My awareness about the complexity of the field is certainly much deeper than it was when I first started out, but would that have deterred me? No, it wouldn’t.

JJ: You might have liked that! You like the challenges and the complexities.

KD: I like messes.

The advice that I would give to people just starting out in the field is get broad experience. I would say volunteer for a lot of things, when you’re early in career, get a taste of a lot of things. I just think people need to be open to unexpected surprises.

For me, my long tenure at Princeton was unexpected. I initially accepted a job that I imagined would be a short term thing and look what happened. So just being open to the possibilities and when people say, “Do you want to explore this?” don’t close those things off. Even if you think, “I’m not interested,” you just might be. Explore—that’s the advice I would give to people starting out. Don’t get fixated on, “I’m just going to specialize in this area, this is the thing I want to do.” Yeah, that’s good, but other things can be rewarding too.

JJ: It sounds like nothing was going to deter you from the field. 

KD: Yeah, nothing.

JJ: Was there ever a time where you got close to quitting?

KD: No. I never did. I mean, there were hard days, hard weeks. The hardest thing was making decisions or enforcing policy some students didn’t like. Sometimes people would say this or that was “unfair.” That probably bothered me the most, because if there’s one thing I want people to say about me when I retire, it’s that I was fair.

For me, that means being even-handed with people, even with the person who irritates you or isn’t being entirely straight-forward with you. Particularly in the area of student conduct, making decisions on the basis of evidence is very important. You can’t let your personal or emotional reaction to someone – good or bad – influence the outcome.

Even if your gut tells you the person is responsible for more than they are admitting, you are limited to what the evidence supports. Similarly, good people sometimes do bad things. You can find yourself being very fond of someone and admire the way they have handled their mistake. Still, you need to be even-handed. Sometimes, it can break your heart.

So many of the other decisions we make in our lives can be subjective – the people we choose to associate with, maybe the jobs we take, the workplaces we’re in. We get to bring our personal feelings and biases to bear on those decisions and that’s okay. You can make all those choices in your personal life.

You can’t make them when you’re doing university business. You have to use your brain to tell you to do the right thing—even when your emotions want to tell you something else. There were days when those things were hard.

JJ: I want to delve into that because you said earlier, “I like messes, I like complicated things.”

KD: Yeah. The messes I like are sort of complicated problems where you have to figure out, “okay, how are we going to approach this.” Like complicated disciplinary cases where it might involve lots of different people, where you’re pulling threads of information from different places. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to learn until you learn it. Sometimes things turn out in ways that are very unexpected. You may have your own impressions about what the facts are, and when you keep digging and keep looking, then you discover, actually, it’s not what it appeared to be.

That’s one of the things I’ve learned is that your instincts are important to help you know what to ask, what to pursue. But you have to be careful about your instincts replacing the facts.

It’s challenging to me intellectually – that’s what I like. “How are we going to approach this problem?” It’s like chess. You’re having to figure out, “okay if we do this, what are the consequences of that?” You’ve got to play it out three interactions down the road and I find that intellectually really interesting.

JJ: How do you stay motivated when students who don’t like the result say, “ODUS is unfair” or “The Dean of Students is unfair”? How do you stay motivated or get in touch with your own compass?

KD: That’s a really good question, how do I do that? What I can tell you is that it is easier to maintain your integrity when you are surrounded by people who act with integrity. For me, that’s been really important. I have had the benefit of that from the leaders I’ve worked for and my peers across the institution and I’ve tried to set that example for my staff. It gives me joy to feel like I’m empowering them to do the same thing.

At the end of the day, you’re only left with yourself – your own conscience. You have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Who am I?’ Did I take the right  stand on some value or principle I believed in? And that’s not to say, you don’t take into account – we all do – political concerns. But for me, that’s always been about how you message something, how you reduce blow-back or misunderstanding rather than making a decision that’s wrong or for the wrong reasons..

I would have left my position if I had ever felt those around me were motivated by values and principles I thought were the wrong or if I saw people acting unethically. I consider myself fortunate never to have encountered that.

JJ: Have you been a part of professional organizations or gone to professional conferences? What you think the value of those things are and what do you recommend to others?

KD: I have participated in the New England Deans Association and the COFHE [Consortium on Financing Higher Education] student affairs conferences.

I think developing relationships with professional colleagues at other institutions is really critical. Sometimes campuses are experiencing a trend that’s coming our way, it just hasn’t gotten here yet, but it’s coming our way so it’s useful to understand where colleagues think they made mistakes, where they think they did things right, being able to bring that back to our own campuses and say “what was different about their situation? What’s the same, and what can we learn?”

Developing a network of professional colleagues is really important. You can support each other in times of trouble, and you can also learn a lot about the trends.

JJ: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

KD: This has been a wonderful career. I find it energizing to have worked with young people and to see them grow and also to learn that that growth often happens around challenging moments. And my work has been centered, for better or for worse, on a lot of the really challenging stuff.

But I think it’s in those moments that students can really come to understand themselves and begin to clarify their own values and their own passions. They can discover their own North Star. If you feel like you have had a little role in that process, if you have helped shepherd students along the way, for me that’s just been an incredible reward of being in this field.

I wouldn’t ever discourage anybody from entering this field. It’s incredibly dynamic. Every time you think, “okay, we got it – we know it’s happening here” it changes and something new emerges.

Judy Jarvis (she/her) is the founding Executive Director of Princeton University’s Office of Campus Engagement and an instructor in the Temple University Office of Off Campus Programs and Trainings. Prior to these roles, Jarvis was Director of the Princeton LGBT Center and Director of Vassar College’s Women’s Center and LGBTQ Center. Jarvis received her B.A. in Psychology and Media Studies from Vassar College, her Ed.M. from the Higher Education Program of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in the Rutgers University Higher Education Program.