Interview: Mary Spellman

New Dean of Students Discusses Community, Student Participation, Alcohol

By Mark Munro

Campus Editor, CMC ’12
Mary Spellman
The Port Side sat down with Mary Spellman, Claremont McKenna’s new Dean of Students, to discuss her position and how her experience at Sarah Lawrence College translates to CMC. Coming to Claremont from Bronxville, New York, Spellman looks forward to learning the inner-workings of the Consortium and maintaining the high standard of living that our students appreciate.

Q: “How did you become interested in becoming Dean of Students?”

A: “I actually was very involved as a student in college. I went to Occidental College in Los Angeles, [where I] was very involved in orientation, helped plan family weekend, [and] was an RA. I loved being involved and was very close with the folks in our Student Affairs Office, but it never really occurred to me that this was work that you could do. A mentor of mine sent me to a workshop about higher education as a field, and I thought, ‘Wow, I love what I’m doing in college. If I could do that as a career that would be great.’”

Q: “What sort of things do you want to carry over from Sarah Lawrence?”

A: “I think the number one thing for me… is really understanding that you have to know the community and the students and listen to them and bring them into the discussion. Sarah Lawrence prides itself on having students at the center of everything, but we didn’t have students involved in many of our conversations beyond the Student Affairs Office when I got there. My colleagues and I at Student Affairs worked really hard to say, ‘You know what, we really need to involve students.’ It is a challenge to determine which policies students should be involved in or not, but I think as much as possible students should be consulted, if not part of the decision-making process. When we looked at our policies, students were on those committees, and those students were chosen by the student government and various other groups – instead of us hand-picking our student representation. Some of my colleagues questioned, ‘Well, don’t you think you should pick the students?’ And I said, ‘Well, if I want the students on the committee to echo my belief – sure, but if I really want to have us as a community look into this issue and feel represented and create a policy that is representative of the needs of the community, then we have to trust the students.’”

Q: “How do you feel that colleges should shape their policies around alcohol?”

A: “First of all, I am a realist on the issue of alcohol and other drugs. We are on a college campus; whether it be a dry or wet campus, students are going to drink. I think, for me, whatever policy an institution has needs to take into consideration the unique needs of that population. How do we create an environment that balances legal, moral, and ethical responsibilities, as well as provides an opportunity for students to explore, grow, and develop in a safe manner? It’s a fine dance because I can’t say, ‘It’s okay, everybody just drink.’ So I think it’s a balance. I think what was most powerful for me at this most recent task force at Sarah Lawrence is that we were intentionally creating a committee that was really representative.”

Q: “What roles have students played in shaping particular Sarah Lawrence alcohol policies?”

A: “A student suggested a radical idea, and they were sure that I was going to be vehemently opposed to it. We had a practice that if a student went to the hospital for alcohol use because they needed medical attention, they then went to health services after they came back to campus for an assessment around alcohol and substance use. They were put on housing probation, which means they’d get kicked out of housing if any other problems came up. We didn’t always do it, but that was the threat, and we notified their parents. And the student said, ‘We think we should not notify parents the first time they go to the hospital, and we should not put them on housing probation.’ If we really see this as an educational and health related issue, then we need to give students the opportunity to learn from that. The truth is, my colleagues and I that were on the committee from Student Affairs said, ‘Let’s put it out there. Let’s make that recommendation.’”

The Port Side sat down with Mary Spellman, Claremont McKenna’s new Dean of Students, to discuss her position and how her experience at Sarah Lawrence College translates to CMC. Coming to Claremont from Bronxville, New York, Spellman looks forward to learning the inner-workings of the Consortium and maintaining the high standard of living that our students appreciate.

Q: “How did you become interested in becoming Dean of Students?”

A: “I actually was very involved as a student in college. I went to Occidental College in Los Angeles, [where I] was very involved in orientation, helped plan family weekend, [and] was an RA. I loved being involved and was very close with the folks in our Student Affairs Office, but it never really occurred to me that this was work that you could do. A mentor of mine sent me to a workshop about higher education as a field, and I thought, ‘Wow, I love what I’m doing in college. If I could do that as a career that would be great.’”

Q: “What sort of things do you want to carry over from Sarah Lawrence?”

A: “I think the number one thing for me… is really understanding that you have to know the community and the students and listen to them and bring them into the discussion. Sarah Lawrence prides itself on having students at the center of everything, but we didn’t have students involved in many of our conversations beyond the Student Affairs Office when I got there. My colleagues and I at Student Affairs worked really hard to say, ‘You know what, we really need to involve students.’ It is a challenge to determine which policies students should be involved in or not, but I think as much as possible students should be consulted, if not part of the decision-making process. When we looked at our policies, students were on those committees, and those students were chosen by the student government and various other groups – instead of us hand-picking our student representation. Some of my colleagues questioned, ‘Well, don’t you think you should pick the students?’ And I said, ‘Well, if I want the students on the committee to echo my belief – sure, but if I really want to have us as a community look into this issue and feel represented and create a policy that is representative of the needs of the community, then we have to trust the students.’”

Q: “How do you feel that colleges should shape their policies around alcohol?”

A: “First of all, I am a realist on the issue of alcohol and other drugs. We are on a college campus; whether it be a dry or wet campus, students are going to drink. I think, for me, whatever policy an institution has needs to take into consideration the unique needs of that population. How do we create an environment that balances legal, moral, and ethical responsibilities, as well as provides an opportunity for students to explore, grow, and develop in a safe manner? It’s a fine dance because I can’t say, ‘It’s okay, everybody just drink.’ So I think it’s a balance. I think what was most powerful for me at this most recent task force at Sarah Lawrence is that we were intentionally creating a committee that was really representative.”

Q: “What roles have students played in shaping particular Sarah Lawrence alcohol policies?”

A: “A student suggested a radical idea, and they were sure that I was going to be vehemently opposed to it. We had a practice that if a student went to the hospital for alcohol use because they needed medical attention, they then went to health services after they came back to campus for an assessment around alcohol and substance use. They were put on housing probation, which means they’d get kicked out of housing if any other problems came up. We didn’t always do it, but that was the threat, and we notified their parents. And the student said, ‘We think we should not notify parents the first time they go to the hospital, and we should not put them on housing probation.’ If we really see this as an educational and health related issue, then we need to give students the opportunity to learn from that. The truth is, my colleagues and I that were on the committee from Student Affairs said, ‘Let’s put it out there. Let’s make that recommendation.’”
The Claremont Port Side is dedicated to providing the Claremont Colleges with contextualized, intelligent reports to advance debate among students and citizens. This is a progressive newsmagazine that offers pertinent information and thoughtful analysis on the issues confronting and challenging our world, our country, and our community.


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