College President Nancy Dye appointed Deb McNish, former director of Residential Life and Services, to Acting Dean of Students early this week.
McNish, one of Oberlin's most popular administrators, has had a busy year. In September, McNish was 'on sabbatical' in her Oberlin home after being fired by former Dean of Students Charlene Cole-Newkirk. She was rehired in November.
McNish will hold the position for the academic year of 1998-99, as the search for a permanent dean of students begins early Fall semester. According to Dye, the appointment must be approved in June by the Board of Trustees. McNish will be officially appointed on July 1, if the Board approves Dye's decision.
"I think it means, for me, I get the opportunity to exhibit my skills and abilities to the college community," McNish said. "That's about all I'm taking it for. I assume if I do a good job, people will see me as a candidate for dean."
"I think it's great," Bill Stackman said about McNish's appointment. "She works well with students, and she is very student centered."
It's an inspired choice," Professor of Politics Chris Howell said. "She has an excellent rapport with students."
Julia Nieves, assistant to the dean of student affairs said, "Deb knows Res Life. I think bringing that perspective into the dean position will be very valuable."
Assistant to the President Diana Roose said the College informed the associate deans of Residential Life and Services of McNish's appointment early this week.
Roose has been ill, and she was unable to carry the workload of supervising the Student Life and Services division and assisting the President. Kathryn Stuart, associate dean of the Conservatory, has been appointed as an assistant to the President to work with Roose.
The information about McNish's promotion was intended to be filtered down to the community by the associate deans of Residential Life and Services. Several staff members said they were not notified of the decision, however.
Although a number of staff members only knew of McNish's appointment through rumors circulating through offices, McNish officially started her position early this week. "Being in the position for the past couple of days, I've spent a lot of time plugging holes and problem solving," McNish said. "I love a challenge."
McNish said she is excited to embrace the opportunity to define the work of the division of Student Life and Services. "In doing so, I will hopefully see how it supports students in their pursuit of learning."
Yeworkwha Belachew, assistant dean of Residential Life and Services, said she believes McNish's appointment was a good move by the administration. "She's very honest and very straight-forward," Belachew said. "She is never inconsistent or wishy-washy."
No decisions concerning the replacement of McNish's former position as Director of Residential Life and Service have been made. "We're so busy this week, I can't think of anything except commencement. No decisions have come around," McNish said.
Dye sent an all-campus mailing about the appointment to the college community Thursday. In a brief statement, Dye informed the community of McNish's new position and the search for a permanent appointment of Dean of Students early in the fall.
There was some concern that the decision to promote McNish to Acting Dean was insulated from the staff, faculty and students.
Roose said that Dye's idea to appoint McNish as Acting Dean was "cooking for awhile." Roose said, "Nancy thought the division needed a more official leadership with the title and role of dean."
Dye said, "We've been so fluid this year in terms of how to organize things. It was apparent that the arrangement we've had since November wasn't going to have to continue for another year or so."
McNish was fired by Cole-Newkirk last summer. Cole-Newkirk said she fired McNish because of personal differences. The firing was widely criticized by students, faculty and staff.
Cole-Newkirk left Oberlin in October. In Cole-Newkirk's stead, Dye appointed Roose to coordinate the efforts of the Student Life and Services division. McNish was rehired less than a month later.
Associate Dean of Student Life Ken Holmes said, "Debbie has been at the institution since 1990. She knows where the institution is, and she has built a good relationship with the faculty, staff and students over the years. Debbie and the College are a good match."
The sudden appointment prompted some questions from observers who have agitated for an inclusive search process.
"It's pretty Byzantine in a way," Howell said. "But presumably, just as Roose could be made coordinator, someone could be made acting dean."
According to Stackman, the search process for a permanent dean of Student Life will begin in September. National searches are traditionally launched early in the school year.
"It will be good to have someone as the acting dean," Jane Armitage, professor of theater and chair of the Student Life Committee, said. "I look forward to the search."
Senator senior Joshua Kaye said, "It's really important that Senate be involved in constituting the committee and appointing the students to the committee."
McNish said that she is unsure whether she will apply for the permanent position next fall. "I see this as an opportunity; if it works for the community and for me, I would apply," McNish said. "If it doesn't work, there's no way I am going to apply." McNish said that Dye never promised her a permanent position.
Roose will resume her former job this summer. "I am perfectly happy to give it up and go back to my old job," Roose said.
"I've thoroughly enjoyed working with student life," Roose said. "I'm not abadoning student life in any way. It's time to have a dean in that role."
Brian Pitts and Dan Spalding contributed to this story.
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 126, Number 24, May 22, 1998
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