President’s Desk Q&A: Eric Estes Reflects on his Tenure as Dean of Students
Marvin Krislov (MK)
You've been here for 12 years. What are some of your many accomplishments of which you are most proud?
Eric Estes (EE)
Yes, seven years as an associate dean - first in student life and then also in arts and sciences - and director of the MRC. For the past five years, I've served as vice president and dean of students. I'm also a faculty member in comparative American studies.
In my most recent life, as vice president and dean, I think our progress falls into two important areas of work. The first is diversity and inclusion and how to make sure the resources of the division are providing every student with equitable access to their educational opportunities. Student Life is the most compositionally diverse division - take the class deans, or deans in the Dean of Students Office for example. We also engage in intentional capacity building at the divisional, departmental, and individual level. As a division, for example, we gather once a month to learn more about and discuss topics, often with leading experts to increase our ability to support students. Our most recent meeting was with a national leader on supporting students on the autism spectrum.
The second is how we worked to create a culture defined by staff listening to and collaborating very closely with students. So, the progress that we’ve made has been informed and defined by their involvement. It's led to stronger outcomes.
I would also point to our scaling up of peer support. We have increased the mentors for first-year, first-generation students. We are much more involved with Posse. We have created and increased the mentorship program for first-years with disclosed disabilities. A growing number of students have gone through sixty hours of course work to be peer listeners, who support their peers around their emotional health. The Interfaith Student Council has helped first- and second-year students talk across different faith and spiritual traditions. Peer mentoring programs are going to be an important area of work as we continue to build an inclusive community.
We’ve been really effective in increasing staffing in critical areas such as the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Disability Services, and the Counseling Center. Maximizing existing resources and adding targeted new resources in the Counseling Center has really helped us significantly reduce wait times for counseling and psychiatric care the last five years. If you compare us to our peer institutions, our wait times for scheduled appointments is much improved. We now have the ability to offer same- or next-day appointments to about 90 percent of the students who call the center. I think the after-hours and weekends professional counseling phone line that is funded by a parent gift is an incredibly valuable new resource.
One last important new resource we were able to work on together was the creation of the new support fund to meet a greater range of needs among students from lower income families, needs not supported by existing funds, and administered by the dean of students.
How has the student response to the support fund gone?
It’s been remarkable. I’ve distributed almost $20,000 since December. It's been incredibly successful in supporting needs that were falling through the cracks.
What are your thoughts on the strategic plan? In particular I’m thinking of the sections dealing with diversity and inclusion.
I think that there are going to have to be serious conversations about what the priorities are going to be around compositional diversity moving forward - faculty, staff, and especially students. I think the issue will be: do we focus more on numerical goals, or more on strategies to reduce barriers to increasing compositional diversity? I don't think we will be successful in increasing the numbers, regardless of specific targets, until we identify and grapple with the barriers.
On the building of capacity, I think everyone - faculty and staff - regardless of their identity or background, has to be able to support all students. How we are able to provide greater opportunities and resources to engage in this kind of professional development will be crucial. Progress related to compositional diversity and capacity building will be what helps create a more inclusive community.
You have taught a course on sports and culture as well as on the memorial arch, right?
Yes, I loved teaching my first-year seminar on athletics, identity, and culture in the US. It looks at the physical body through the lenses of athletics and identity politics. Religion professor David Kamitsuka and I have taught an archival research course on the memorial arch in Tappan Square a number of times. My major contribution to the course was teaching about student activism throughout an almost 40-year period protesting the role of the arch during Commencement. I also spent several years in archives in the US and Germany in grad school, so I took the lead on creating the archival research component of the course.
It sounds wonderful, and I hope it continues even if you’re not here. Do you have any thoughts on working with Oberlin students, particularly from your time as MRC director? Any words of advice?
I gestured to something earlier that is crucial. I think every process that can include students ultimately produces stronger outcomes. I really appreciate the willingness of students to engage and make their voices heard. We can look across campus and see any number of resources that were shaped by students in important and meaningful ways. Just a few examples include OSCA, the MRC, the ELC, YBCD, and Comparative American Studies. Students have shaped the institution in ways that have made it stronger.
Any favorite memories?
There are so many to choose from. I had the opportunity to be on a panel with bell hooks in 2008. It was just the two of us, and we just talked with each other in front of a group of students for an hour about diverse and inclusive community. It was a really wonderful experience because she is a scholar and activist whom I had admired for a very long time. So the ability to meet her, discuss important issues and concerns with her, and to have her praise my work and the work of the MRC was amazing. It was a big geek moment.
I also really enjoyed working with the community coordinators in the MRC. They have gone on and done remarkable things. One has been the executive director and director of development for multiple LGBT youth nonprofits; several of them now have tenure track faculty positions at peer institutions; others are students in top MA and PhD programs; and a number of them are successful administrators in higher education. To see them go on and do remarkable things -- often because of the experiences they were able gain during their time in the MRC -- is really a wonderful thing.
You will be remembered for so many reasons, including all the wise counsel you’ve given to so many and all the around-the-clock work you’ve done to support our students. But I think you will also be remembered for your gracious skills as a host and as the first occupant of the Koppes-Norris house. You’ve set a very high bar for opening that space up to students and others.
I really enjoyed it. It’s been a hoot. It’s been wonderful to have students over in large and small groups. I think the opportunity, for example, to host a dinner or reception that allows students to interact more with a speaker or performance artist is really valuable. Dinners with groups of students like Student Senate or Club Sports Council or the Interfaith Student Council also have been a lot of fun.
I also really enjoyed hosting my faculty/staff socials. I’ve really enjoyed them for two reasons. One, the socials bring together faculty and staff and that doesn’t happen as often as we might like. Two, the socials reduce or compress hierarchy. So an entry-level staff person in an administrative office can have a conversation over a drink with a faculty member who has been teaching for 30 years. The opportunity to break down hierarchy in that way -- not that we are a particularly hierarchal place, but it has been rewarding. So I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m going to miss it.
We are going to miss you on so many levels. But congratulations -- I know Brown is going to benefit from your leadership. Do you have anything you want to ask me on your way out the door?
You asked me this earlier, so I’ll ask you now: what’s been one of your favorite moments over the last few years?
I really enjoy working with the students. Yesterday in my class, for example, we had a fascinating discussion about the latest developments in the election cycle, including this alliance between Cruz and Kasich in the primaries, which is fairly unprecedented in modern times. I really enjoy the interactions in class, where we’re talking about ideas and developments and thinking about them together. I also get great satisfaction from seeing how students develop during their four years here. I can think of specific individuals who came here and grew over time, and at graduation you can see how they have really developed as a student and a person. Then they come back in a year or two and you can see how they are continuing to benefit from their Oberlin education.
I also like working with the faculty and staff. They are so dedicated and care so much even if sometimes the work here is very challenging. Everybody I know cares deeply and is very committed to the work and the young people. Working with people like you, who have that intense commitment, that passion, is one of the things that makes this such a great place.