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The FIRST Year for the First-YEAR Dean

By Michele F. Forman

Acting First-Year Dean Ginger Mackay-Smith doesn't know what she'll be doing next year. But as far as this year is concerned, the headquarters for Harvard's 1600 first-year students is running just the way it always has.

To the casual observer, the Freshman Dean's office does not look like it has changed much over the summer, only a few subtle alterations in decor hinting that something is different about the headquarters for Harvard's 1600 first-year students.

What's new? For starters, a jar of yogurt-covered raisins sit on the Dean's desk. A Chinese screen print displays itself on the wall. And a complete map of the Harvard campus, circa the University's 350th reunion, sits by the door.

These distinctly low-key changes serve as an appropriate marking of the begining of the term of Virginia L. Mackay-Smith '78 as Acting Dean of Freshmen. Like her office, she isn't a far cry from what came before. For as Mackay-Smith discusses her priorities and approaches to governing first-year life, one thing becomes clear: she is largely following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Henry C. Moses, who left Harvard last spring after a 10-year stint to become headmaster of Trinity School, a prestigious private school in New York.

That probably shouldn't come as a huge surprise to those familiar with Mackay-Smith's background, considering the fact that her life's primary administrative experience has fallen under Moses's supervision. After leaving a doctoral program in health policy at Harvard, she became a proctor in the Yard in 1984, a post she held until this year. In 1986, Mackay-Smith became a senior advisor for first-year students, and in 1988 she became an assistant dean in the FDO.

The House That Moses Built

Besides her firsthand experience with the Yardlings, Mackay-Smith says, she is relying heavily on the advising structure Moses built.

And in fact, the pillar of her administration's training for proctors and nonresident advisers--the people who deal with students on a day-to-day basis--will rely on old standby procedures. The week of orientation before students arrive. Ongoing training throughout the year. The monthly newsletter. Bimonthly meetings with proctors. And of course, the evaluations.

"A lot of the ways we deal with freshmen will continue," she says.

Farther down to perhaps the most grassroots level of advising, Mackay-Smith says she is an enthusiastic proponent of the Moses-initiated prefect program, which matches upperclass students with first-year entryways, as a means of helping integrate first-years with the rest of the College.

"This is a program that Hank Moses started," Mackay-Smith says. "It came out of his whole vision of advising freshmen."

Mackay-Smith also wants to continue with some of the more diverting traditions instituted under Moses, such as the Dean's teas, which are held at the Dean's residence, across the street from the Office of Career Services.

"I would go to the freshman tea from time to time," Mackay-Smith says. "I liked the atmosphere, a nice low-key environment--I speak in jargon these days--to meet the community of freshmen."

Inside Jokes

Mackay-Smith does want to bring back, however, a tradition that has gone by the wayside in recent years: end of the year proctor skits about inside jokes of first-year life.

"The proctors work so hard all year long. Then the students leave and there is a real letdown," says Mackay-Smith. "I think it's healthy and fun to look back on the year to laugh and cry about it."

"The skits make fun of the perpetual Expos lines, the food--this year that it's good, Head of the Charles weekend and intramurals," she says. Proctors are more competitive than freshmen."

Besides being happy with the specific procedures involved in advising, Mackay-Smith supports the overall existing philosophy the FDO has taken on this issue in the past decade--namely, that it is better to err on the side of too much, instead of too little advising.

Mackay-Smith concedes that possibly coddling first-years could lead to making students too dependent, which may leave them night and dry in their upperclass houses sophomore year.

However, Mackay-Smith points out, "They don't get the level of advising they received as freshmen because they aren't freshmen anymore."

Her Gain Is Their Loss

Although a maze of administration and program planning occupies most her time these days, Mackay-Smith says what she really likes to do is personally work with students who are adjusting to college life.

That was her original motivation for getting involved in the administration of Harvard first-year life. After two years of combining being a proctor and a doctoral student in health policy, Mackay-Smith in 1986 dropped her academic schedule to become a senior advisor.

"I was so interested in what was going on here and I would have had to shift my interests to those at the Health Policy and Management School," she says.

Former advisees of Mackay-Smith's are quick to attest that she is very skilled with the personal touch.

A former Mackay-Smith advisee, Darrin M. Woods '93, lauds his first-year proctor, who lived in his Lionel entry two years ago.

"She was one of the few individuals who made the transition between high school and college possible," he says. "I don't have that one-on-one advising anymore. Post-Ginger Mackay-Smith is a letdown."

Another former Lionel resident also applauds Mackay-Smith.

"She was always there," says Massimo Chioca '93. "She was on the first floor and we could always drop by. She has a lot of experience. I was hoping she would become the dean."

Rudy and the FDO

Mackay-Smith is not the only new face in the administration of first-year students. She says new President Neil L. Rudenstine has made it a priority to be involved with the goings on in the Yard and Union dorms.

"Rudenstine has made it so clear that he is interested in student life," Mackay-Smith says. "There has been a slight shift in emphasis, but this is a different time, and they are different people."

Mackay-Smith cites the new president's friendliness towards the first-years on the opening weekend as evidence of their welfare being a priority to him.

This year the march up to Radcliffe Quad for the traditional first-year picnic during Orientation Week was prefaced by small receptions held in the different areas of the Yard. Mackay-Smith says that Rudenstine made the rounds by walking up to students to say hello, even posing for a picture with a student and his beaming parents.

"This sincerity bodes incredibly well for how we wrap up this century and go into the next," says Mackay-Smith. "Learning at college is a distinct act and requires the attention of those fostering it."

Besides being adept at these social functions, Mackay says, Rudenstine is very much interested in the substance of the education of first-years. She says Rudenstine and new Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles have expressed particular concern over the teaching of introductory science courses.

So What About the Search?

Although Mackay-Smith is not on the search committee for a permanent first-year dean, she says she has felt free to advise Jewett, who chairs the committee.

"Dean Jewett has invited repeated comment, both oral and written, from proctors and advisers and students," says Mackay-Smith. "I feel absolutely free to say anything. I have been keeping notes of concerns about advising the new freshman dean will need to address."

Although the search committee met in late spring and summer to evaluate first-year advising and experiences, Jewett says, the search for a new dean has not gotten underway yet. He estimates the search committee will reach a decision by February.

Will the acting dean become the permanent dean?

"I don't know what the job is yet, so I don't know if I'm interested," Mackay-Smith says.

Regardless of that outcome, having Mackay-Smith on board this year seems to be working well.

"From my perspective, Ginger has been wonderful to work with," Jewett says. "It has been a very good start to the year."

And McKay-Smith seems to like it, too.

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