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New Dean of Students Hopes to Connect, ‘Get Out of the Way’

At a time when the College is escalating its involvement in student life, new Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair said social programming should largely be the domain of undergraduates—with administrative support.

O’Dair said rather than seeing her office’s role as planning events, she hopes to focus on making the necessary resources available to students and then “get out of the way.”

“I think in general we can’t plan parties for you,” she said in her first interview with The Crimson since assuming the post this summer. “It has to come from the students, and we’re going to provide that support and infrastructure and advising and let students plan those parties.”

O’Dair, now just over a month into her job, worked in similar positions at MIT, Boston College, and Tufts University before coming to Harvard. She took over the position with a broader job description and an altered job title for a post formerly called the Dean of Student Life.

College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an email this summer that “[t]he Dean of Students title was revised to reflect that the role has responsibility for coordinating the work of the numerous offices across the College… In recent years, the term ‘student life’ has been narrowly conflated with ‘student activities’ and defined as ‘extra curricular.’”

Before O’Dair, Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 served as interim Dean of Student Life, temporarily filling the vacancy left by Stephen Lassonde, who stepped down from the post last January.

The College’s involvement in student life has escalated in recent years and come under fire from critics. In particular, many observers have denounced last spring’s announcement of historic sanctions against undergraduate, unrecognized single gender social organizations.

Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, for instance, has criticized Rakesh Khurana, the current College dean and a driving force behind the sanctions, for what he describes as an overreach into students’ personal lives.

Responding to broad criticism that undergraduate social life should not be the purview of administrators, O’Dair said, “My philosophy is generally in agreement with that.”

“My role in student life is to help provide the resources, structures, and to let students experience campus and to be there if there are any challenges or issues,” she said. “Just build it and get out of the way.”

Undergraduate Council Vice President Daniel V. Banks '17, who met with O’Dair in the past month, said she brings fresh ideas.

“We’re happy to have someone who is the Dean of Students... and we couldn’t be more thrilled that that person is Dean O’Dair,” Banks said. “More than any administrator that we’ve worked with in the past, she has shown a devotion to hearing from students.”

—Staff writer Jalin P. Cunningham can be reached at jalin.cunningham@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @JalinCunningham.

—Staff writer Ignacio Sabate can be reached at ignacio.sabate@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @ignacio_sabate.

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