Q&A: Motivation

Q&A: Dean of Students Byron McCrae and Board of Trustees Chair Gaye Hill

Their roles and responsibilities may differ, but Hampshire’s new dean of students and new board chair share a deep commitment to, and more than 1,400 definitions of, student success.

Byron McCrae
Byron McCrae oversees the division of student life. Among the many areas on campus that report to him are residence life; new student programs; student conduct, rights, and responsibilities; and community advocacy.

Dean McCrae has served as vice president and dean of student life at Washington & Jefferson College, as associate vice president for student affairs at San Francisco Art Institute, and on the student affairs staff at Sarah Lawrence College. He holds a doctorate in educational leadership, administration, and policy from Fordham, a master’s from Syracuse, and a bachelor’s degree from Salisbury University.

What attracted you to this position?

I was attracted to what teaching and learning look like at Hampshire. I’m intrigued and excited when I encounter students who are working on readings or are familiar with theories that I became acquainted with as a graduate student. When I visited campus during the search process, the intensity of the place and the conversations students were having were intriguing. I was also on the national board of regents for the Point Foundation and Hampshire’s had two Point Scholars in recent years, so I was very familiar with Hampshire by virtue of their accomplishments.

How do you view the role of the student life office on any campus?

Student life is certainly the point of contact when students aren’t sure where to go. It’s our responsibility to be proactive about hearing what they need, and helping to marshal administrative support to address those needs. We need to be at the forefront of change, helping campuses adapt to new student populations, helping students adapt to forms of diversity that weren’t fully engaged on campus twenty years ago. I think student life can and should play a leadership role in those efforts.

What is your understanding of how student life and academic life work together?

Student life definitely supports the overall academic enterprise. All of us on a campus are committed to student success. I think student life has a unique role to play inasmuch as we’re often helping to facilitate campus change.

We help colleges adapt when it comes to overarching considerations of student wellness and safety, certainly, and often many of the things we do are kind of laboratories, or settings where students can practice what it is they’re discussing and learning in class. For example, the activist culture at Hampshire takes place not only through learning and teaching, but also in the community. I’d love to see student life be a place where students really apply what they’re learning. I’d love to see student life broadly understood not just as practice, but also as praxis — for social justice, for diversity, for social discourse.

Another area at Hampshire where student life complements academic affairs is CEL-I (Campus-Engaged Learning). I’ve already worked with Professor Laura Wenk, and we’ve received a Bringing Theory to Practice grant to have a campus-wide conversation about student engagement and civic development.

Any other early goals or plans?

I’d love for us to engage more with professional peers and show the Hampshire way of doing student-affairs work. For example, our spiritual life office is going to be part of the White House Interfaith and Campus Service Challenge. The way that Liza Neal 91F has structured spiritual-life advising is a model other campus chaplains would be interested in learning about. What Hampshire does with queer, transgender, lesbian, gay, and bisexual programs is innovative, and a lot of what we do has a ton of potential to help the field. And, obviously, that’s because we’re helping students.

I need to listen and learn a lot, learn the culture and get to know students. I think there’s an opportunity to expand on the work that we’re doing to make this a healthy living and learning community, everything from helping more students connect with OPRA to supporting peer educators and helping them promote healthy lifestyles and balance. I also believe there are opportunities to create respectful dialogue in moments of intensity. Students seem really eager for a sense of community, so there might be some ways to build community that feel right at Hampshire.

What are your initial impressions?

All of my friends who are faculty at other colleges are jealous that I’m here. In my graduate programs we were challenged to tear it all down and build it back up again. What if you were at a place where learning is really at the center? What if you were at a place where student independence was truly cultivated? What if you were at a place where new students are intensely engaged in their own learning, and are the agents of their own learning? Hampshire is that place. Not only are all my faculty friends jealous, so are my friends who are in student life.

I’ve been really inspired by the students. Being able to see students’ Div III projects in May and attend commencement was incredibly inspiring and exciting. I don’t think it can be overstated: The rigor of student work is phenomenal.

Share a bit about yourself. What motivates or inspires you?

The opportunity to work on a college campus and continue to be engaged has always been exciting to me. I’ve worked in higher education since I graduated from college.  I really enjoy the campus environment, from the lectures to performances to the community gatherings.

Beyond that, I suppose I wish I were an artist. That’s certainly a part of the appeal of Hampshire. There’s so much integrative and active creativity here that it’s a good place to land. I’m a secret foodie, so the Healthy Food Transition intrigues me. I’m a big fan of independent film. I’m personally interested in and committed to black art, black cultural expression, black photography. My maternal grandfather was Native American, and I’m doing some personal writing and scholarly writing on the Native American experience as well.

How do you spend free time?

I’ll probably read a book or see a film. I’ve read a lot of Colson Whitehead’s books, Sag Harbor most recently.  Right now I’m reading The Gangster We Are All Looking For, by Lê Thi Diem Thúy 90F, and The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride.

What’s your definition of leadership?

Ideally, a leader is a good facilitator, and able to bring a team or community’s vision to reality. A good leader is able to be behind-the-scenes in a positive sense to get things done. They can exert influence to get everyone on the same page or at least give everyone equal opportunity to contribute toward a goal or a vision.

Anything else you’d like to make sure we mention?

I’m really excited to be at Hampshire and to work with and for a student body that’s so far out in the forefront of many important issues facing society now and in the future. Our students are already working on things that are going to secure the future for generations to come.

I feel collegiality of spirit with the faculty and staff as well. During my campus visit one of the faculty went out of his way to come over and welcome me. I can’t say that’s never happened before, but I can’t remember when it’s happened before, where a faculty member made clear that they wanted to get to know me as a candidate.

I think Hampshire has a ton of strengths. If I can be a part of helping this place celebrate its strengths it’s going to be a terrific experience.

Byron McCrae tweets @HampDeanMcCrae.
Email is deanofstudents@hampshire.edu.

Gaye Hill
Gaye Hill
is an investor in residential and restaurant real estate, and also consults with not-for-profit organizations regarding fundraising and image. She has a degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and her career includes 30-plus years as a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader. Hill and her husband, Jeffrey A. Urbina, are the parents of two sons, Ian and Colin. Hampshire graduate Colin Hill Urbina 02F is a book artist and conservator. Hill says: “Hampshire started Colin on the path to his career. Helping Hampshire continue to offer the same opportunity to other students is why I wanted to give back by serving as a trustee.”

Are there plans to enlarge the board and, if so, what are the advantages of increasing the number of trustees?

The Trustee and Governance Committee has been working to develop a strong pipeline of potential board candidates. We’re looking at people with a variety of backgrounds, skills, and experiences to help us in thinking strategically and generatively about Hampshire. We welcomed four new board members this fall and are talking with others. We feel we need a larger board to better accomplish the work of our nine committees, and to moderate the workload of board members. More trustees mean a wider perspective, and that can only be good as the board teams with other constituencies on and off campus to continue the evolution of Hampshire as the leading experimenting school in the country.

You’ve invited all board committee chairs into the Executive Committee, widening input and access to information. What were your reasons?

By including all the committee chairs on the Executive Committee, I hope we’ll be better able to communicate with a more representative group in the work that needs to be accomplished between quarterly board meetings. Transparency in governance is a major goal of mine as chair, and my hope is that the newly constituted Executive Committee will enhance communication.

This leads to another goal for me: improving communication and transparency among the board, administration, faculty, staff, students, alums, and friends of the College. We’re planning campus-interaction events for trustees at each quarterly meeting, and hope to have good participation from everyone. We’re looking at ways to better report the work of the board. This year’s strategic-planning process will also give the board a chance to work closely with various constituencies, to both learn about and share ideas on Hampshire’s goals for the next five years. Increased interaction with the Alumni Advisory Group will improve communication with those who have so much to offer from their experiences since they left Hampshire, whether that’s been two years or forty-two.

What are some of your and the board’s other goals?

I bring both my personal philanthropic experiences and my years of fundraising for various organizations to my service on the board, and helping to raise the fundraising profile of Hampshire has been a goal of mine since I joined the board in 2010. I’m also interested in exploring alternative ways to provide income for Hampshire, to secure a financially stable, sustainable school. The structural deficit and relying on tuition to such a degree are constant worries to me, and subjects the board is looking at closely. We’ll be working on many fronts to secure the future of the College.

What are your thoughts on how we might improve our efforts to increase access and ensure success?

I’m a woman who came of age in the early seventies, a first-generation college graduate from a working-class background, and I’m married to a man whose father is from Cuba. Diversity at Hampshire and anywhere else is a necessary and important goal for me. The cost of a private liberal arts education has gone through the roof since the days I cobbled together merit scholarships, need-based financial-aid packages, and various job opportunities to pay my college bills. The financial realities of going to college in the twenty-first century need to be addressed for everyone, but especially to enable those who dream of accomplishing what their parents could not. As a board, we will be looking at this question, and what it means to students at Hampshire.

But for first-generation college students, attending college isn’t just a financial puzzle. The cultural divide between those who have a heritage of higher education and those who are building the path can seem insurmountable. Hampshire needs to do a better job of identifying those students who most need the support and the cultural education to meet the daily challenges of succeeding in classes, interactions with professors, and social situations, while handling job challenges and family crises that may threaten to derail achieving their academic dreams. By providing a comprehensive support network, students may better succeed. I think we’ve made a good start at this.

What are some of your other interests and involvements, and how do they connect to your commitment to Hampshire?

Jeff and I are fortunate to have worked our way to a position where we can donate to organizations that nurture creativity, both in the arts and in scientific research; that promote social justice around the topics of hunger and homelessness, Hispanic empowerment, and education initiatives for all in disadvantaged neighborhoods the world over; that foster sustainable initiatives in pursuing alternate power sources; and especially that secure the health of our oceans, lakes, and streams. It’s always exciting to hear the many ways the Hampshire community works on these issues and others.

I’m particularly hopeful that we build on Hampshire’s unique success in empowering all sorts of entrepreneurs. This could offer what many entrepreneurial alums and students have wanted for some time. I work with some small not-for-profit start-ups that could benefit from a basic entrepreneurial education: how to fund a beginning enterprise, how to keep books, how to present oneself professionally, how to report to donors (investors) how and where their money is spent. There’s a lot of creativity at Hampshire around so many topics, and I see the entrepreneurial program providing an avenue to put ideas into action, on both the profit and the nonprofit sides.

Any additional thoughts?

I’m always looking to hear from Hampshire people, and NSS readers should feel free to contact me in care of trustees@hampshire.edu. I look forward to speaking with people when I’m on campus, or any other time.