Q&A with Dean of Students Jim Larimore
Issue   |   Wed, 10/02/2013 - 00:31

Dean of Students Jim Larimore comes to Amherst from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, where he was deputy director for student success. Dean Larimore attended college at Texas A&M Univ.-Commerce, then went on to do his graduate work in higher education at Stanford. His experience in higher education includes dean of students positions and work in student affairs at Dartmouth, Swarthmore, New York Univ. Abu Dhabi, and Stanford. Explaining his decision to come to Amherst, Dean Larimore said that he received the call from Amherst just as he felt the time was right to go back into higher education. According to Dean Larimore, he chose Amherst in part because he admired President Martin’s vision for Amherst at a time when the College was facing so many challenges related to the sexual misconduct controversies that were unearthed last year.

Q: What inspired you to start a career in higher education?

A: This is where I’m a career center director’s worst nightmare. For me, as a first gen kid growing up, I had no idea that places like Amherst even existed until I was well into my time in college. In my first years in college, the people who I knew were custodians, dining hall workers and my professors. It wasn’t until partway through my junior year, when I was hired as a mid-year replacement student staff member in the dorm where I lived, that I became aware of the variety of people who actually worked on the campus that were there to help me and my fellow students have a better experience.

That was for me a kind of an eye-opening experience. My intention at that point was to go to work in juvenile probation, because I knew that that was a way to give back and to try to make a difference at a vulnerable point in the lives of young people who were growing up in places like the one where I grow up. It was, for me, kind of a slow pivot from thinking about the work that I might do in that kind of environment, to thinking about low-income and first gen students who actually found their way to a college setting. And that opened up a set of doors for me in thinking about working in higher ed.

When I did my graduate work at Stanford, it was at a point where I was trying to decide what would come next. Do I want to stay in higher education and work in student affairs? Should I use that as an opportunity to prepare for a shift and to teach? What I learned during that period of time during my doctoral program was that what I really liked was having an opportunity to work with students more directly, outside of the classroom environment. I had to teach a few classes while I was there, but I really wanted to focus on creating an environment outside of the classroom that was a good complement to the experience inside the classroom. My interest kind of unfolded in different stages over time.

Q: What are some differences and similarities between Amherst and the other institutions at which you’ve worked?

A: When I was at Stanford I was fortunate to have worked as part of a group of colleagues that were trying very hard to make Stanford feel like a much smaller place than it really is. Stanford now has probably in the neighborhood of about 15,000 students. While it was about a fifty-fifty ratio of undergrad to grad students when I first got there, there are now significantly more graduate students than there are undergrads. So it’s a graduate student focused, research focused environment. It’s a wonderful place, but also a challenging place for people who care about undergraduate education, because the attention is so divided in different ways.

So when I went to Dartmouth, I thought, “Well this will be great. I’m going to a place where there’ll be a much more singular focus on undergraduate education.” And what I learned during my time there is that Dartmouth is a college in name, but it’s actually a small research university. So it has a business school, a medical school, graduate programs, and probably about twenty Ph.D. programs, mostly in the sciences and in the school of engineering. Dartmouth is the most undergraduate focused of the Ivy League schools, but in terms of its mission and the competition for resources, it is very much a small research university.

So in comparison, places like Amherst and Swarthmore are what they say they are. These are true residential liberal arts colleges. They’re both very distinctive in the emphasis that’s put on faculty work as scholars and engagement in research. But it’s for the purpose of bringing that work to the classroom and bringing that to what I regard as fundamentally a mentoring activity. They’re helping students really understand the creation of knowledge and the work of creative inquiry or expression in a variety of different disciplines. They do this without you, as a student, ever feeling that you have to compete for the attention of your professors. There are no grad students here that are crowding you out of lab experiences or an opportunity for one-on-one advising or mentoring. As a person with a mixed-race family background and as a first gen college grad, being at Amherst also spoke to me in a pretty fundamental way in terms of culture and temperament, in terms of the work that really accelerated under Tony Marx and that has continued under Biddy’s presidency in wanting this to be as inclusive an environment as you can imagine.

So one of the projects now is helping the institution move from doing a very good job assembling a really diverse student body to really taking a look at what’s working well now and what needs to be improved to make the experience for everyone here one where every student feels embraced, supported, and feels free to pursue their interests in a way that will help them get the most out of the student experience. There’s a step in there from representational diversity to a sense of belonging and freedom for every student, and ultimately also a situation in which we hope students will learn even more from each other. I think one way of looking at this is hoping you will learn through the diversity you are exposed to, but that you will also have an opportunity, you and your peers, to learn about yourselves through the interaction with the good company that you get to keep for four years.

Q: How do you hope to contribute to that as Dean of Students?

A: In a variety of different ways. One is to think about the resources that we provide through different programs and offices. You could think about this from Orientation straight into the residential experience as places that support very quickly a sense of belonging and comfort and then that stimulate more interaction between students. So we hope to do that through some of the programmatic work and work that different offices and departments are responsible.

Some of this is helping people think through how we try to have an impact. I’ve mentioned to some of my new colleagues that I’m much more interested in trying to get a sense for how many students are engaged in different kinds of activities and how we draw people together than I am in simply counting the number of activities that we organize or sponsor — so impact over quantity is one way of looking at that. And the other way in which we have been involved is through RC training and the arrival of Orientation leaders through the beginning of the term. We’re really trying to help support an environment where we talk with each other. We want to do this both in a proactive way in order to strengthen a sense of community here. But then, also, during times when we face some challenges, or something happens that causes upset or pain or some kind of turbulence in the community, we really need to think about how we bring people together to try to understand that and figure out ways that they might respond to it. So we do this in a variety of different ways.

As a dean, sometimes I hear from students who want a simple answer or a list of three things they should do. I heard indirectly through a colleague from a student yesterday who found some song lyrics offensive. The student seemed to suggest that the College should play a role as an arbiter of good taste in music. I think there are things like that where I certainly understand the interest and the impulse, but where I think it’s more important for the College to try to help students and others figure out ways that as a community people can talk about what their needs and expectations are and where they agree and disagree about different topics, rather than simply trying to issue an edict of some kind.

Q: What strategies do you think you’re going to use to help facilitate those discussions?

A: It varies. Some of this is trying to help people — so part of it is for about a sense of connection and human scale. Sometimes before people can have some of the more challenging conversations, they need to meet each other in ways that are more comfortable. Sometimes it’s easier to have a challenging conversation with someone you have met before, spent some time together with, or where you have at least some kind of bond that will help you get through the challenging discussions or disagreements that play out.

We’re trying to do that through the early experiences of connecting people through squads during Orientation as they get to know at least some fraction of their group of fellow students. Doing that through the residential experience. We’re now in the very early stages of increasing the time that staff have to spend in the Multicultural Resource Center, in the Queer Resource Center, in the Center for Women and Gender, thinking about ways that through those centers and through the activity and work of those centers that we can involve students that in the past have not been directly involved in the activities that they sponsor, and to think about ways then to connect people and foster a sense of dialogue, some conversation there. So I think we’ll work at it in a variety of different ways really on the basis of trying to bring people together in proactive ways, and bring people together in response to things that have happened, so that there can be ideally a constructive dialogue that might play out. There’s a wonderful event that the MRC sponsored — I went to one session last week — the series is called Café con Leche. The purpose is really to help bring administrators and students together in a way that gives people a chance to have an actual conversation with each other and to provide input to each other and learn from each other. I think those things kind of bridge building conversations are really important. So we’ll work at this in a variety of different ways, trying to bring folks together.