Jackie: How did you end up at Grinnell?
Tom: In 1982, I was in the process of finishing up my master's degree in counseling. And I was looking to work for a college that would allow me to do counseling and not focus on discipline. So that's one of the reasons. Second reason was, it was another auto company slump in the state and so the economy in the state of Michigan was horrible at that time -- there weren't many jobs. And the third thing was, my sister lived in Des Moines at the time, so that was an attraction. Also, one on the most attractive features for me was Grinnell's strong academic program and its clear focus.
The resident adviser position, as it was called back then, was one that really fit me quite well, so I served in that role for three years.
J: That must have been kind of fun.
T: (laughs) The third year was rough, but yeah. You know, those are high-stress jobs -- you're working 24 hours a day, you're on call all the time. Anything that goes wrong, I would have to manage -- you know, that sort of stuff. I liked it, and it was a great foundation for what I've done in my other positions here. I would say that that is really important.
J: I would think you'd be really close to the students in that job.
T: Oh, very much so.
J: So you're kind of like their big brother/big sister ... ?
T: Yes. ... you know, the drinking age was 19 back then, so we didn't have the whole alcohol barrier thing that there is today. And so we were able to get to know students quite well, and a lot of those students still come back and visit me as alums today. It was an interesting transition.
J: We all talk about how "Grinnell culture." When you got here, when did it hit you?
T: It actually hit me during the interview process. I remember thinking wow, this is a different place. And I accepted the job, and you have to remember at that period of time the endowment was about $90 million. The College had about 1,150 students. The Grinnell culture was very comfortable for me. But it was different from what I was accustomed to. I came from a state university in Michigan, and so I'd say the transition took about six months for me to really understand what was going on. And some of the things I thought, frankly, were pretty screwy.
J: Such as?
T: Well, the manner in which we as a staff dealt with issues related to students. At a state university, the whole student affairs program is designed around discipline. And it's the exact opposite here. This system I think is much better.
J: Could you define that for me?
T: Well, we teach students the skills necessary to govern themselves, OK? In a disciplinary based system, you go to somebody else, and they deal with it for you, so you don't have to do it. So in some ways, self-governance is more stressful than that other atmosphere, because as a student, what you have to do is you have to take responsibility for yourself and your actions and try to resolve things with the assistance of others. But the other people are not going to jump in and save you.
J: So really you might have to work harder, getting them to that point?
T: Oh, yes. That's definitely the case.
J: I know for awhile Grinnell was fairly unique in its self-governance. Is that still true?
T: Yes, it is. It really is. Grinnell has had the philosophy of student self-governance the longest of any institution I know of. And it is unusual today to run across a student life program that has a self-governance philosophy. So I think that it is still pretty rare. Some places do it and call it that, but it is not truly what we do. Our philosophy has evolved over a period of years, but really students are very much involved in decision-making and the inner workings of the College, and that is uncommon at other places right now.
J: Students sometimes say, "Oh, self-governance is dead."
T: I've heard that for 20 years. Yes, that's wrong. Ironically, when people have wanted to add more rules, like to the Student Handbook, it's always student-initiated. They want a more clearly defined process of parameters in which they can work. And so as a result it tends to actually reduce the freedom available to other students on campus. That's a controversial thing, I think, at times. ... It's like, be careful what you ask for. If you want policies and procedures, our policies and procedures will probably be a little bit more restrictive than you're comfortable with.
J: At Dartmouth, do they have self-governance?
J: So that will be another adjustment?
T: Sure, absolutely. The residence life system is very strong there. The Greek letter system is very strong there. You know, Dartmouth has a very different culture. It does feel very open and friendly to me. It's a larger institution -- it's about 5,000 students. It feels like a good fit.
J: Are there any similarities between Grinnell and Dartmouth?
T: That's really a good question. I'd have to really stop and think about that. The students are highly academic -- there's no question about that. Both institutions are isolated, and in towns the same size. Hanover's about 12,500 people; Grinnell is about the same. Students work really hard there; they play hard too. We often hear that at Grinnell. But beyond that, until I get there, I won't really be able to make any comparisons.
J: Did you have any idea when you first got here that it would be 25 years?
T: Oh my gosh, no! Lisa and I said it would be two years and we'd go back to Michigan. And people kept offering me different jobs so we stayed. But no way did we ever think we'd be here for 25 years. It would have been inconceivable to even think that way years ago. Even my sister has moved back to Michigan.
J: It's my impression that you sort of enjoy a special rapport with students -- and with faculty and staff too. ... I guess that makes your job more enjoyable, or does it?
T: Oh yes, it does. I wouldn't be in this job, unless I enjoyed working with students and working with faculty and staff, and working with difficult problems. And, you know, I think it's extraordinarily important for people to feel heard, and to make sure than you take the time to listen to what they have to say and try to work with issues that come my way. You know, there are times when I have to say no, but people know that when I do that, it's for a good reason. It's not because they weren't heard, it's because I try to listen to all the different points of view, make a decision based on my own experience and what's best for the person and best for the institution in the long run. All those things don't always agree with one another, so, you know I think it's important to be accessible, open, and when people talk to me, they are getting a genuine person.
J: And I think people do feel that, I really do.
T: That's good. Good. I've heard that people at Dartmouth are looking for that too.
J: Obviously, your roles have changed since you got here, so how has your relationship with the students changed over the years?
T: Well, you know, there are always tough student issues. When I was an RLC I had really good working relationships with students. As I evolved through my different positions, probably the time that there was most tension between me and the students is when I was dean of students. You're dealing with major issues and conflicts. And when I took on admission, financial aid, and student services, I enjoyed a pretty good working relationship with students, and it's pretty positive. You know, there are times when a big issue comes down the pike, and people are angry about that. But they always know that I'm going to be out there in front, at least listening to people. I don't avoid conflict. ... It's important to not be defensive when you talk to people, to listen, to be a really good active listener about what they have to say, and to make a good informed decision afterwards. I think earlier in my career, I was too quick to make decisions. As I've grown over the years, I'm more reflective about that. There are times I've made decisions, and they weren't good ones. ... You have to live with the consequences of that. But for the most part, it's been enjoyable. I've found it to be truly enjoyable to work with students, even when we disagree.
J: What's been the most difficult issue you've had to deal with?
T: Any time there's a student death, that's clearly the most difficult issue. What is so difficult about that is the obvious: you're working with a family that's grieving, you're working with a small, tight-knit community where every student on this campus will feel it in some way, not to mention the friends of the student. That by far is the most difficult situation. The one that I've found to be particularly heartbreaking was the Tammy Zywicki situation; Tammy was abducted and murdered -- that was just an unbelievably difficult situation for everybody on campus at that time. It seemed so senseless.
J: I think we still feel that.
T: We do. Ironically, her brother is on the board of trustees at Dartmouth.
J: How do you cope with those very difficult times? Do you have to have a little bit of protective space around you?
T: The one thing about Grinnell that helps that is the break during the summer and the break during the winter break periods. You have to realize -- anybody in a position like mine -- I mean, we can be as proactive as we possibly can, but bad things are going to happen. And you have to get to a point in your career where you realize that you simply can't control every outcome. I'm an avid bicyclist; I exercise, that sort of thing. I have a great family. My wife is a mental health therapist. You have to keep a perspective on things. I would say that years of experience really help me gain perspective and try to keep that distance. It's also important to have a period of reflection any time you deal with really difficult stuff -- to go back and kind of reanalyze it later on.
J: I hear what you're saying about taking time for reflection and analysis, because ...
T: Insight's 20/20. We have systems in place for early identification of really serious issues. But when I was in graduate school, in my counseling program, one of my instructors said, you're going to deal with death. That's all there is to it. Sooner or later every person in mental health does that. And you can't prevent everything from happening. You know, there have been accidents on other campuses where students have been killed, and you think it could have been prevented. We're pretty proactive -- but things move so quickly here that it can get out of hand very fast. So you have to be able to be prepared for that and be very low-key about it when you're under extreme pressure.
J: So for instance ... do you kind of take a step back and make sure you're low-key, that you're not sort of getting caught up in the frenzy? Is that something you learn with time?
T: Oh yes, absolutely. Many of the staff went through the same thing here -- you have to get out of the fray for awhile. It can literally consume you, so I'm very thoughtful about that. The other reason for doing it is, you make better decisions when you're able to step back and look at things.
J: Is it possible to get too caught up?
T: Anytime you're working with a family you're caught up ... It's extraordinarily difficult if it's a death or whatever. I think it's important to reach out to the family if you can ... sometimes families want to do that, sometimes they don't. That's been my experience.
J: On a lighter note, have students pulled pranks or done funny things to you that you can tell us about?
T: Sure, I can tell you a few stories. One night I got a call ... I think I was the dean of students then. Some students in Main Hall were decorating a Christmas tree they had cut down from Merrill Park. So, I get this call from the police that somebody had cut down a tree in Merrill Park. And the students had dragged it through the snow all the way back to Main Hall. The police simply found the breadcrumb trail and arrested them when they got there, and they were heavily fined for doing it. I think they had to replace the tree in the park, and the rumor was they had to pay by the foot, but I don't really know at this point. ...
Another day I happened to be walking from the Norris parking lot to Clark Hall when something caught my attention and I looked up, and there were five canoes in a tree! And they were way up there! ... They had gone to the GORP trailers and stolen the canoes and very carefully placed them in a tree. So we had five canoes in a tree, and it was quite interesting trying to get them down.
Another time, Jennifer Krohn and I got called for an emergency at 3 o'clock in the morning at Gates-Rawson Tower. As we walked there, we noticed there were ropes hanging off the tower. And we looked up, and there were five students rappelling down the tower!
J: What goes through your mind when you see something like that happening?
T: I tend to laugh about it. The students were high school students. I wasn't so worried about them coming down the ropes, I was more worried about how they got up there in the first place, because you have to walk the ridges of the roofs each side to get up to a certain point to climb the tower. One time I found a horse in a residence hall opening.
J: A horse? That's like that old Gary Cooper story! Where did this happen?
T: Well, there was a person halfway in the building with a horse.
J: In a residence hall?
T: Yes. I walked out down the loggia, and I took a double take -- and I'm like, wow, that looks like a horse. I walked down there, and I'm like, it is a horse!
I'll tell you one more and then I'll stop. Students had set up a system called the Funnellator. What they did is they took 20 feet of surgical tubing on each side and tied it onto a funnel, and then tied the other end to the fire escape. And they would back up to Park Street and launch water balloons. And they would go about 300 yards. Well one day they launched a water balloon and hit my predecessor in the face ... Jim Tiederman ... Hit him right here, took his glasses off. Needless to say, the Funnellator was ended after that. Think about it, you're way over here, it would hit the sidewalk going to the PEC and beyond. That's how far they'd launch. And you can imagine the velocity and mass in that situation.
J: It must have hurt quite a bit.
T: Actually, it broke his glasses. ... They hit the wrong guy, no question about it.
J: Do you think there's as much "destructive mischief" here as ... at some institutions?
T: We don't have any of that. ... I'll tell you one other story, though. Dining Services used to give turkeys to students to cook ... One year, somebody put a turkey inside the ceiling tiles of Dibble Annex and left, and the turkey rotted in the ceiling tiles. We had to rip -- literally -- we had to take the entire place apart. The entire ceiling had to come out. The carpeting had to be replaced. Nobody ever got caught, but you can imagine the bacteria -- we had to deal with it. There was a team that came in [to clean it up]. We were not happy campers about that. Not a good thing!
J: No ... Did they quit giving out turkeys after that?
T: No, I don't think so. Dining's always been really good about that. I think they cook them in the dining hall for students if you reserve them ...
J: That's probably wise! ... I know you have a lot to be proud of -- a lot of accomplishments -- this building [Joe Rosenfield '25 Center]. Why don't you tell me what you're most proud of?
T: Well, what I would say is, the number of students I've been able to work with and help over the years. I've not always agreed with students on things ... but the goal here has been to work with students in a positive way, and try to make it a good experience -- what we call an exceptional out-of-class experience. From my point of view, East Campus was extraordinarily important because we were so compressed. That was one accomplishment. The other one is obviously this building. And the goal here was to have a "hub" of activity for students on campus in the evenings and on weekends ... and do it that way. The campus culture has changed dramatically since we eliminated the two dining halls, and we have centralized dining now, so that makes a big difference. But I feel good about these projects -- this building took me 11 years. East Campus was much faster. Frankly, Russell [Osgood] has been awesome in his support of things that I've wanted to do over the years. And that's been really, really helpful, I think. We could not have gotten done what we needed to get done without Russell. No question about that, hands down.
J: Is there anything you wish you could have done?
T: Well, that's a good question. See those drawings up there on my bookcase? ... That was a residence hall that was in the final construction document stage that would have been tagged onto Loose Hall in a perpendicular fashion. ... It was the one hall I didn't get built!
J: It's beautiful ...
T: Yes -- it was going to be glass, and it was really nice. I wasn't able to get that one off the ground. But East Campus more than made up for that. East Campus added 256 beds to the campus, but we only increased the enrollment by 30 students. That gives you an idea of how compressed we were.
J: Yes, I remember.
T: It was awful. What I would tell you is, I've been able to create an atmosphere for students that is a positive atmosphere, one that brings the community together, and one where students celebrate diversity, and are able to focus their efforts on social justice issues.
J: It sounds like you're kind of facilitating students to be more of what they already are, to do it better.
T: Yes -- the terminology in the field would be to be a developmental teacher, to a certain degree. The requests to do things exceeds the money that we have available for allocation in those areas ... it didn't used to be that way. Students were not as active socially outside the College, so we see this as a real positive change.
J: What do you think is the biggest challenge we face, and how do we meet it?
T: That's a good question ... One of the challenges is making sure Grinnell continues to be a strong community of faculty, staff, and students, and I think that has to be carefully nurtured, and people have to think about intentional ways to bring those different groups together over topics important to the College. And making sure that the staff feels involved, and that the faculty feel like the students are doing what they need to be doing, and having students feel a part of a bigger community is a hugely important thing. The challenge on a college campus is always, how do you create a strong sense of community, and how do you go about doing that? I would say that when Grinnell was smaller, and had fewer students, it tended to be a little bit more cohesive back then. We had fewer students, and we didn't have them packed in the residence halls back then, and I think the campus has a good start in the right direction, but that's something that needs to be continued to be nurtured. And the other th ing is, if students don't feel like they're part of a strong community, they'll leave the College. And I think it's important for people to realize that.
J: That's really one of the biggest things Grinnell has going for it, isn't it? That it is such a strong community, and it is cohesive, and people come together in times of stress?
T: Oh, yes. That is a real positive in my life.
J: There is sort of a breach, I think, between these different groups you've mentioned -- staff, faculty, students. But you seem to have managed to bring it all together.
T: Well, a lot of people have done that, I would say. Having been here for a long period of time, I know people in different areas of the campus. And so any process that we went through ... the planning of this building heavily involved faculty, staff, and students. And we didn't want to make it a student center; we wanted to make it a campus center. And the difference there is that it's inviting for all members of the campus. And that's why we put classrooms in the building. You know, that's one of the reasons we're creating a pub downstairs. The goal is to really bring those groups together -- you know, not everybody likes that idea. But for the most part, it's worked relatively well here. ...
J: So what's your advice for your successor?
T: Learn the culture. Challenge the culture; challenge students to think critically. Really get a chance to get to know very well your work. It's really important for that individual to come in and develop good working relationships with faculty, staff, and students, and understand the culture. My advice to them would be, be careful how you implement change -- make sure you do it within the context and within the framework of our current campus culture, if you can do that. Some people don't do it that way -- some will, some won't. ... The margin for error is small.
J: And if you do breach that?
T: Oh, he'll know right away! They'll let you know right away!
Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Spring 2008