President Brock Blomberg announced in a schoolwide email last Tuesday that Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Debbie Nolan will be retiring at the end of the school year after 33 years at Ursinus.
“Debbie has worked with five college presidents, collaborated with hundreds of faculty and staff, and welcomed over 12,000 students and their families to Ursinus. She will always be a member of the Ursinus family,” President Blomberg wrote in the school wide email.
“Grizzly” writer Jen Joseph sat down with Dean Nolan to talk about her time at Ursinus and the memories she’s made as Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students.
The interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
What made you interested in working at Ursinus?
I went to undergrad at a small private liberal arts college not too different from UC. When I was looking for administrative work, I was really focused on finding a smaller community like Ursinus. When I saw the ad for the Dean of Students position, I thought it might be a good fit for me. Immediately I fell in love with the beautiful campus, the residential feeling of it, and just being part of such a tight knit community. It was then that I met Professor Houghton Cane, who was the Dean of Students at the time. We really connected and shared a vision for what was to become the future of student life at Ursinus. To sum up, we really wanted to make it more inclusive and stronger. I’ve always believed that learning happens best when we feel safe and trusted, when we feel we matter, and when we get to know each other in ways that aren’t just strictly academic. I’m all about educating the whole person, not just bits and pieces. When I see students walking with their friends, or playing billiards in Lower Wismer, or working in a lab in Phaler, that’s just as much learning about one another.
What have you enjoyed most about working with Ursinus students?
The best thing about the students who attend Ursinus is that they’re just genuinely authentic people. Many schools can be competitive and [have] I might even go so far as to say [a] pretentious culture, (other liberal arts schools included), whereas Ursinus to me feels very present. We aren’t afraid to be who we are here.
How has the campus changed while you’ve been here?
It has changed so so much, largely for the better. BPS and a few other residence halls were all women. The housing was very gender specific. The curriculum was different as well, because the core we ended up developing in the early 2000s was not there at the time. We had no intentional “first-year experience” in neither the classes nor the residence halls. We also have a much stronger network support system now. Back in the day, there were no counselors, learning support, or disability services on campus. The options were few and far between when it came to tutoring and accommodations. There was only one security officer responsible for all on and off duty calls. There was a nurse who came into Wellness during the day and an Infirmary overnight, and a retired doctor who would stop by every now and again. The Wellness Center in general was quite lackluster compared to what it is now. In addition, there was also nothing for diversity or inclusion and equity except for a few stray courses. There were no minors that focused exclusively on diversity. I’m very happy to have seen that change during my tenure here.
A huge part of your legacy has been your work with Title IX and the creation of the Peer Advocates program. Why has campus sexual assault been an issue that you felt was important to address?
Sexual assault has always been a very pervasive issue, but it wasn’t really talked about much. I would try to work with students and help them when they reported their cases. I brought in guest speakers for RA training, and would also do the occasional workshop by myself. But I knew it wasn’t enough.
So, I forget what year exactly, I think it might have been 2010, I was talking to another Grizzly student much like yourself. Her name was Rosey Clarke, and she wanted to talk about this very difficult social issue of sexual assault on campus. As we spoke, we both realized the complexity of the problem and how difficult it is to just “fix it” and provide a remedy for students on campus. So we decided to create the Peer Advocates program. We knew that we had to have peers talking to peers in order to increase the public discourse about this subject on campus.
It was important that we not just open up a dialogue, but also commit to empowering one another. The way we talk with our friends, the way we talk about power, the way we set up policies, major reforms had to take place on every level. Otherwise, it wouldn’t get done. A judicial system alone would not fix this problem. It’s been one of the most inspiring programs I’ve been involved with here at Ursinus. It has been truly motivating to see the change that has occurred on campus.
We know that the problem of sexual assault and misconduct hasn’t gone away, just as it has not disappeared with the other colleges who are also trying to develop meaningful change to policies. But with the energy of so many people agreeing on how it has to change, that alone brings power to it.
How has your view on the issue changed over time?
What’s changed most over time is I realized that I couldn’t fix the sexual assault problem all by myself. I knew I needed help, not just from higher ups in the faculty, but from the students as well.
Have you received any student or administrative push- back for your views and work on this issue?
In terms of pushback on this issue, I have received lots. Lots and lots. Not recently, I don’t think, but certain groups on campus would protest or be upset about a judicial response to a case, or about rumors of a report that they believed wasn’t being handled correctly, or wanting to know the facts about a case on campus while we were trying to keep the privacy. That was a difficult situation, but we managed not to buckle down under the pressure.
Another big set of projects you’ve been involved with is campus housing. Do you have any thoughts on your role in the development of the First- Year Centers, the SPINT Housing program, and the construction of Richter/New/North?
The first year centers were a big deal because the lottery sys- tem worked where the first-year students got whatever was left. It was a chaotic system for the first-year acclimation to campus being so arbitrary. A freshman could be put in the center of Reimert with three other guys, or on the far end of campus where it takes ten minutes just to walk here. It was difficult for freshmen to acclimate to an environment that seemed so variable. At the same time, we were also building a core curriculum in 2001 that eventually became the Common Intellectual Experience (CIE). We knew that, because CIE was starting, that it made sense to create a truly comprehensive “first-year” experience for fresh- men joining the school.
We built Richter/ North (New came later), and all Upper Class students were no longer allowed in BPS and BWC. BWC in particular was very popular with students in general. We built Richter/North to, in a sense, be the modern version of BWC. That way, it would be easier to motivate students for relocation. In 2002, once we built Richter/ North, the first year centers opened.
As for SPINT, no one can credit me for inventing that. Special Interest (or SPINT) housing started with Musser hall before I arrived here. However, I was the first person to have to worked with it, and in turn thought it might be a good idea to develop multiple SPINT houses. The themes for each house were different then; they’ve changed so many times I don’t remember what the originals were, but they’ve changed depending largely on student interests.
Did you receive any push- back for taking on these projects?
The main pushback this plan received was with BWC. Students did not want to give that building up to the freshmen. There ended up being town hall meetings and everything to resolve that issue.
How have your views on Ursinus housing changed as your time here went on?
The gender assignments have evolved a lot. That would be the biggest thing, I think. Gender neutral housing was at first only for the SPINT houses. Since the 1990s, more and more buildings became gender neutral, until eventually it became campus- wide. Research indicates that when all genders live together, there’s less vandalism, noise, damages, and in general a more peaceful environment. The only SPINT house that ever became controversial was Queer House, because the word “queer” was more offensive to the older generations of faculty. The students were eventually honored in the end, and Queer House has remained ever since.
Is there anything you would have done differently during your time here? Anything that you regret?
I don’t know, really. I’ve loved it here. Even when things happen that don’t go well for me, I’m usually still pretty positive about it. I’ve just enjoyed my time here so much. I’m not sure off the top of my head that I regret anything.
Are there any projects you think Ursinus should tackle in the next few years?
We’ve got an exciting campus master plan ready. I can’t tell you all the details, but I know they’re focusing a lot on the student experience and the residence halls. The biggest thing I know and can talk about is that there’s going to be a bookstore, a cafe/ coffee shop, and an admissions building on Main Street. We also are hoping to plan with the Collegeville borough to make our college town a bit more robust, with hopefully more restaurants and activities for students to do in their off-time.
That’s so exciting! It stinks that I’ll be gone by the time the new Main Street building arrives.
I feel the same way, Jen. It’s hard to work for so long on something and not be around for the first day it opens. But I’m sure we’ll both be back to visit in no time.
What are some of your favorite memories from Ursinus?
I’ve heard from alums in over 30 years in the past few days, and they’ve been recounting so many stories to me. It’s just been so incredible to hear how much this campus mean to them. Most of their stories speak of a pivotal moment, a place where they’ve felt scared or challenged or vulnerable, and how something in our interaction was able to move them in the right direction. You know, Jen, Ursinus really is such a great place. I don’t even know, it’s so hard to narrow down 30 years of amazing stories.
What do you think is the biggest part of the legacy you left here?
I think it’s the fact that I value community and relationship very much, and I believe that it’s so essential for people to thrive in their learning and development. I’ve done that with building a staff that lives and works here on this campus so they can model it and facilitate it. I also built the Residence Life program, and I am so fortunate to have been with them in those early stages. The strong counseling program, too, is something I am very happy about. This school has many more options now for accommodations and mental health, and I’m very proud of that.