Nearly three months ago, Mary Beth Grant J.D. ’88 — Cornell’s former Judicial Administrator — assumed a new position as senior dean of students for inclusion, engagement and community support, following criticism from student leaders last spring about the creation of the administrative position itself.
In March, the Student Assembly passed a resolution that opposed the creation of the new position, heeding to the concerns of students about the way it was being funded.
“Time and time again we were told that the University has no money to give more support for the resource centers, and here they are creating a high paid position that would simply add to the bureaucracy,” said Karen Li ’15, former director of advocacy for the Cornell Asian Pacific Islander Student Union, in March.
Grant — who now oversees student organizations, resource centers and community engagement initiatives — said she understood the concerns about the position when its creation was first announced.
“I wanted to better understand the concerns about the position even before I was interviewed.” Grant said. “I went to an S.A. meeting where students were talking about their concerns and I met with at least one student.”
At one point, Grant said she considered withdrawing her application because she shared the concerns that were raised by many students. However, realizing the position would be filled regardless of whether she was a candidate, Grant said she knew she would be the candidate best equipped to serve the University.
“I thought, ‘well, if it’s going to be filled, it should be filled with me,’” Grant said.
Addressing the funding concerns Li raised, Grant said the University created the position for one administrator who would spearhead three distinct campus initiatives, in order to be more efficient.
“One thing that I don’t think has been made clear is that this one position actually fills three vacant seats,” Grant said. “While it’s expensive to hire an upper-level administrator, it was an efficient choice to hire one administrator rather than three.”
Grant said that when she first assumed the position, she conducted a sweeping reorganization to improve efficiency within her departments. She also said she was able to reassign responsibilities and prioritize the goals of her staff.
“I needed to ask: ‘what’s on people’s plates that need not be there?’” Grant said. “I also reassigned some resources. There are some parts of the community center programs that could be shifted so that resource centers could receive more support. This is a work in progress.”
Next, Grant said she outlined a workshop-like, collaborative brainstorming team she dubbed “working groups.” These ten working groups — each with a specific area of focus — will collaborate to achieve overarching goals such as inclusion, student development and wellness, according to Grant.
“The goals of these working groups are to increase the effectiveness of our efforts and to build synergies, so that we are doing things in a smarter way and that we’re doing things in a way that will better benefit our students,” she said.
Grant said the biggest immediate challenge to her position is the shortage of resources. However, she stressed that she wants to make sure she reduces all the inefficiencies within her domain before asking the University for more funding.
“If I ask the University for more funding when I haven’t done everything in my power to shrink internal inefficiencies, then I feel like I’m just putting the burden on the students by essentially asking for more tuition,” Grant said. “Asking for more funding should be our very last resort.”
Jevan Hutson ’16, the former president of Haven: The LGBTQ Student Union, who, like Li, vocally opposed the creation of the position in March, said that Grant has been a pivotal resource for students on campus. However, Hutson said the University needs to dedicate more funds to her initiatives.
“Mary Beth Grant has been an advocate for both students and staff,” Hutson said. “Despite her deep support for the community, the position she occupies is still hindered by the overall lack of financial resources dedicated to the Dean of Students Office.”
Over her tenure at Cornell, Grant said she wants to make her office as accessible as possible for students, and has already worked hard to “be present” around campus.
“I’ve been going to student meetings and learning about what people are doing around campus,” she said. “The students might not even know I’m there — but this isn’t about me. This is about the students and the staff that are directly working with them. I’m just trying to learn what is going on and what resources the students can use.”
Grant said her long-term goal is to foster a more positive campus climate, which ultimately could lead to the elimination of her position.
“At some point will we reach a world where the extra support for affinity groups is no longer necessary,” she said. “I would love to see that in our lifetime. But, unfortunately, I don’t know if that’s realistic right now.”