Helping Students Connect The Dots
In a wide-ranging interview, Dean of the College John F. McKnight Jr. talks about trust, student agency, social change, and enhancing the Haverford experience.
Dean of the College John F. McKnight Jr. has what he calls an “inspiration wall” of artwork above his L-shaped desk in Stokes Hall. In many ways, it serves as an apt metaphor for the way he plans to approach the work before him at Haverford.
A large, modern painting of energetic, colorful squiggles dominates the display. “This is a little bit of chaos here, which is what my mind often looks like,” McKnight, 40, says in his quiet-spoken way, and then laughs. Nearby, another piece features a Black boy sitting cross-legged, eyes closed in serene meditation. “This is what I’m striving for: a little bit more Zen, a little bit more calm.” Finally, there is a portrait of a young John Lewis emblazoned with the late civil rights icon and Georgia congressman’s signature phrase: “Good Trouble.” That piece was gifted by a colleague during McKnight’s sendoff from Connecticut College, where he was dean of institutional equity and inclusion. He allows he plans some “good trouble” at Haverford, then adds: “It’s already here. I’m just joining in.”
As Dean of the College, McKnight, who grew up in Gainesville, Fla., oversees all aspects of the student experience outside of class, covering residential life; health services; academic resources; athletics; equity, diversity, and inclusion, and more. A University of Florida graduate who has a doctorate in administration and leadership studies from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, McKnight boasts a 16-plus-year career in student affairs and diversity, including as dean of intercultural development at Lafayette College and director of multicultural affairs at Lehigh University.
From the get-go at Haverford, McKnight, who joined the staff in July 2021, has set out to enhance the Ford experience, making new hires and bringing new structures to day-to-day operations, especially after a year that saw a social justice reckoning and a global pandemic. Recently, he sat down with freelance journalist Lini S. Kadaba for a wide-ranging conversation that included discussion of challenges ahead, his plans to overcome them, and the unusual way he has organized his office bookshelf. Here is an edited excerpt.
Lini Kadaba: Your role as Dean of the College is truly vast, touching nearly every corner of Haverford. That must feel like an immense responsibility. What is your overall vision as dean?
John McKnight: That was the exact response my father had when I shared what I was going to be doing: “Is that the entire College?” There are times when it feels that way. But honestly, that’s what’s exciting about it. I think that the really important role that student life and student affairs play in an overall education, particularly a liberal arts education, can’t be overstated. Haverford has such a strong academic reputation and such a history of excellence, in terms of the scholarly work and intellectual work that’s happening here. It’s wonderful to come in and develop a student life experience that is commensurate with the intellectual vitality of this campus.
Part of my vision is to be more intentional in thinking about the connections across the student experiences. What I mean by that is to operate from a shared language, shared set of educational outcomes that we want for students outside the classroom. What do we want our students to know? Who do we want them to be in the world when they graduate? And what is our role as a collective unit and as individual departments in helping them to get there?
LK: To get at those answers, new positions have been created and divisions have been restructured. One major change involves student advising. How will that look?
JM: Some of that is work I inherited from a very, very smart interim dean, Joyce Bylander, who is a long-term student-affairs professional. She came in and engaged in one year—a COVID year no less—in some really visionary thinking on some restructuring that could help us.
I’ll start off by saying one of the essential functions of student life is to help students connect the dots between academic experiences and their lived experiences, say in the residence halls or elsewhere on campus. A crucial way that work happens is in the advising and mentoring relationships they have with caring professional adults. Our advising deans, in the past, were serving multiple functions on campus. What we’ve tried to do is strip away some of those other parts of their work and have their central focus be on advising.
In the past, there was an advising dean who had all of the first years and then [when they became sophomores] passed them to another dean. The model we are using now is that students will be assigned a dean in their first year and remain with them for their four years. That depth of relationship is all part of what the Haverford experience really should be.
LK: Besides advising, what other areas are you reorganizing?
JM: We elevated both the Counseling Center and Health Services Center to being direct reports to the dean. If COVID has taught us anything, it certainly showed us the importance of thinking about the mental and physical health of our students and having that being really the foremost part of our work.
We’ve also promoted Raquel Esteves-Joyce—who has been at the College for a while in a variety of roles—into a newly created position as associate dean of the college, student diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This role is bringing together a bunch of offices that are focused on DEI. This move feels already like a right one. These offices are truly operating as a single unit, thinking of their programming and support services as tied to each other. [For more on that, see p. 11.]
LK: You also are renaming some programs. Residential Life, for one, is now Residential Education. Why the change?
JM: It should signal to the community that there is an education to be had through the residential experience. It’s not just about keeping people cozy and safe and warm, although that is essential. It also is about what can we learn by living in community with others, right? How do we negotiate and resolve conflict? I think the assumption that exists at places like Haverford is just because you have an Honor Code, that will all work itself out naturally. And that’s not the case. There are really complicated residential situations that present themselves, and you need to have an educational approach to how to facilitate that learning.
LK: Like many college campuses, the Haverford community grappled with the reckoning over issues of socioeconomic and racial injustice in 2020. Student activists demanded change and held a 14-day strike. The administration has taken numerous actions to address concerns. Still, trust between many students of color and the administration has been tenuous at times. Is trust an ongoing issue? And if so, what role can the Dean’s Office play in addressing that?
JM: I think trust is at the core of student life work, and I do think it has to be rebuilt here between students and the administration. It’s not automatically given to a new dean, not even to me. I think some people assume that me being a man of color, it would be extended automatically. No. It has to be earned. I think about rebuilding trust in this moment almost daily. How do we do that? I think we have to do it one person at a time. I think we have to be in spaces with the students who don’t trust us and hear from them and learn from them and work alongside them to build that trust.
I’m a very relationship-driven leader. A couple of my earliest interactions with students who were upset about something came in the form of angry emails or angry letters, because that’s been the methodology for the last year, 18 months. That’s how you communicate. One of the things I often say: “Thank you for this impassioned letter. I take it very seriously. I want you to know that you can also just reach out and ask [to meet] for coffee.” Sometimes I think we can get further with a conversation over coffee.
I also completely understand where they are. I feel the same urgency around injustice and systemic change. I’ve felt it my whole life. But I also have the perspective of a slightly older person and someone who is trying very hard to work within systems to bring about systemic change.
I really believe there are multiple ways to bring about social change. We don’t have to all agree upon exactly what the best path is. And all of it might be important.
LK: What do you think of the administration’s efforts to create an antiracist institution?
JM: I think we’re getting there. The College absolutely has made clear its commitments and investments in DEI. No question. There’s a lot of progress well documented and described. I think what’s challenging is getting the community to actually see and recognize that work, particularly getting students to trust that it’s not just for show.
LK: From your perspective, what else, if anything, should the administration do regarding DEI goals?
JM: There is a lot of work underway. There are some important conversations happening right now that I’ve been a part of around racial healing in the community, and not just the Haverford community but our immediate neighbors surrounding us in Ardmore and Haverford Township, thinking about the histories there.
Generally speaking, it’s about making sure all the systems we have, all the practices we have, are equally accessible to and working out for people of color in the same ways they are for other students. It’s assessment and evaluation, which is boring, but those are things we have to do.
I think we’re headed in the right direction.
LK: Haverford really prides itself on the notion of student agency. What does that phrase mean to you?
JM: I have given this a lot of thought. It is both one of the things that drew me here and one of the things I find most challenging about the place. I do think people have different definitions about what we mean by agency. For me, when we talk about student agency, it’s about this concept of claiming an education for oneself, deciding for oneself what you’re interested in, the questions you want to explore and how to create experiences that will contextualize the learning.
The way I think about student agency is that there should be many, many compelling opportunities for students in an academic environment to decide what they’re interested in and to explore and experiment and do that in a safe environment— and to have caring, supportive adults as professionals to help guide them through that process. That last little piece is what I think is left out of a lot of people’s definitions of student agency: “We should be able to do any and every thing we want to do.” I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think there is wisdom in having intergenerational exchange and dialogue, people who have gone before who sometimes can pose a question in a way that causes you, the student, to reflect differently about what you are thinking. Not that they’re prescribing what you should do or the decisions you should make, but they’re helping you to reflect along the way, helping you to think about your next steps and all the possible different paths that are open to you. To me, that’s student agency in a Haverford context.
LK: You come from a family of educators, right?
JM: My father was a higher-ed administrator. He’s retired now. My mother retired this past year as manager of the Head Start program in Florida. My sister is also in higher education. She’s just become vice president of human resources at a college in Florida. My wife [Katrina] is in education. She’s a school psychologist in Philly.
LK: Your doctoral thesis—Brothers in the Struggle: A Phenomenological Study of White Male College Student Development as Social Justice Allies— involved interviewing Haverford College students. Tell me about the project.
JM: My study was about white male college students who were connected with various social justice initiatives on their respective campuses. There is often an assumption that people who promote equity and social justice are choosing to do so because of some sort of lived experience of marginalization in one or more of their social identities. Since it is widely known among scholars that white men as a collective entity have a privileged status in society, I wanted to better understand what might compel some of these young men to voluntarily participate as allies in various social movements on their campuses. The thought behind this was that if we could understand something about the precipitating factors or conditions that led to their social justice orientation and commitments, we could try to replicate those conditions for others in order to expand white male participation in these efforts. Haverford was one of four institutions I included in the study because I knew I could find a population of students here who would meet the criteria and who might be willing to talk with me about it. And, of course, that turned out to be true. I enjoyed getting to learn about this campus through their eyes and hearing how much their Haverford experiences were fueling their passions in this area. I hope to expand this study someday, perhaps even with some of the same participants.
LK: As we’ve been speaking, I couldn’t help but notice your bookshelf. The books are stacked on their sides, spines facing out, in piles of four or five. Is there a method to the arrangement?
JM: I’m trying to put books in conversation with each other. It’s sad we just lost bell hooks. She put herself in conversation with others about education as liberation. [He points out the late author’s Teaching to Transgress, stacked with Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, The Agony of Education by Joe Feagin, and Education for Social Change by John Rury.] Honestly, I approach this as an opportunity to loan out books to other people when they come in and are interested.
LK: In your LinkedIn profile, you mention that your work in student affairs is an art and a science. What do you mean by that?
JM: I think there are certain formulaic approaches we have in student life because we know from decades of research what works well in supporting student development. I can be pretty nerdy about the theoretical aspects of my work and rely heavily upon them in practice. But it’s also essential to know that we work with human beings, who, in addition to their big impressive brains, have hearts, souls, and bodies. They have unique dreams, goals, and ambitions, and often they’re carrying around particular life experiences, including traumatic ones, that might require us as practitioners to adapt our approaches. In other words, the formulas may or may not work equally well across the board. We have to make space for intuition and creativity in this work.
LK: One last question. What do you love about your job?
JM: This one is really simple, and my answer may seem a little bit cliché, but I absolutely love working with college students. We all understand that being a young person is crazy hard—and it’s especially tough in these challenging times. I just love being able to support young people wherever they are and helping them envision and move toward the lives they want for themselves….And I especially love working in contexts like the one Haverford provides, where there are equal measures of intellectual stimulation and community care.