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Dean Sue addresses big questions in charting a path forward for Duke residential life

Sue Wasiolek, or “Dean Sue,” will be shifting from her role as dean of students to the senior adviser of  Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost/vice president for student affairs, and Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education starting for the 2020-21 academic year. She will be tasked with thinking more critically about the housing experience at Duke, such as through implementing the recommendations from the 2018-2019 Board of Trustees residential task force. Dean Sue sat down with editor-in-chief Jake Satisky to talk about questions she’s considering as she prepares to assume her upcoming role after Commencement. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SW: Where did you live sophomore year?

JS: I lived in Keohane 4B.

SW: What house?

JS: Blue Ridge.

SW: So why didn’t you say Blue Ridge? Why did you say Keohane 4B? 

JS: Um…

SW: That’s one of my pet peeves. We live in a house system.

JS: I feel like most people don’t know where the houses are.

SW: So it’s a location thing?

JS: Well, I’ve always thought the independent experience is a lot like living in an apartment complex. 

SW: That couldn't be farther from my experience as an undergrad at Duke living in an independent house my entire time here. It was a home, it was a community, it was with the people that I felt cared about me. That's what a house experience to me, whether it's independent, selective or Greek.

JS: What do you think made that independent house feel like a home for you?

SW: You know, I wish I could answer that; I’m not sure that I can. But, there are a lot of differences, and one was that we got placed there—I got placed there my freshman year and the expectation was that I would stay there, which I did. There wasn't as much movement, and I think my hope is that will happen now with Central not being here, that people will land someplace, perhaps their sophomore year, and have a better experience. So, that’s part of what I hope to have a chance to think about is, what does community mean today? What does stability mean? And how can we create climated environment opportunity for students on West Campus to identify with a community? Because my sense is that people identify with a community freshman year, maybe not everybody, but many people did. 

JS: I would agree, I felt a good community in my dorm—I don’t know I’ve stuck with all of them—but I’m still friends with a lot of people from my freshman year. 

SW: And to have a community doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have lifelong friends, or even acquaintances—hopefully that happens, that’s an awesome outcome, and hopefully will be an outcome with some people, but it doesn’t have to be with every single member. Living in Gilbert-Addoms now—this is my seventh year—that sense of community has been different every year. I can't necessarily put my finger on it, but it’s something that I talk to students about all the time, and ask them about. ‘Does this feel like home to you? Is this a community for you?’ And when students say it’s not, I feel like we have work to do, all of us. 

JS: How important is transparency in all of this? Duke is thinking of new housing policies. They had a task force; and they wrapped up their report and they released a page of their summary of what they found. But it didn’t really say that much. How transparent do you think Duke needs to be about what it’s thinking about and what moves it wants to make? 

SW: I sort of had the same question when I first heard about and saw the task force report. But after giving it some thought, I think it was really the right way to do it because they were as transparent as they should have been because they didn’t reach any definitive plans. They didn’t make any policies. They basically outlined or identified the areas in which they felt the institution had to focus moving forward, and then said, ‘take this, run with this, get all the people that need to be involved involved, brainstorm and then implement.’ 

And so, my hope is that we can get a lot of people brainstorming. What do student faculty interactions mean today? What does it mean to the students? What does it mean to the faculty? What does that look like outside the classroom? And in particular, how might that connect with the residential experience? So we are a lot further along today than we were a year ago today simply because people are talking about it. It’s on the table. There’s a bright light shining down on it. I think it's very clear that this is a priority for the institution. Where do we go from here? I don’t know, but I’m excited about being a part of it. 

JS: How has the conversation around housing evolved since you’ve been here? Has it been like this at any point, with so much focus on it?

SW: It’s been ever evolving. I think we have had a number of times over the last 40 years where there has been a very strong emphasis on housing in conversations. And it’s usually come about as result of numbers and spaces, and facilities. The Women’s College merged with the men’s, Trinity College—what does that mean? We now have this merger of men and women, east and west. I came right after that conversation to Duke as an undergrad—what does that mean? Then, in the early 80s, the School of Nursing closed—the School of Nursing as we knew it then, with a traditional bachelor’s degree. There was Trinity, School of Engineering—now Pratt, and there was Nursing. So they had two buildings over on the North Campus, as we called it: Hanes and Hanes Annex. Hanes Annex is now the John Hope Franklin Center, but it was a residence hall. When those two residence halls closed for the School of Nursing, there was an opportunity for Trinity and Pratt to use that space. Then Central Campus continued to evolve from a graduate and professional student campus exclusively to an undergraduate campus, exclusively. What did that period of time look like, and how did that happen? 

So there has always been a lot of moving parts, and I think what is different right now that has not been the case in the last 40 years, 45 or 46 years, is that we’re at a point where we’ve got East Campus, and we’ve got West Campus. We know that we wish to replace 300 Swift, so it’s almost from a facilities standpoint, somewhat more stable than it has been for decades. So we’re at a point where we can actually start to think about a more systematic, understandable, grounded-in-the-curriculum and everything-we-stand-for approach to the residential experience. 

We know we need another residence hall, or two, but that shouldn’t keep us from thinking about, are we doing all that we need to do on East? What is that transition like from East to West? How can we make that transition less disruptive? How can we make the sophomore year meaningful and enable sophomores to kind-of avoid that traditional ‘sophomore slump’? How do we consider junior study abroad experience in that whole rubric? And what does that experience look like for the seniors who choose to continue to stay on campus? 

We can actually look at that in a way that all students can almost have a similar type of experience. The Hollows is different from Kilgo, right? And we recognize that as well. I think the focus right now is going to be on all those transitional elements while trying to do two things: create a sense of community and identify the ways to create the most effective ways to create opportunities for student-faculty engagement in a residential setting.

JS: How much responsibility for housing community falls on the students themselves, and how much falls on Duke apparati, like RAs or the housing models themselves?

SW: That’s a great question, and having been an RA before, many years ago for two years, I used to ask that question all the time, even back then, like, ‘to what extent am I responsible for creating community?’ I think about this every day as a faculty-in-residence on East. What can I do? What should I be doing to create community? And when students don’t take advantage of whatever might be offered that I think is enhancing community, am I obligated in some way to reach out to those students? Am I obligated to remind them that this is a community? Do they in fact have an obligation to contribute as a community member to the residential experience? They're all great questions. Should we, as a university, permit students to just live in our residence halls? Should we permit them to just come and go, as if they live in an apartment? Should we expect more? 

Because I do think the residential experience is different for every student, and yet we have expectations related to their classroom work. If in fact the residential experience is a foundational aspect of the Duke undergraduate experience, should we be defining some expectations of what it means to be a member of the Duke residential community? It is a partnership. Now that I’ve said all that, I also believe that students find community all over this campus. And my feeling is that we can't force you to find community in your dorm, but we also need to make certain that whatever that community is, we need to put our best foot forward so that it is something you consider because it offers something meaningful and fun. And if you choose to not align with that community in a meaningful way, maybe so be it, but we’ve put our best foot forward and I’m not sure we’re there yet. I want to be a part of the team, the group and the initiative that gets us there. 

JS: What do you think are the biggest obstacles toward getting us there? A lot of housing changes have been a new building opening up or an old building closing, or moving freshmen to East or removing Central. Now people are settled, what are the big obstacles to more sincere reform?

SW: I don’t know that I would call them obstacles. I think we’ve got a lot of things that are necessary that are already in place. We perhaps just need to reexamine how we’re utilizing those things and what kind of resources we are directing towards those apparati, or those particular offerings. I think the RA staff is great, and the RC staff is awesome. I think our graduate residents are phenomenal. I think this notion of having a house council in each house of students is exactly what we need to be thinking about. 

And yet somehow, we're missing all of our opportunities because students are put into a position right now, like this week, during their freshman year to try to make this choice as to where they’re going to live next year, particularly those who are in independent houses. Does the selective house process contribute to a certain level of disruption? Does that need to look a little different? I don’t know, maybe it’s perfect the way it is. But somehow there are these points along the way that detract from community instead of contributing to it. I'm not sure what those are and to what extent they may contribute, but I hope we will examine all of those. 

Students right now have a lot of choices but don't always get into the choices that they want. They don’t always get into a Greek organization that they wanted, they don’t get into a selective house that they wanted. They might not even get into an independent house that they wanted. Is choice the best way to go? Should we be having as many options as we do? Is that contributing to this lack of optimization of community? Lots of questions. I hope that’s part of my new role. To be in a position to ask a lot of questions and to help us all move forward in finding those answers. 

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