INTERVIEW: New Pomona Dean of Students Avis E. Hinkson

Last semester, the Claremont Independent sat down with Pomona College’s new Dean of Students, Avis E. Hinkson. With more than three decades of experience in higher education under her belt, Hinkson’s broad range of experience at places like Barnard and UC Berkeley gives her a unique perspective on some of the issues currently being discussed at Pomona. She also served as an associate dean of admissions at Pomona from 1990 to 1994, along with experience serving in admissions offices at Mills College, University of Southern California, and Cornell University. Below are the questions posed to Hinkson and her responses, edited for concision and clarity.

CI: As a first year, it should come as no surprise that coming to Pomona has forced me to make some drastic changes to my lifestyle. Some of these I’ve really appreciated; others, I question. For instance: back home, I like to work out early and eat dinner late. Here, the Rains Center doesn’t open until 10:00am on weekends, and dining halls close at 7:00am or 8:00am at the latest. As the new Dean of Students, what would you say are the pros and cons of these schedules? Are there any intentions to make changes that would give students more flexibility?

Hinkson: The decisions around hours of operation have a lot to do with foot traffic. We are mindful of our staffing model and how we organize how many people are on a particular shift, but also to be considered is when the largest numbers of students make use of a particular resource. This applies to both the Rains Center and dining halls. I spoke with Leslie Irvine about the Rains Center and she explained that they have paid close attention and collected data on usage hours for the Rains Center and used that information to determine their hours of operation. I think if there is interest in adjustments at the Rains Center, I would recommend talking to Leslie Irvine. And with regard to the dining hall, I would recommend speaking with Jose Martinez. Both of these individuals would certainly be open to hearing your thoughts.

CI: Coming from Seattle, it’s been a bit of a time getting used to the weather here in Claremont. Fans have helped, but I’m curious about the reasoning behind the lack of A/C in Wig and other dorms. Is it an environmental thing?

Hinkson: The placement of air conditioning really has to do with the electrical infrastructure on campus. Having an air conditioning unit in each room in a residence hall would overwhelm our systems. Realistically, there are only a few weeks at the start of the fall semester when it’s very warm and therefore, the College has tried to provide more water misters this year and provided air conditioning in more centrally located lounges so that students do have a space to go to cool off. However, there are no current plans for each room to have its own air conditioning unit.

CI: Coming back to Pomona after all these years, are there any specific changes that have really caught your attention

Hinkson: As should be the case when you’ve been away from someplace for over 20 years, there are a lot of changes. Many of them are reflective of our times. Consider that when I was here in the early nineties, we were just starting to use email. Majors and academic opportunities have evolved and changed over time. Certainly, the demographics of our campus have changed dramatically. Having been involved in admissions when I was here before, the changes to our student population are very exciting to me. In the early 1990’s we talked a lot about attracting a more diverse student population and how that diversity would change the campus. The increased diversity among students, faculty, and staff currently on campus is fantastic. Additionally, my office is located in Alexander Hall. President Alexander was the president when I worked in admissions. I still think of being in my office in Sumner Hall and hearing people say, “Oh, the president’s coming” and Pres. Alexander would be coming down the staircase to go to a meeting.

There are so many changes that have taken place since I was here last here and I think they speak to the progress of society and the progress, more importantly, of Pomona College.

CI: Are there any hot-button issues now that wouldn’t have been considered back in the day? How well do you think they’re being handled?

Hinkson: The conversation about wellness and mental health is certainly one that is being given much more attention nationally, if not internationally, than it was given in decades past. As a culture, academia has embraced the notion of supporting the whole student in a way that we didn’t in the past. As a college, we are working to make sure that wellness is given appropriate priority, students’ wholistic needs are addressed and our campus is a supportive environment.

CI: As you probably know, CMC received a “green light” rating for free speech on campus from the Foundation for Individual Rights Education last semester. With regards to this somewhat-delicate issue, are there any potential policy changes currently in the works to push Pomona in the same direction?

Hinkson: Pomona College strongly supports free speech, as you well know, along with academic freedom and open dialogue. The board of trustees actually made a statement in 2017 addressing the College’s commitment to free speech and this 2017 statement is continuing to be reviewed and considered on campus as programmatic changes are being made. And in the spring semester, you should expect to see more information about how to engage in open communication with those that may not share your point of view. We want to be sure great dialogue takes place on our campus and individuals don’t feel silenced. We’ve implemented policies that protect free speech. We want to make sure that the appropriate protections are in place so that there isn’t harmful speech. However, the freedom to express one’s thoughts and to engage in conversations is crucial to an intellectual environment. And I do want to highlight that during this year’s orientation we had a session on listening. We focused on listening to understand (as opposed to listening to respond) because this is such an important skillset to bring to challenging dialogue and an environment that respects free speech.

CI: There’s another area in which Pomona might be able to learn from CMC’s example: career development services. While Pomona does have the CDO, many of the services Pomona students need to set themselves up for careers—such as mock case interviews—are only offered at CMC, and a good portion of these are only offered to Claremont McKenna students. This problem hurts all students, especially those who are less well-off and may be less connected, across all fields, not just those interested in finance and consulting. With that in mind, do you have any preliminary ideas, perhaps drawn from your time at UC Berkeley, a much larger school, for helping people get more value out of career development services?

Hinkson: Well, I would encourage students to use the CDO. I find that a lot of students, will go and express interest in a particular service or looking for a certain kind of job or internship but they don’t return. A service like the CDO is really built on multiple uses. You may need to go at one point to develop resume writing skills. You might want to return at another point to hear an alum speak about their career in a particular industry. You might then want to attend the employer fair or you might want to be part of a program they may be hosting about internships or you may want to discuss specific internship opportunities. And so it is important to me that students make use of all that the CDO has to offer as well as making their recommendations for things that they would like to see in the career development office. So yes, I think that we’ve done some very interesting work in terms of the range of options available at the CDO, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to explore new ideas. There is a weekly newsletter that comes out from the CDO to highlight different career opportunities and events. We use Handshake to post job opportunities and we’re really trying to make everything that the CDO does as accessible possible.

CI: One of CMC’s career development policies is that freshmen go several times a semester. They also create lists of CMC alumni working at places where students might want to intern who are willing to mentor those students. Do you see Pomona adopting anything like this?

Hinkson: So right now, the CDO does host sponsor group visits during the freshman year. I’ve suggested that the CDO think about a curriculum model that might identify three or four different topics that they think are important for all first years to have information about and schedule those over the first year with the mindset that the summer after one’s first year is when many students start looking for internship opportunities. There’s also quite a bit of work being done to figure out what might be the best tool to use to allow students to have greater engagement with alums, so the kind of example that you’ve given is something that can be explored further. The CDO’s mission is to facilitates the development of relationships and the development of skills that will enhance students’ success in finding internships and career opportunities.

CI: Pomona is a diverse place populated by people from a variety of different backgrounds and cultural groups. These people, understandably, will often group together into affinity groups comprised of people with similar experiences. There are a lot of benefits to this; one potential drawback, however, is that it could encourage affinity groups to close off from one another, undermining cooperation and exchange of ideas between the various groups. With that in mind, do you have any initial thoughts about promoting interaction and cross-cultural exchange between affinity groups?

Hinkson: I’ve had conversation with the student body president about his suggestion of a community building day to address the issue you are raising. We have talked in many arenas about Pomona’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. We are in a phase now where we’re looking at inclusion as opportunities for greater collaboration. So, I believe a community building effort could be quite beneficial. I am also looking at incentives to enhanced co-sponsorships across clubs, mentor groups and different kinds of organizations in support of actual programmatic collaboration not simply financial support..

CI: Finally, it’s no secret that under the current administration in Washington, the Dreamers among us here at Pomona might feel insecure in their position on campus. Do you have anything to say regarding new measures to protect DACA beneficiaries at Pomona?

Hinkson: Pomona remains committed to supporting our Dreamers. As a small college, we seek to meet the individualized needs of all of our students and offer appropriate protections. .So, our commitment to all of our students and most certainly our undocumented and DACA students is of the utmost importance and we take our responsibility seriously.

Photo: Pomona College

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