INTERVIEW: Pomona Dean of Campus Life Josh Eisenberg

Last Friday, the Claremont Independent sat down with Pomona College’s new Associate Dean of Students and Dean of Campus Life, Josh Eisenberg. With experience as Dickinson College’s Associate Dean of New Student Programs and Student Leadership, Eisenberg will be providing guidance and support for residential life, clubs and activities,  Outdoor Education Center, KSPC campus radio and student media,  student conduct, and student government. With his recent and extensive experience at Dickinson, the Independent thought his perspective on affairs here at Pomona could prove invaluable. Below are the questions posed to Eisenberg and his responses, edited for concision and clarity.

You served as associate dean of new student programs and student leadership at Dickinson College before coming to Pomona. What sorts of duties did you have there? And what sorts of projects does your new position at Pomona entail?

A lot of them overlap with what I will be doing at Pomona. I oversaw, planned, and implemented orientation. I oversaw the student activities program. I oversaw leadership education. I advised the student senate. I also had a role that I don’t have here, which was a college dean, which is similar to the new class Dean model that you may have heard about. I had a select cohort of advisees, and I would stay with them for four years and work with them. So a lot of overlap with my new position, I also have residential life and housing under me and I also oversee the media groups.

What sorts of issues were the most prominent during your time at Dickinson? Do you expect there to be much overlap between these and some of the challenges that might come up at Pomona?

Hard to say. I know that there’ve been issues at both campuses. At Dickinson we dealt with some racism issues over the five years I was there. Here the issues seem to be more about socioeconomic class. Change seems to be another issue. I know administrative communication has been an issue based on talking to older students here and that often lead to protest and action. The students at Dickinson weren’t as active in that way. But I’ve dealt with both and I will deal with both as they happen and deal differently.

One of your roles as associate dean of students is to work with the student government in some capacity. What do you envision your role being?

That’s a hard line to tread, as an administrator and also as an advisor. I try to remind ASPC as I did when I worked with students at Dickinson that I am an advisor. My hope is that I’ll sit there, maybe ask a few questions. A lot of my work is asking, hopefully getting the right questions to help the students to work through the arguments they’re having. I rarely had to step in in the Senate. I don’t want to sit there and say “you’re doing this wrong”. That’s not my goal, because I want to build up trust. So it’s working that line. I partner well with Ellie Ash-Balá, who has done this for a lot longer than I have. So I’m looking forward to working with her, but I’ve been really impressed so far with the ASPC leadership. They seem to want to represent the student body as a whole. They recognize that there is a diversity of opinion and thought and view, which I think is super important for student government. At Dickinson College I helped the Senate negotiate policy changes by sitting there in advising and supporting and challenging them, but also giving them the freedom in defending them. I’m advising ASPC, but they are allowed to push forward with policy changes or issues.

With degrees from two different colleges and experience working at others, it’s safe to say you know your way around higher education. What differences have you noticed between your time as a student and colleges today? Is academia fundamentally different today, or is the basic structure the same despite superficial changes?

Let me talk about what I believe is similar first, because I think that’s just easier. I’m a true believer in liberal arts. I went to a small liberal arts college for undergrad, Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I worked at Dickinson College two different times. But it’s still a small liberal arts college. I believe the type of work that these type of institutions are doing is just as valuable and just the same as when I graduated college. A lot of the same talking points still exist. So there is some overlap; the ability to teach people to think, the ability to teach people to reason. Bob Gaines said this at a meeting, that the ability to be ready to deal with things you don’t even know you’re going to have to deal with yet is just as valuable as ever. And I do think a strong liberal arts education prepares students to do that.

So, the changes. I was talking to a professor at a meeting the other day. I think the recession changed everything. I think the commoditization of higher education has really caused liberal arts colleges to struggle. When I told people I was going to a liberal arts college, they might say “I’ve never heard of your college, but that’s fine.” Now it’s a struggle to for students to articulate why they’re paying or why they’re going to an institution that costs x amount of dollars. Why not just go to a state school? Why aren’t you going to community college just to get a job? That makes it a lot harder for students. You used to just have to explain to Uncle Frank why it’s ok to be a philosophy major at Thanksgiving. Now you have to go home and explain the value of what you’re doing. But even during the recession, college graduates had the lowest unemployment rate of any group. So I try to remind students that they can go get whatever job they want after college. I mean, I was a medieval studies history major, and now I work in higher education. That’s not at all connectable. But the skills I learned being a history major easily transferred to other things.

What are some of the issues people talk about today that may have gone unaddressed while you were studying? In your experience, have they been well handled?

I think there are two major issues. First, there is a growing chasm in socioeconomic status at colleges. As a matter of fact, just last Sunday the New York Times magazine did its higher education issue about how colleges are trying to navigate the balance between tuition revenue and financial aid. But that’s been a thing going on since the 90s. That’s one of the things that all groups are trying to figure out. We have the research that shows a diverse college experience, benefits everyone in the college. But it’s hard to navigate all of it because of the way that costs have gone up. So I think that’s a larger issue that’ll probably have to be addressed at a higher rate over the next few years. Again, that’s data. We have a lot of lower income families and a lot of higher income families, but what we would call traditional middle class families are having a harder time financing higher ed.

The other issue is the difference between diversity and inclusivity and defining diversity. Whether it’s diversity of race or diversity of economics or diversity of thought, what does diversity look like? And then, what’s inclusivity? Some institutions say like, we’re going to be really diverse and then don’t offer infrastructure to support that. And then there’s the balance between impact and intention. For a lot of people it doesn’t matter where your intent was, it’s what the impact is. Those dilemmas exist, but I for one am willing to navigate them because I do think the end result is better.

One of the big topics on people’s minds here at Pomona is the issue of affinity groups. I asked Dean Hinkson a similar question last year, but I’d like to know how you’ll reconcile students’ need to be around people with similar experiences with Pomona’s emphasis on diversity and community overall?

When I went to college, it was 1992. I’m a white guy. I’m a white guy who grew up in a suburb of New York City. My Dad was Jewish, but we’re Catholic, so I was the token Jew even though I wasn’t really Jewish. Good Times. We came from a “liberal” family. I’m using that in quotations. But college was my first interaction with any real level of diversity. Let me tell you, diversity of interaction in 1992 was nothing compared to what it is in 2019. I remember at one point the college wanted to start an Africana Studies major. I’m ashamed that I reacted with “why do they need an Africana studies major? Why didn’t they go to school with one?” Then I went into higher ed and learned that there’s such a thing as identity development. And one of the ways to do that is to create environments where people have an opportunity to really learn about themselves and about their identity and learn about their groups.

I think sometimes as a white person, it’s hard to recognize the fact that I almost never can’t see someone who looks like me. I almost never can’t interact with someone who looks like me. And I know that it’s important to keep those spaces because my wife and I adopted our youngest four through foster care. They’re all black. And I recognize that they need space. One of the reasons we moved to this area was for its diversity. There are African American families in central Pennsylvania where we lived who did well, but it’s easier to succeed when you see more people who look like you. It’s a lot easier to be Catholic in a Catholic neighborhood. Community develops around commonalities and it’s just figuring out what those commonalities are and allowing space for that. And I think that that can totally succeed. I mean, let’s be fair. For all the affinity groups, Pomona’s still the fifth or first best college in the United States of its type. So it’s obviously succeeding academically. So I think the model we have must be doing pretty well.

It’s important that students feel comfortable at Pomona. But that goes both ways; while students should never feel attacked for who they are, they should also feel safe to express potentially unpopular views, provided they do so in a civil manner. How do you plan to balance these competing interests?

Where Dickinson dealt with this issue most recently was regarding political parties. We had a lot of conversations with political conservatives who felt that they didn’t have a voice on the campus. I ran the Dickinson votes committee and made sure that it was a nonpartisan committee, that everyone had a voice and that we encouraged all political persuasions to come forward and vote, register to vote, get people out to vote. Because I think one way you support various voices in that political sense is to make sure that you value them throughout all parts of political process. It’s also just figuring out what the fear is, how the reaction to it is shown. I think one of the harder things as we become more politically polarized is trying to find out where the line between a political discussion and hate speech is.

I think it’s also important to be a role model in terms of the behavior we want to see here. For instance, I always tried to recruit broadly at Dickinson despite my own political views. And at one point, the Dickinson College Student Senate, Dickinson College Democrats, Dickinson College Republicans and the Dickinson College Black Student Union all got together about a free speech resolution at Dickinson College because of the way the college handled some postings made by various groups, that they all thought was inequitable. So they all got together and passed the resolution. All four groups said, “we don’t all agree with all this speech, but we can’t come down on it based on a rule that we’ve just decided to enforce that we don’t normally enforce.” So that was helpful.

Finally, what are some of your long-term goals in terms of policy and culture? What lasting effect do you hope to have on Pomona College? This is going to be a humblebrag, so I apologize. But about two weeks ago, one of my Dickinson advisees emailed me that the college newspaper was writing an article about me having left entitled “Beloved Dean Leaves Dickinson.” When I leave here, I want that to be my legacy. I want people to say “we can trust Josh. Even if we didn’t agree with him, we knew he was always candid and we knew he was always trying to look out for the student’s interest whenever possible.” I think sometimes what students don’t realize, and what we in the administration forget, is that this is an educational position. I’m not a faculty member. I don’t have a class roster. I don’t stand in front of you, I don’t get to lecture. But I’m in education and I would like to be thought of as someone who taught things and mentored people. I don’t mind if some people say “I didn’t agree with him a lot.” I just want people to understand where I’m coming from and respect that. I will not always agree with everybody and everything on this campus, but I will always make room for everybody and everything on this campus.

#claremont #harveymuddcollege #pomonacollege #PoliticalDiversity #ClaremontMcKennaCollege #TheClaremontColleges #JoshEisenberg #ScrippsCollege #RacialAffinityGroups #DiversityofThought #Dean #PitzerCollege