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An interview with incoming president Alison Byerly

This morning, Alison Byerly was announced as the 12th president of Carleton College, succeeding Steven Poskanzer. President Byerly will take office on August 1, 2021. Earlier this week, the Carletonian had the opportunity to interview Byerly over Zoom, speaking with the incoming president about her time at Middlebury and Lafayette, what excites her most about coming to Carleton, some steps she hopes to take in pursuit of equity and anti-racism, the biggest challenges she expects to face assuming office in the midst of a pandemic, and her scholarship of Victorian culture. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Sam Kwait-Spitzer: Why Carleton? We saw that you’re the parent of a Carleton alumnus, so what does the college mean to you personally? 

Alison Byerly: You know, I have always known Carleton—just as a professional in the field—as an excellent liberal arts college. So from my time at Middlebury onward, I’ve always known some faculty and some administrators at Carleton. I’ve known Steve Poskanzer and Bev Nagel for a number of years. So I certainly know the territory. I have a very good friend at Middlebury who was a Carleton alum, and she persuaded my daughter to apply. And when I saw how much my daughter loved Carleton, it really gave me a sense of what a special place it is. She liked the fact that people were deeply intellectual, but also kind of laid back, and that students seem to be willing to have fun as well as, you know, work hard. She also is someone who is a very dedicated student, but also likes to do other things in her life as well. So I think she felt that there was a kind of balance at Carleton that I appreciated as well, watching her experience.

So, the opportunity just seemed to me a wonderful confluence. I was already planning to finish up my time at Lafayette, and I was going to go on sabbatical next year. But when this opportunity arose, I just could not resist, because Carleton is an amazing place. I really feel very honored at the thought of being able to work with such fantastic faculty, such dedicated staff. And, knowing a lot of my daughter’s friends, I think Carleton students are an amazing group.

Sam: You will be the first woman president in Carleton’s history. Would you like to comment on the significance of this?

It is a tremendous honor for anyone to be appointed president of Carleton, and I am certainly proud to think that I am the college’s first female president. I would be pleased to find that my appointment is meaningful to some female students and alumnae.

Amelia Broman: How have you changed as a leader during your tenure at Lafayette, as well as at Middleburyand what lessons will you carry forward to Carleton? 

I started off, of course, as a faculty member. And so when you’re a faculty member and then you first move into administration, that’s a big leap. As a faculty member, you have quite a lot of independence. As an administrator, you’re really in charge of bringing teams together and working collectively on things. And I really enjoyed that. And that was part of what solidified my sense of liking being an academic administrator. As a provost, you’re dealing primarily with faculty and academic issues. When you become a president, you really have to take a college-wide perspective. And so you’re looking at student life, you’re looking at enrollment, you’re looking at finance, you’re looking at facilities. And I really like seeing how the pieces fit together, always in support of the academic program, always in support of the student experience, but there are lots of different dimensions to that.

A lot of what I learned at Middlebury, I was able to apply at Lafayette. And I think what I learned at Lafayette had a lot to do with just the nature of leadership in this kind of role, and the way in which it really requires bringing a lot of different voices together.

It’s not like being a CEO of a company where you have employees and you tell them what to do. This is much more like a democracy. You’ve got lots of different groups who have different interests that you have to bring together. And with the shared governance structure of a college,

it does mean that you don’t get to simply dictate things. You really have to work with the board, with faculty, with the administration, with students. All of those groups have different levels of input, depending on the nature of the issue. But, by and large, you seek consensus across a range of different constituencies.

A lot of what I’ve learned in my time at Lafayette has to do with working with those different groups, building relationships among those different groups, and recognizing how many of the issues that you deal with really are rooted in questions of culture, as much as questions of structure. 

Sam: Carleton and Lafayette are similar in many ways, both small liberal arts colleges with strong academic legacies. But they’re also pretty different institutions. Carleton is slightly smaller than Lafayette, in the Midwest, and, aside from Frisbee, we don’t compete at the Division I level. So how will your approach to the presidency differ or stay similar based on the institution?

You know, you’re right. There are some similarities. Lafayette is a place that’s strong in science and engineering. Carleton, of course, has historic strength in science, but tremendous strength in the humanities and arts. And as a humanities person myself, that’s something that, you know, I celebrate and want to see continue to advance at Carleton.

Different profiles in sports make a difference. But having come from a Division III school at Middlebury, Division I is its own thing—but wherever you are, student-athletes take their play very seriously and have things that they want to get out of the experience. So I think the differences between Division I and Division III have to do with budget and structure and scholarships and things like that. But in terms of what students want from the experience of being on a team, it’s not so different from what they want from being in a club or being in another activity. They want friendship, and they want connection. They want to challenge themselves. And so I feel like a lot of those things are very translatable.

You are right about the slightly different scale of the institutions. But one of the things that I see as a deep similarity is both places have a really strong sense of community. They are places that really are passionate about the experience of the school. And I think sometimes that takes the form of self-criticism, where you have to say, “Carleton, you know, here are things we think we could be better at.” But it always comes out of a deep love for the college. And that’s one of the things that I think sets Carleton apart, even from some other top liberal arts colleges. People here aren’t aloof about their experience. They aren’t too sophisticated to care about the school. They really care. Sometimes that care means you have to say, “There are things I wish were different,” but it’s always about making the place better.

Amelia: What are your priorities for Carleton? What’s working best, and what needs to change?

You know, I think it’s funny. The search process is interesting in that it’s a combination of you kind of absorbing from the people in the committee—you know, “What do you think is happening at Carleton? What are you looking for in your leadership?”—and them trying to get from you, you know, “What would you bring to Carleton? What kind of leader would she be?”

So it’s kind of a delicate dance, because you don’t want to kind of step on your predecessor’s feet. You don’t want to get out ahead of what the community is ready for. And so I would not, right now, identify “here are my five priorities in my first hundred days.” I would say I certainly get a sense that people are very attentive to questions of community and how to create a sense of belonging—and how that’s been tested by a lot of the racial injustice in the world, and potentially even on campus. Those are obviously issues that are very much on people’s minds. So I think that there’s room for a lot of learning about what the Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Committee (IDE) is doing and what continued work on the area of inclusivity, diversity and equity would look like. So that’s certainly one area. 

I certainly think coming out of this [pandemic] experience, everyone will be looking at questions of enrollment and finances and the structure of the college and how all those pieces fit together in a sustainable way for the future. Carleton is in strong shape. It has an excellent endowment. It’s in very good shape, but I think higher ed has been rocked a bit by this experience. So I think that that’s an area that we’ll probably look at. And I certainly think there’s room for a lot of exciting discussion of pedagogy, because we’ve all been focused on teaching this year with the process of having to translate a lot of what you’re doing into some remote work.

Whether you’ve switched back and forth, whether you’re doing hybrid, whether you’re still doing remote—faculty at a place like Carleton, who are already fantastic teachers, have learned a lot about different ways of student learning and things that work and don’t work. And I just think it’s an interesting time to pull back the lens a little bit and say, you know, “What’s important in the ways in which we approach the work of the classroom?” And so I think there’ll probably be some interesting discussions in the academic program about what we’ve learned over this process. Because the ways in which you see the challenges of supporting students, the ways in which issues of equity have been sort of foregrounded by the experience, the ways in which it just tells you a lot about how you absorb things, and how it’s hard to absorb things on Zoom—all of that has been kind of a learning experience for faculty, and I’m interested to hear what they’ve learned.

Sam: During your tenure, Lafayette became an inaugural member of the Racial Equity Leadership Alliance, of which Carleton is also a member. So is there any work during your tenure at Lafayette in pursuit of anti-racism and equity that you hope to bring here? And could you lay out some concrete steps that you would be interested in taking at Carleton?

Absolutely. I think every culture and community is so specific. I certainly wouldn’t sort of take what I did at one institution and impose it on another. But I will say, one of the things we did at Lafayette that’s been helpful was ask each division to draw up a diversity plan specific to its division—how would it implement the kinds of things that we’ve been talking about as a college overall. We certainly have been instituting anti-racism training and doing a lot more programming in that area over the last year. When I think about what I hear from students at Lafayette and what I get a sense of from Carleton students, reading a lot of the information that’s online, reading the things on student Instagram accounts, reading things on Overheard at Carleton, reading things from the Ujamaa Collective, you did get that sense of people wanting an acknowledgement of problems, action taken and some accountability for whether the institution has acted. I don’t yet know enough about where we have not done enough at Carleton and where we need to do more, to be able to say, “here are the five things I would do,” but trying to get a sense of what people feel has been behind. What has been identified that everyone agrees should happen, but hasn’t, and what stands in the way of that happening?

I think that sometimes the administration is in a good position just to find those logjams and say, “Here is a policy that doesn’t work. Here’s an issue that we’ve been trying to grapple with, how do you bring all that together?” And so I’m really excited to hear the work of the IDE committee and get a sense of what they’re doing and get a sense from students of what they feel—especially coming out of the COVID world, where none of us have had the level of communication and interaction we’d like. This really will be a time about renewing a sense of community.

Amelia: What excites you most about being Carleton’s president? What makes you most nervous? Not many imagined I could be nervous! So that’s a very smart question because those two absolutely go together. I’m excited at the quality and dedication of the academic program and the focus on the academic mission. Carleton has a very strong sense of mission and a strong sense of what excellence looks like within academic fields. I’m just excited to get to know the different departments and the faculty and getting a sense of how they work and learn—what are some of the areas that they’re excited about? So sort of just digging into learning about the academic program is part of the fun, part of coming to a new institution. And that’s part of what excites me. I have loved working with the students at Lafayette. They’re wonderful students. They have a kind of characteristic as a student body, just as Carleton does. And so getting to know the unique character of Carleton students on a kind of personal level is also a lot of what draws me to the position. And as I said, what I do know of Carleton, I have liked so much.

What makes me nervous is, I think anytime you come into a role like this, there are high expectations, and you don’t want to disappoint people. You want to be able to do the things the institution needs. It requires listening carefully and learning very quickly, you know, what is needed. A lot of what I learned I’ll bring with me, but there’s a lot that is so specific to a community or an institution that you know. There’s a lot that’s very Carleton. That’s very different from what I would have experienced at Middlebury and Lafayette. I love the learning part.

The only anxiety I feel is that I hope I can move quickly enough to jump on board quickly and be able to help bring the community together after a period that, as every institution has found, was really challenging.

Sam: Is there a moment of failure or challenge you’ve experienced in your time as a college president and administrator that has changed your leadership or given you some wisdom?

One of the things that’s interesting about these kinds of roles is that the decisions have such long-term ramifications that often it’s not clear for a long time whether a decision was a good one or a bad one. I would say, more than sort of looking back on decisions, I look back on opportunities to gather input and think, well, here’s a time that if we had asked students, maybe they could have told us they wouldn’t have liked that policy, or, you know, perhaps we consulted with one faculty committee, but not this other one. So when I think of missed opportunities, I think perhaps of times that one could think of another group that should have been spoken with. I think that the greatest challenge, the greatest challenges typically are moments when the community is in turmoil amongst themselves, when either there are conflicts within student groups or whether there are competing factions somehow within the community where people want resolution. You know that your job as president is not to take sides, but to try and bring the community into some kind of balance.

I would say finally, when we think about how challenging this last year has just been—I was thinking in the job search, they often ask you in a job interview about what’s been your biggest challenge. And I said to the presidential search committee, “You got the same answer from all of us this year.” Anybody you talked to this year said this year was the biggest challenge, trying to manage all of the sped-up decision-making and financial challenges of COVID in an environment where all decisions were so attenuated by circumstance and people weren’t having the same kinds of interactions they normally would. Everything was just five times harder. It’s like you’re sort of swimming through molasses just to get to the place you would normally get to. And so it just felt really, really hard to get even normal things done. And then we were having to do a lot of abnormal things like quickly pass legislation about pass/fail, or quickly reconsider grading policies or reconsider our housing policy so as to make it possible to give students rebates. All of those things were very, very difficult. I would say the good thing is that we all learned, and I certainly learned that the one step you can’t skip is consultation. Any time I’ve looked back on something and felt I could have handled it better, it’s not because I didn’t process the information well, it’s that I could have gathered more information that would give you a better sense of how the community might respond.

Sam: Shifting gears perhaps a bit abruptly—as a scholar of Victorian literature and media, is there a particular piece of literature that you find most interesting, or perhaps most pertinent in this moment?

You don’t want a two hour lecture [laughter]. So let me think what would be a short answer to that. A lot of my work has been on Victorian literature and media, things like art and other kinds of representation. That’s very important to the current moment because a lot of my work has been on the question of how you create a sense of place, and even the idea of virtuality and the Victorian period. One of the things that Victorians loved, for example, were things called panoramas, which were these room-sized paintings of actual places where you would go and kind of stand in front of a huge painting of Paris, and then kind of someone would lecture about Paris and you would sort of pretend that you were there.

It was very much about a kind of virtual experience of a place that you’re not at. Much of the ways in which they talk about it are not so different from the way we talk about the weirdness of the virtual life we’ve been living over the last year, where I’m kind of at Carleton talking to people today, but actually I’m here in Easton, PA.

I think there’s a lot about the human experience that’s very translatable from the 19th century to the present. The novels of that period are about people and relationships, a society. There’s nothing more fundamental than that. The authors I study are authors like George Elliot and Charlotte Brontë who really are about the psychology of human relationships. And so I find that all of that is very relevant. Even though the language is old-fashioned and the books are very long and hard to get through for some people, I find that they still speak to our understanding of the challenges of living in society, which was really the topic of all literature of that period.

Amelia: So going off of that, you published a work called Are We There Yet? Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism. With the emergence of the digital humanities as well as Carleton’s increasing institutional focus on this area, how will you leverage your expertise to grow this discipline?

It’s one of the things I like about Carleton, that there has been a real commitment in that area, what’s called digital humanities, which encompasses everything from certain forms of research and ways of using texts digitally, but also kind of study of media and ways in which the experience of media has changed over time.

In a sense, media is about communication. So there’s a real continuity between my interests as a scholar and my interest as an administrator, in that it’s all about how we talk to each other and how people communicate. Leadership is just another form of communication in some sense.

And so I certainly think that Carleton is in a very good position to be strong in the digital humanities. There are people in the English Department and History Department, as I’m sure you know, Sam, who are doing very good work in that area right now. I think that that’s one of the ways to bring the interdisciplinary character of the college forward. Sometimes it’s easy for people to talk about, as I did it myself earlier, the sciences versus the humanities and the arts. They aren’t separate disciplines anymore. There’s a lot of cross-currents, you know. Scientists need to be able to write and understand imagery. Literary scholars and art scholars need to be able to understand data. There are a lot of ways in which those fields are growing closer together. So I think digital humanities is a great way of—it’s not the only way for the humanities to stay relevant, contrary to what some believe, but it is one of the ways in which the humanities can move forward. And it’s also a way that engages students often very deeply, because some humanities research is very solitary. The books that I’ve written, I wrote by myself, sitting in a library. With digital humanities, you’re in a lab working with people and you’re processing things collectively and talking about them. That collaboration actually can be very exciting in the humanities. 

Sam: Many liberal arts colleges, as you mentioned, are facing pretty severe financial difficulties and difficulties that precede the pandemic, but certainly have also been exacerbated by it. What is the future of the residential liberal arts college?

A lot of people are thinking about that question now. At the beginning of this crisis, there was a fear that it would undermine residential education because people thought: well, gosh, if you can send students home and they can just take the computers and study from there, why would you build these big, expensive campuses for them? You know, isn’t that the wave of the future?

And I think what we heard pretty resoundingly from students is, they really would prefer it to be learning in groups and having that communal experience. Most people did not prefer staying at home in their bedrooms, you know, taking classes online—by and large, exceptions on all sides.

But that was the gist of what I think most of us heard from students. It reminds you of the deeply social nature of learning and the deeply communal nature of education. In some ways, residential liberal arts colleges could come out real winners from this situation, because it reminds people why the experience of taking some online courses from a state university is actually not the same as living in Carleton, you know, being in clubs, being in activities, seeing your friends, working together on the newspaper. Those are fundamental parts of your Carleton experience as much as majoring in history or physics.

That integrated kind of holistic experience, the way in which it all comes together, is what the best liberal arts colleges do extremely well. I think that it’ll help us build the case in the future for why these admittedly expensive environments are worth it.

You have to come up with a structure that ensures adequate financial aid to make it possible for a range of students to come. But the answer is not to diminish the experience. You know, the experience itself is incredibly worthwhile. The answer is to come up with financial models that include fundraising, that include efficiency, that include philanthropy in order to make it possible for all students to have either the benefits of that kind of education.

Amelia: So a sort of fun question now. We’ve heard that you participated in a variety of fun escapades to support fundraising campaigns [at Lafayette], like cannonballing into the pool and lip syncing to Hamilton.

Oh gosh. Very good research. 

Amelia: Would you plan to carry this approach forward to Carleton?

If people wanted, I would absolutely be open to it. I don’t want to suggest that something I did at Lafayette has to work at Carleton. But I love doing fun things with members of the community. I liked not only the things that I did myself personally, but all of them involve faculty and students and staff as well. Our last year’s challenge, for example, was like a kind of Hollywood Squares thing where we had a bunch of faculty answering kind of Jeopardy-type questions on a stage and battling each other in various ways. It was as much fun to pull people together to do that as it was to do it myself.

I think the message of those from a fundraising perspective was just to show how committed I was to that goal, that if you’re willing to kind of embarrass yourself and do something ridiculous, it’s sort of saying, “This is so important. I don’t mind looking ridiculous if it gets your attention and gets you to write a check.”

So if that kind of message is helpful, I’m always happy to deliver, and always happy to support student fundraisers too. I’m happy to be a celebrity judge for a karaoke contest. I’m happy to participate in whatever “-athon” where you have to ride a bike for three hours in the gym in order to raise money. Anything like that, that brings people together, is something that I think is one of the ways in which you can kind of step out of the president’s role and get into the mix a little bit. And that’s one of the things I really enjoy. You feel very separate at times as president, and I really look forward to opportunities to get into the mix of it. 

Sam: Now our current president, Steven Poskanzer, goes by the nickname “Stevie P,” that he actually brought from when he was president SUNY New Paltz. So do you have any nickname preferences? 

Oh gosh. You know, I’d hate to think you just translate it. I will admit the Lafayette students do call me “Allie B.” So there must be like, is this a thing among students? Like, we all have to have a ludicrous rap-star-type name that emphasizes how out of it we are. But, I would be open to whatever people come up with. They’ll have to decide what my name lends itself to. I did not know that Stevie P brought that with him from SUNY New Paltz. That’s very funny.

Sam: I imagine being a college president is a pretty hard job with a lot of stress. What are the things you do to maintain a work-life balance and to have fun and relax?

It goes without saying that exercise is important. I’m a runner, so I like to go for runs. And I do, you know, other kinds of exercise. I don’t know if you’d call that fun, but I put on music that I enjoy, and I enjoy that. My family really likes hiking and skiing.

As everyone recognized, even during the pandemic, the one safe thing you could do is go outside. So we went on even more hikes than we otherwise might have. I would say a lot of birdwatching. We’re big birders.

Music is a deep love for everyone in our family. We’ve listened to all kinds of music. I play the flute. Lots of reading and lots of catching up on stuff on Netflix and, you know, getting into the middle of season four of something and saying, “I can’t believe I have two more seasons!”

Sam: Well it seems like you will be excited to explore the Arb!

It’s funny, when I left Middlebury, which actually also has a cross country trail around campus—because Middlebury has a golf course and then runs a cross country trail around it—I thought, “I’m never again going to live on a campus that has its own cross country ski trails.” So I have now achieved that goal. I have gotten back to a campus where I can actually cross country ski on campus. I’m really excited for that. 

Amelia: To close, is there anything else that you’d like the Carleton community to know?

I would want people to know that I wish that I could be on campus when [my selection] is announced and actually meet people. I am so looking forward to actually seeing people in person, when I arrive. It’s a strange thing to go through this process and have it be mostly virtual. I hope that when I get there, we can make up for lost time.

Carletonian Editor-in-Chief Amelia Broman and Editor-in-Chief Emeritus Sam Kwait-Spitzer interviewed incoming president Alison Byerly via Zoom on Monday, May 10.

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