What Deans Do: Sitting Down with Spencer Carter
Dean of Men
Interviewed by Scott Moncrieff
I don't ever remember hearing a kid say, “When I grow up I want to be a dean.” How did you come into this line of work?
I went to school here at Andrews and I had a good experience. I did my Master’s in Counseling. I was working in St. Joseph with teenagers, as the program coordinator at the Link Crisis Intervention Center. I did that for nine years and then I started doing more independent counseling for the Department of Human Services. So I was self-employed for about four or five years, and I started to feel like I wanted to belong somewhere. They would send me cases and I would go to the homes and see people, but I felt like I really didn't belong. I always had a sense, somewhere in the back of my mind, that some day I might go back to Andrews. So when (Dean) Dave Knight was leaving, I started getting calls saying, “You should apply to Andrews. You should apply for that job.” One of my mentors and close friends, (former English professor) Joseph Warren, said, “Spencer, you need to go do that.” Newton Hoilette (then Vice President of Student Life) expressed some interest. Frances Faehner knew who I was. There were so many people saying “that might be something you want to do,” and I didn't want to be disobedient, so I said, “Lord, maybe I’ll look into it.” That was in August of 1993 and 23 years later here I am. I got to work with Don Murray, the “Dean of Deans,” for ten years. Being a social worker, I was accustomed to being in a helping profession, and a lot of those skills transferred to deaning. Then, in 2009, I got to be head dean. I’ve had great colleagues. It’s been good.
What social worker skills transfer to deaning?
Well, definitely the counseling skills. You sit with people and you build a relationship of trust, build their confidence where they feel this is a person I can talk to, someone who would listen. We do a lot of crisis management—as the years go by more so than when I first started. When I came here, my parents took me to LaGuardia Airport and said, “We'll see you in four years.” But today, parents are more hands-on, more involved. And you work with problem solving. Social workers help people to find resources that can aide in their success and we do a lot of that.
You've been a dean for a long time. How do you avoid burnout?
I'm really big on balance. My staff and co-workers will tell you I'm a great promoter of self-care and keeping balance. I jog. And a blessing for me is that I still function in two worlds. I still do social work, so I'm still involved in the local community. My two careers really balance each other. And my role over these 23 years has changed. Ten years ago, I did a lot more with being creative with programming and planning. But now I allow my co-workers to do a lot of that, and my role is really to support them. It's exciting to see Dean (Donnie) Keele and Dean (James) Price have ideas and I'll say “Yeah, let's run with that.” And because of the chance to interact with young people.
I've heard we have a big convention for deans coming to Andrews at the end of March.
It's called ASPA, Adventist Student Personnel Association. The convention has residence life staff from all over the country and even overseas. Our Andrews Dean, Dean Iwasa, is the president of the Association this year. It starts on Sunday and it runs until Wednesday evening. It's a chance to meet colleagues from across the nation, to get recharged, to talk about what best practices are you doing on your campus. We learn from each other.
What is a typical day on the job for a dean like?
There's no such thing as a typical day. I could be here this afternoon and do some paperwork, or just have some downtime in terms of nothing major going on. A big part of deaning is the mental responsibility. When you're on duty you’re the point person who is responsible for “X” number of people. We have about 350 people living in Meijer Hall, and if any of one of those guys has an issue or a crisis, I'm the person who gets called. When you're on duty you just know that you can expect anything. Last semester I got a call from a student dean at about 6:30 p.m. on a Friday evening: “Dean, there's been a car accident,” and I told my wife, “I'll see you later on tonight” because I knew what that meant. On this occasion, we had four kids that were in a car and I was in St. Joseph Regional (Medical Center) for most of that evening. One of the guys had to go to emergency care, so I had to find out family contacts and make those calls, and make sure he had insurance and all that kind of stuff. So a “typical” day? You could have meetings, or people could stop by. A guy might come by this afternoon and want to talk. It could be his spiritual life, his social life, stressing about school. You never know, but you’re available, and that’s one of the things that makes it exciting. No two days are the same.
Andrews University probably has a more diverse population than the places where a lot of our students come from. What do you do as a staff to help students learn how to thrive in a multicultural environment?
It starts with our staff, our resident advisor team, and our student deans. From day one we really promote community-building. We define and share expectations about what it means to live in Meier Hall. Meier Hall is a place where people have mutual respect. This year our theme is “Together.” So we promote the idea of what it means to be together. We're looking out for each other, we're willing to help each other, we're willing to show care and concern, mutual respect. It doesn't matter where someone's from. That's one of the things I'm really proud about and thankful for, that we have a diverse population from all over the world who really coexist quite well. In all my years, I can only recall four or five physical fights, where guys were going after each other. It's been a blessing that people co-exist as well as they do. And especially in this old building where noise travels. That can be a big complaint. “Man, those guys are so noisy,” and all that. We encourage students to address that kind of situation in a way that is not confrontational or hostile. We promote community building. Because you are a Meier Hall man, you'll be a good neighbor. You're also your brother's keeper. We've been blessed to have a strong RA team every year. The best of the best, I call them.
What’s the best thing about being a dean?
When a student graduates and later you get a call or a text or an email that says, “Dean, I got that job,” or “Man, I'm getting married,” or “The stuff that we talked about, man, it's making a difference.” We encourage our guys to be men of integrity. So when somebody responds back that “Being there with you was a blessing for me, and I'm embracing some of the stuff you talked about,” that's the reward that's priceless. Or to see a freshman, and by the time that guy gets to be a junior or a senior, to see the growth and the maturity, you can't put a price on that, that's exciting. That never gets old.
How do you help the guys with learning how to interact appropriately and effectively with the women on campus?
When you figure that out, you let me know. You'd be amazed at how many guys come through here that just don't have the confidence to believe that they can form relationships with women. Or they're afraid that if they extend themselves to form a relationship she might want to get married. Get married? You're just trying to be friendly. I tell students I have friends that we've been friends for 45 years, and the friendship started in college. These guys will spend time talking about girls, looking at them on Facebook, or they'll spend time texting each other. Social media has its drawbacks. I say, “Hey, why don't you just go and introduce yourself?” And they'll say, “Oh, I could never do that.” That's what we did when I was a student. I’d go to Lamson Hall and call someone and say, “Hey, I'm Spencer Carter, I saw you in the CAST...” “Oh, that would be like stalking,” they tell me. They have all these excuses. That's one of my main concerns. I see a lack of social confidence.
Do you think that's because students today are interacting more through social media instead of face-to-face?
think so, to some extent. Take our lobby. This was a place five or season years ago that was always full of people. They socialized and played games. Now the lobby is like a ghost town. And when we do have people in the lobby it's in small clusters, and everybody's on their laptop, or they're on their phone. You don't see the congregating; you don't see the socializing that I saw years ago.
What does the deaning staff do to try and have a positive spiritual influence on the residents?
We have our corporate programming, with co-curricular programming. Some of that is across campus, and some of that is in house. Apart from that, the RAs do ministry and their service with the guys. As deans, we seek opportunities to build those one-on-one relationships, to interact with our guys and to encourage them spiritually. It's a challenge to find a balance, because you don't want every time a guy stops by to be pushing religion. It’s better when they’re asking. That way there's going to be some sense of ownership.
What are you doing to keep your personal spiritual life alive these days?
I'm very active in my local church, Niles Philadelphia. Personal devotional time. A lot of prayer. Most people like to get up early in the morning, and do their personal devotions. That doesn't work for me. I get up and do my stretching and then I like to go run. I like an hour in the mid-afternoon. I'm wide awake, and I can just have an hour to do some personal reflection, and that's when I do some spiritual reading. I've been blessed to have a network of friends that are intentional about their spiritual lives. I'm an elder at my local church. Being on the elders team is one of the things that nurtures me; I'm very active in prayer meetings; bi-weekly meetings with my co-workers, Dean Price and Dean Keele. That's a very intentional spiritual and social support and accountability, and it makes a difference.