Shannon Mathews, dean of the University of La Verne College of Arts and Sciences, started her new position on Jan. 4, becoming the first woman of color named to the permanent dean position for the College.
Mathews, who most recently served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Savannah State University, said that she has held almost every position a faculty member could have, from adjunct faculty member to dean.
She has a background in gerontology and medical anthropology, with interest in how people develop across the course of their lives particularly in populations of color, Latinx and African-American communities.
Mathews received her bachelor of arts degree in anthropology from Pomona College. She went on to receive her master of art in medical anthropology and her doctorate in gerontology from the University of Kentucky, Lexington.
Mathews said that she looks at her varied experiences holistically, which will drive her work as the University of La Verne’s new dean. She elaborated on her hopes for the position and the College in a recent interview with Campus Times Managing Editor David Gonzalez via Zoom. (This interview has been edited for length.)
David Gonzalez: How will you use your past experiences to guide your work at ULV?
Shannon Mathews: When you come up the ranks starting as part-time, you want to make sure that you’re engaging with part-time and full-time faculty, junior faculty and senior faculty. So I think about each level what people are tasked to do. It’s important for me that I came up through the ranks, because I have a better understanding of where they might need more support.
Same things for students. Having been first generation, I think about what students of color’s experiences might be, where there might be some opportunities for us to mentor, to influence growth – not just in the classroom, but outside of the classroom. Mentoring was very central to my experience and development at every stage, so I think about that for our students all the time.
I come from backgrounds that tend to be communal, so collaboration is always going to be high on my radar. I think holistically about my experience, and I try to really use that for every population – students, staff, faculty.
DG: How does being the first woman of color named permanent dean of the College of Arts and Sciences make you feel?
SM: It piques my interest. As an institution committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, that sends a powerful message: “The first permanent woman.” So it makes me think – just as a first-generation student – I have carried my family with me, and I had to represent them. Every accomplishment I made was shared with them because they sacrificed, they opened up opportunities for me, even though some of them had never been to college.
When you’re the first, I think you have to remember what that means in the weight of responsibility. It means I had to do well because they sacrificed so much on my behalf. As a woman in leadership, I think the same thing. What about the women who were in the role of interim dean? They did some work, but it was temporary. Or the women who were overlooked, who could have been the first. I have a responsibility to do a good enough job that I won’t be the last. And to do a good enough job that we’re moving the needle in the right direction. It makes me want to be a very good leader, and to remember even in the days I’m frustrated, there is good work to be done because somebody had enough confidence to think I could be the first.
DG: What challenges have you faced during the pandemic since you started the position?
SM: I came from an institution that was doing hybrid classes, and coming here is a bit different because we’re fully remote right now, so I could sigh a little bit, because I know what it means to have to put in place all the protocols needed to bring students back to campus.
I think the real challenge when you’re coming in new, whether the campus is in crisis or abundance, is to figure out what are the structures and practices and policies. There is a lot of information to sift through. That was my first month really focusing on where we are: Where are we with COVID strategies, and where are we in the culture and climate.
After some data collecting, the real challenges are how do we create engaging interactive productive experiences in regards to learning. That’s always our job. It’s not just about content learning, it’s about really developing critical thinkers and scholars, who will be leaders in their communities. In a remote environment, we have to be intentional, and you can’t do that using your usual strategies.
DG: In what ways do you hope to help students navigate college through the pandemic?
SM: I think one of the things is to remind students of their own resilience. Students have been extremely resilient in this time. Students who were nervous about being online had to take that on. Students who maybe were nervous about their economic circumstances have had to figure out a way to still get through financially, either taking up another job looking for a job because they lost one, or they needed to change their hours to support their family.
It’s really important for us to remind them that they are innovative, they’re strong and they’re capable. And now we have to take that into the classroom and encourage them. Tell them, “You have resilience, you have skill sets and can use those skill sets to really attack this learning environment.” I think that’s a way to help students tap into in a new way to succeed.
Here’s an example: Math and statistics are areas that are not always the best for students. Those are challenging subjects, especially if you’re first generation and you didn’t come from a school that had a lot of resources. These could be areas that could be really intimidating. So for students I’ve worked with in the past I’ve always said well what kind of experiences have you had, what kind of skills do you have? And on the first day of statistics, we write down their strengths, we write down their experiences, and then I get that information and I take that and use examples that are tailored to their experiences so we can talk about statistics in a context that’s a little bit disarming, that’s a little less intimidating. My hope is that working in collaboration with faculty, we find ways to make this environment that’s not a norm less intimidating and still cultivate experiences that are fruitful for the students.
DG: What advice do you have to students as they complete courses online?
SM: My two oldest sons are in college now, and so one piece of advice has been to take a deep breath. You won’t have all the answers at graduation. Think about all you’ve learned, think about what skills you have that you can leverage on your own. Are there projects that expand your skill set to just give you practice in your skills you’ve learned while you’re looking for a job? You want to find ways to tap into things you’ve learned, but make it enjoyable. Because all work and no play, it’s not fruitful for a healthy mind.You want to cultivate your whole mind. So that’s some advice – that you don’t have to have all the answers, but figure out ways to access your talents and skills and connect those talents and skills to some fun. Life has to be meaningful and it should be fun even in COVID.
The other advice I would give is to really think about where you have found mentors. Maybe it’s just that one faculty member that encouraged you to try harder in something. Maybe it’s that one person in student affairs that opened your eyes to an opportunity, whether that’s an internship or learning. And if that mentor has helped you expand your skill set and experience, don’t forget them. When I was at Pomona College, my first year was very intimidating. I’d done well in high school, and I think I was prepared as best I could, but I was intimidated by the overall experience and the fact that others had more resources than I did coming in. But it was the registrar that said, “Hey find classes that you enjoy.” I came in pre-med and I was struggling to keep up with that rigor. And she asked what are you doing that’s just an enjoyable subject you want to explore. I hadn’t really thought about that. Her talking to me about why that was important really opened my eyes. The more we can explore interests, the more we begin to see connections in different kinds of places. That’s critical thinking.
DG: How will you address issues of racism within the college and make students’ voices and concerns heard?
SM: So I think one of the things we have to do as a collective community is be very intentional about our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. That doesn’t just include racial differences, that includes all kinds of -isms and differences. And I think that the way we can begin to do that is to give people tools and to collectively keep each other accountable.
So I’ll give you an example: I was talking with a chair recently and they made a comment about something not being black and white, and I said in the context of the conversation that I just want to point out to you that that statement alone could be a microaggression and he looked at me. I said I wasn’t offended by it, but as a person of color it could be offensive, and I just want to point out that sometimes things are Black and White. And so it opened up an opportunity for us to have a dialogue. But if I hadn’t pointed it out, then I wouldn’t have helped him be a bit more intentional. So my advocacy is to help us as a collective community get in an environment where we can help each other be more accountable, but also where we can have tools and skills.
The other thing, If you’re going to point out to people where microaggressions happen, when those incidents happen, what we do after also becomes really important. How do we take that and create a positive by saying, “Hey we can do better”?
We can do better in the classroom and out of the classroom. So I’ve said to chairs we’ll have to think about how we broaden the experiences in the classroom.
Here’s a simple way to do that: Maybe at the beginning of your class you just ask your students, have you read anything new lately? Have you heard of any new authors of color or authors who are women or differently gendered, or authors who are writing about sexual identity? Ask their input. Ask for suggestions. And by asking them I let them know I want to be more inclusive. It’s a simple strategy.
DG: What does the University’s pandemic-related budget crunch mean for the College of Arts and Sciences?
SM: So budget cuts right now are happening across higher ed in general, it’s not just here. It’s both public and private colleges all over. When COVID hit there were some early on discussions with national associations that do fiscal resources and financial management of colleges.They talked about very early on were colleges who would thrive and those who would be gone by the end of the COVID era.
Fiscal issues are on the radar for all campuses, so it’s not a surprise to see budget cuts. With that said, what we would encourage in the college is we find ways to be strategic and be transparent and intentional about how we go about those cuts. What I mean by that is, you think about what is the strategic plan asking us, what are our priorities with student learning? And then we try to balance those against the cuts that have to happen.
Now some cuts happen above me, but where those opportunities exist, I will try to advocate for what the College needs. Where the opportunities don’t exist, we will try to mitigate some of the cuts we incur. And we do that by working with chairs, program heads and program leads to ask: ‘what does your program need? And those needs are driven by what the students need. And then we try to figure out the best way to deploy the limited resources to meet the needs of the departments, the programs and the students.
We’re here to develop, train and grow programs and develop students, and so student success has to always be on our radar when we’re thinking about where the cuts are happening and how we respond.
Another thing that budget cuts do – at any institution – is hurt morale. It hurts student morale because they are nervous about whether we will have the resources they need in their major. It hurts staff morale because they’re incurring cuts and they don’t have enough colleagues to do all the things they need to do. So a second part about budget cuts is addressing the climate: You want people to still remember that there’s hope. Right now it may not feel like it, because of COVID, but here’s what we can do in the interim.
DG: How do you mitigate damage to student morale while the University is going through budget cuts?
SM: You have to be realistic: Here’s the state we’re in. And so I’ve done that, and when I met with the student representatives, I said the same thing. Here’s what’s going on, we’re in COVID, we’re having cuts. We’ve had changes on campus that people are still adjusting to. We know all of that, so let’s be truthful. That’s not easy. It’s hard, it’s uncomfortable. But despite all of that what are some of the wins we’ve had? What are some of the things that we have been able to really do well? I think you have to balance that with reminding people where we’ve had some wins.
I’ll give you examples: We had a commencement, with student speakers in the college: one graduate student is going to be a PA in the community – that’s a win; the undergraduate is going on to do a Congressional internship – that’s a win! Despite having limited resources in their programs, they were still working with faculty, who were able to encourage them and to create fruitful experiences to help them move along. Those are wins we want to magnify and capitalize on. So we remind students, we’ve had cuts in some programs, I get you may be frustrated. A lot of you have shown resilience. You have progressed and you haven’t stopped. So we have to highlight those wins just as much as the cuts. The wins start to move us in the right direction.
DG: What message do you have for the University as a whole?
SM: I’m happy to be joining the team! I knew there were some challenges. I knew governance was an issue. I knew there were some student issues in regard to diversity, equity and inclusion. But those didn’t scare me away because I experienced some of those as a first generation student. I experienced some of the things students have experienced. I even experience them now as a Black woman in leadership, I experience some of that now. And so the challenges don’t make me nervous. Because what I’ve learned as a leader is that if we as a community come together and collaborate and be more intentional about what we want the University to look like, we can get there. We can have better experiences that are diverse, equitable and inclusive. We can have shared governance that is about participation and respect of roles and about communicating information. We can do that. It’s going to take some work to do it, but that work doesn’t scare me either. To be a good leader it has to be about doing good work, and doing good work requires you to collaborate with others. That is what attracted me to higher ed. We will continue to look for little wins together. We will achieve them and together we will move the needle in the right direction.
David Gonzalez can be reached at email@example.com.