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Karen Kenney says goodbye to Cal
An accidental dean reflects on two decades of the surreal and the sublime in Student Life

22 September 2005


Karen Kenney (Peg Skorpinski photo)

After more than 25 years on campus, Dean of Students Karen Kenney leaves Berkeley this week to become director of Girls Inc. of the Island City, in Alameda, where she lives and grew up. Kenney first came to campus in 1978 as a doctoral student, "stopping out" after two years to take a job in Recreational Sports, where she headed the adult sports program now known as CalFit. After seven years there, she became "temporary" manager of student-group advising in the Office of Student Activities and Services. "I was only going to be here a year," she recalls. Instead, she discovered that she loved "the larger arena of student life - it combined everything I love to do: education, working with students, program development. I never left." Taking on progressively more responsibility, Kenney became director of Student Activities and Services (later renamed the Office of Student Life) in 1990 and acquired her Dean of Students title in 2000. Berkeleyan writer Cathy Cockrell interviewed Kenney recently about her years at Berkeley.

Your job includes high-profile activities plus many "other duties as required." What might a day in the life of the dean of students include?
The very public part of the job is to be the main conduit between students and the administration, advocating on students' behalf. Another public part is the "mean dean" role, being responsible for the Office of Student Judicial Affairs. And then, of course, I'm also a manager.

Less visible is the health and human service aspect - helping individual students when they're in need. I became director of Student Activities and Services in 1990, the same year that we had three extremely tragic events. The first was the hostage situation [in which a gunman took 33 people hostage in Henry's Pub in the Durant Hotel]. One student was shot and killed and at least 10 students were injured. That same year we also had a fire in a fraternity where we lost three students, and an accidental death in another fraternity.

That was in one year. And then there were years when we had very visible public-health and human- service responsibilities - like finding housing for students displaced by the Oakland Hills fire or responding to a student's death. When a student dies, I am the first person to talk to the family and to identify needs of the friends - everything from planning campus memorials to getting their clothes from Recreational Sports. That's the part of the job that most people don't see and don't know about.

I'm sure there's a book in there somewhere.
I joke that someday I'm going to write a book about "what I never thought I'd do in student affairs." Perhaps it will be one of those books that you flip - on one side will be some of the funny things, and on the other side the more serious. I've mentioned some of those. On the other side of the coin, there are lots of fun stories. I was involved with writing the one-paragraph "naked policy" at the time [in the mid- to late '90s] when we were dealing with [a student known as] the "naked guy." There were all these highly paid people in a room for hours and hours - I was the lowest person on the totem pole, at that time -debating what it meant to be naked, whether it was a health issue having someone in the classroom naked, sitting on a seat, all those things. It ended up being this teeny, maybe five-line paragraph. It was crazy!

Also on the fun side, I never imagined I'd be in a job where - many times, not just once - we would be involved in a serious search for the stolen Stanford tree, right before the Big Game.Trying to figure out where it might be, then being involved in the ceremony of returning the tree. I never thought I'd be in a job where I'd be tracking down a tree costume.

Is there a day that stands out as the worst day of your time here? And the best?
Besides the Henry's event, which was surreal, I'll mention one other, because it really stands out: having the parents of a student who committed suicide off Evans Hall come to a campus memorial, and then ask to see the place where their son had died. It was hard, but I did it.

The really, really good days are when you have had an incredible moment with a student, where they have sort of an "Aha!" moment based on a discussion you had with them. You had a really profound conversation and you know that for them - and for you - it's going to change the way they think about the world. And I've had that conversely; that's what I love about this position. I've sat and debated things with students or really deeply explored an area, and I've had a major learning experience.

Can you remember such an occasion - an "Aha!" moment for you?
For me it's often been around gaining a deeper understanding of someone else's point of view politically, particularly with conservative students, because I'm very liberal. Listening and understanding their point of view - and almost always walking away with tremendous personal respect for the student, and vice versa. And then there's the work we've done with groups that have different points of view - one example being Jewish and Palestinian students - helping them put on events where both points of view could be heard, or facilitating those events.

What are you most proud of during your years here?
I'm proud of the work I did with ASUC - being the main liaison between the administration and student government for almost two decades. When I first was the chancellor's representative to the ASUC Senate, about 19 years ago, the student government and the administration were not on speaking terms. They had me come in as an unknown; I was told, "Your role is to rebuild lines of communication." I'm proud of that work, and of having had the opportunity to work with so many outstanding leaders.

And I'm very proud of work done on behalf of underserved students - and I use that term broadly. Proud that I was bold; there were many times I gave voice to students' concerns. When there were articles in the Daily Cal that were racist, standing up and saying they were racist [in an op-ed article]..Or when Fred Phelps came to talk about his views that LGBT individuals are evil, standing side by side with those students. I'm proud that I had the courage to do that - but it's not even about courage, it's the right thing.

I'm also really proud of work our staff has done, and that I have done with the staff to afford them opportunities to grow professionally.. A number of people on staff have completed AA degrees, bachelor's, and even law degrees while working here.

Is there anything that, in hindsight, you wish you'd done differently?
The regret would be that at some times I put more of my energy toward the political nonsense that exists in a large bureaucracy and instead didn't take that energy and redirect it fully to serving students.

You've worked closely with Berkeley undergrads for many years. How do you think they've changed?
What I've seen in the last five or ten years is that as we've become a more highly selective institution, many students are more focused on the outcome than on the process of education. It's so hard to get admitted here, and those who do get in have been through a whole systematized process of getting themselves ready to compete for Berkeley. Many of those students continue that approach once here. Of course, there are still many students who explore the full opportunities, take advantage of learning in every possible way. But we also have many students now who are more focused on the end process - getting good grades, a degree, the highest degree - than on the process itself, which is equally important.

Another observation is that, for probably my first 10 years in this office, the main voice that was amplified on campus was the liberal voice. And in the last 10 years, much like nationally, the conservative voice has come forward more..Nineteen years ago you didn't even know that there were Berkeley College Republicans on campus - and now they're one of the largest and most visible groups.

We also see much more parental involvement - as the students are coming up but also, in the last five years especially, while they're here.

Is that a positive or negative development, from your point of view?
I think it's unfortunate. It can be good in the sense that students may feel that they can turn to their parents more. But on the other side of the coin, we've seen more and more parents wanting to be directly involved in solving their student's problems, running interference with the institution, so that students don't get the experience of having to work through issues themselves, or really developing their critical thinking skills.

On your watch the Office of Student Life changed its mission statement, adding the goal of creating an environment "that empowers students to foster diversity and work toward social justice." Why was that important to add, and how have students given it life?
The staff and I have worked together to foster diversity of opinion and approach..I believe in having students really help to make social change. And we don't all agree on this: Usually "social change" is associated with liberal ideologies; you go out and serve an underserved community, or you go out and help the environment. What I've always said is that what's central to our role is also supporting those students who think that social change is going out and making sure that women don't have abortions. While I may disagree with that viewpoint, I feel it's important for this organization to support those students in carrying out their activities - advising them how to put on their symposium or how they might be involved in activism.

Your staff now helps with "protest support." Certainly that's a shift from when you first landed in this office.
For my first five years in this department, a large chunk of our time was spent on protests. We called it "protest management," which is an oxymoron in itself. We were out literally daily, at least four times a week, working with students who were protesting something and being the go-between between the protesters and the police and the administration.

So you felt that role was unfruitful?
No, it was extremely helpful; we were able to help keep communication open. But we've shifted our philosophy from trying to "manage protests" and keep them from evolving in certain ways, to supporting activists in being able to go out and engage in their activities - even if that might be sitting in California Hall or blocking Sather Gate.

You've been lampooned - in the Daily Cal and other student publications. Are you a person who follows what's being said about you?
I read student blogs - not to find out what's being said about me, but when I know that something hot is going on, and I want to see what students are thinking. In doing that there have been times when I wasn't looking to see what people are saying about me, but there I was.

Any memorable ones you care to share?
I've always said that two things would have to happen for me to know that I'd "arrived" as dean. One would be hearing a protest chant with my name in it, or being effigized in a demonstration. That's happened; my name has been used in at least one chant that I know of. The other sign that I've arrived, I've joked, would be someone calling me Dean Wormer.

From Animal House?
That's right. And last year, when the alcohol moratorium went into effect, the Oakland Tribune had a headline, "Cal's dean no Dean Wormer." It was a complimentary editorial, saying that we actually took alcohol abuse quite seriously.

So I've arrived. But, seriously, reading some of those blogs is a hard part of this position. It's hard to hear the criticism. They don't tread lightly; it's very personalized.

There probably won't be bloggers at Girls Inc. What else are you looking forward to there?
I feel really fortunate to have spent the largest part of my adult life and career here at Cal; this is like leaving home. But at the same time I'm really looking forward to going to a smaller organization where I can be more involved in direct service.in a small environment and in my own community. I also look forward to being able to be a lot more present for my daughter, who is nine, and my husband and my extended family. Girls Inc. is a wonderful organization; it's mostly about empowerment of middle-school girls - leadership training, media literacy, and the like. I love middle school. I taught in middle school two years, and I believe that's the age where you can really make a difference in what girls do for the rest of their lives.

One of your last feminist ventures, I remember, was performing in a campus production of The Vagina Monologues.
That's something I'll never forget! I did it two years in a row. It was so incredible - standing side by side with students, and women in particular, and supporting them around issues that are very important to me and to the students and staff who were in the play. It was really fun.

And to be a dean up there talking about vaginas?
Yes, I had a little bit of trepidation about that. But the thing that was really important - and I hope was a hallmark of my career - was that to the women in that production it was important to have the dean of students, an administrator, come out and spend that time with them. I think that we, as administrators, should always be doing that.