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Before Leaving Administration, Katy Smith Abbott Looks Back

Middlebury College

By NICK GARBER and ELIZABETH SAWYER

President Laurie L. Patton announced in August that Katy Smith Abbott, vice president for student affairs and dean of the college, would step down from her position at the end of December to return full-time to her faculty position in the art history department.

Her resignation will bring an end to her long tenure in student life administration, which began in 2002 when she and her husband, Steve Abbott, were named co-heads of Ross Commons.

On Monday, Smith Abbott sat down with Elizabeth Sawyer and Nick Garber and discussed her work in the administration, the challenges she has faced, and why student life work has remained her central focus.

Middlebury Campus (MC): You attended many years of school, studying and learning how to teach art history. What compelled you to give that up, at least in part, to do administrative work? Did it feel like a sacrifice?

Katy Smith Abbott (KSA): When I first stepped into student life work, it was 2002, and I was teaching art history part-time at the college. My husband had just come through the tenure process a few years before that, and we were asked to serve as the heads of Ross Commons. That was the first step, toeing the water of student life work. And we believed in the commons system. We were people who always had students over for dinner anyway. So when Tim Spears, who was in something like [my current] role at the time, asked us if we would consider it, first we said, “You’ve got to be crazy!” Our children were like two and four at the time, we were like, “No way are we doing that publicly.”

And then we thought about it and we said actually, it totally aligns with what we believe in, in terms of boundary crossing, in terms of blurring the boundaries between the classroom and intellectual life outside the classroom. That was the first step in. At that point it really felt like a complement to teaching, not as consuming as [my current] work.

We did that for six years, and then Tim [Spears] again asked if I would take on another administrative role, that was called associate dean of the college. And then from that I moved into being dean of students. I had a sabbatical before becoming dean of students, and while I was away in England on that sabbatical, Shirley Collado, who was the dean of the college at the time, called and said would you come back as dean of students.

So I guess it’s a long rambling way of saying it’s been incremental. And the real answer to what would have compelled me to do it, the first step, was the commons head role. It felt like such a wonderful complement to the way Steve and I were already thinking about teaching and the way we loved being with students. And when we stepped into that, we looked at each other and went, “This is going to be the end of our innocence as faculty members. We know we’re getting closer in to students’ experience outside of the classroom in all the glory and all the grit,” and we said okay, are we ready for this?

And it was true. When you’re really engaging students and are present for students in whatever experiences they’re having, you’re not just sitting with the beautiful minds in the classroom and engaging at that level. It felt important, and teaching is of course tremendously important. But it just felt like a different way to connect. It felt like a different way to commit to this thing that I really believed in, which was thinking of students as whole people. They bring their whole selves to the college experience and I wanted to be part of that.

MC: Despite the connections you’ve cultivated with students, is there anything about the role of an administrator that automatically puts you at a distance from the perspective of students?

KSA: I think a couple things are true. I’ll first tell you a story. When my son, who’s now a junior in college, was on the college tour circuit, I went with him on the Minnesota trip, and we were on the Macalester [College] tour in a blinding snow storm. And they did this brilliant thing there, where they made the family members, mostly parents, go on one tour and the students went on a different tour, so you couldn’t humiliate your kid by asking almost gunner questions like I wanted to ask.

So I went off with my tour guide, and of course I was the first one in line, and I said, “I would love to start with the question, ‘What do you love most about Macalester?’ ” and she did not hesitate, and she said, “I love the close working relationship students have with the administration.” And I thought I was going to fall over — I was so fascinated by that. And it was completely authentic. That’s not an answer you’re going to just come up with as a student, right?

Maybe that’s not what I need Middlebury students to say is their favorite thing about Middlebury, but I thought, “How do we get closer to that? What would that look like?” I’ve sort of been haunted by it for the past three years. I haven’t followed up with colleagues there about what makes that magic, but it must have something to do with a determined approach, a conscious approach, to thinking collaboratively about the good of the institution.

Not just, “What do we need right now in this moment?” Sometimes there is a tension between the urgency students feel, rightly, because they’re only here for four years, and the administration’s long view that says we’re the shepherds for the long-term good of the institution. I think it can feel as though that’s a stark dichotomy, instead of really being pieces of a whole. They both matter, they are the same thing, but we’ve chosen to break them apart like puzzle pieces. I think when we get to these places of division or saying “Old Chapel” or “all students,” we’ve decided that we’re not really all after the same thing, which is that Middlebury feels like a place where every student can flourish and where we are mindful of the things that aren’t working right now.

I do think there’s a way in which it’s “helpful.” Things persist because they serve us well in some regard. So for students to feel kept out of decision-making or to say “Old Chapel” or “the administration,” that serves something. It makes something somebody else’s fault. Which is not to say we don’t have responsibility. And in the same way, saying, “Well, these are administrative decisions, not student decisions,” because we have the long-term interests of the institutions at heart, serves something as well.

I think there’s rich potential in reframing that narrative and rewriting it in a way that starts with “What if?” What if we did this differently? What if we started from a different point or with different assumptions in mind, in my utopian world?

MC: Speaking of long-term versus short-term perspectives: to us, Charles Murray is the biggest controversy we’ve been aware of over the past three years. But you’ve been in administrative roles for such a long time, what have some other challenges been that you’ve experienced and had to work through?

KSA: You’re not alone in thinking that. I think a lot of us think that. That’s a dramatic moment, a marker in the college’s longer history and shorter history. People who were around during the Vietnam War will say that we had much bigger controversies or much bigger moments on campus or similarly impactful moments — maybe it’s not that one is more dramatic than the others.

While I do not in any way mean that March 2 was second-most intense on my watch, I will say that for me, as hard as this is and as divided our campus feels at times — and sometimes all the time — the most difficult thing I’ve had to do is to be with a community in the wake of a student suicide. It’s just unimaginably difficult. Well, not unimaginably — many of us were here for that.

That will stand out for me forever as something that certainly shaped my own approach to my work, my approach to working with the remarkable colleagues that I have had the opportunity to work with across student life, and to what it means to be with a campus in a place of crisis that’s really disorienting in a different way than what we’re dealing with now, which is also disorienting, but I think in a different perspective.

I think for me, these two moments are really different from each other. There are lots of individual student crises, and also moments of immense celebration with students that will stay with me as well. But in terms of other things in my own work that stand out as super difficult, those two are the places of weight and deep concern.

MC: In those really hard moments, how did your responsibilities as an administrator differ from what they would have been if you had been a faculty member?

KSA: Almost in every imaginable way. One of the realities of being an administrator is that, except in moments of crisis, you tend to be farther from students. And that’s the single biggest difference and the thing I’ve missed the most — the very close connection you have with students on a daily basis when you’re teaching.

I’ve taught one class a year the whole time since I’ve been an administrator, and a little bit more than that when I was a commons head, but in my commons, you have lots of students in your house all the time or you’re at events. But the more I’ve moved into administrative work, the more distance there’s been between me and regular interaction with students. That’s probably been the thing I’ve missed the most.

When I announced my decision to go back to teaching, people asked me, “Are you leaving your administrative job because of Charles Murray?” I get it, the timing would make you want to ask that question. But the truth is that, if the moment we’re in has had any impact on my decision to go back to teaching — and there’s more than one impact — the reality is that last spring, when I was in really hard conversations with students, as hard as those conversations were, I thought, “This is what matters. This is what matters to me: being in these conversations with students.”

It was a little bit of a lightbulb moment for me, of saying, “It’s time. It’s time to be back in a place where I can be more regularly connected to students.” Hopefully not talking with quite the same intensity all the time, but I would say that’s the biggest difference. You spend a lot of time in meetings, a lot of time on email, a lot of time doing strategic planning and problem-solving, and it’s important and it’s challenging and I’ve grown tremendously as a professional as a result of all that, but I went to graduate school so that I could teach. I enjoy scholarship, but my dream was to be regularly working with students. So that’s the single biggest difference.

MC: Do you wish you’d known certain things coming into this job that would’ve helped you perform better?

KSA: I don’t know the answer to that question, to be honest. There are a lot of people in my job who come from student affairs backgrounds, have PhDs in higher education administration and who are career student life professionals. I love meeting with those people. I have colleagues at other institutions whose wisdom I tap when I need it, which is often. So I think if I had that background there are probably some things I would’ve done or managed differently.

This is not at all to say that I haven’t made mistakes, because I’ve made plenty. I think that one of the joys and privileges of doing the work with my unusual background in art history has been that I really depended upon the remarkable colleagues that I’ve had in student life, and they’ve been incredibly patient and gracious with me. I think it’s meant that I’ve done a lot of on-the-job learning from 2002 — it’s ongoing. Probably in places where it’s felt uncomfortable, I’ve had to acknowledge my shortcomings and have some humility around where my gaps in knowledge are. I feel like the places where I could’ve really screwed up, I’ve been saved by the wisdom, support and collaboration of people here and elsewhere, like my colleagues at other institutions.

If I look back on the things I wish had gone differently, to be honest, it would’ve been about moving more slowly. It would’ve been about taking more time to listen before acting. It can sometimes feel like everything has to be decided in the moment, and like I said, there can be really urgent situations that present themselves, and when that happens, like any situation, your adrenaline surges, your problem-solving superhero cape gets on, and you think, “I got this!” Sometimes you have to act with that kind of alacrity, sometimes it is a life or death moment. But most of the time it’s not.

I think if I could have cultivated a deep well of calm and patience around decision-making, some of the things that stay with me where I wish I had made a different decision or I wish I had slowed down. Maybe it’s not even that I would have made a different decision. But I think there is a way in which most of the work that’s done in my realm is aided — not by moving slowly, because goodness knows students think we move too slowly! I don’t mean around big issues that the college needs to be tending to.

I just mean in individual moments, mostly one-on-one with students or in small group situations. The ability to say, “You know what? Emotions are running high, we’re not at our best, let’s come together tomorrow over tea and talk again.” Off the top of my head, that’s what I would say is the skill or practice that’s critical, and doesn’t get enough attention.

MC: What will you miss most about this role?

KSA: I will miss most the people I work with really closely. That’s a hard one to say without getting teary. I think highly about so many colleagues across student life, but I have a senior leadership team that is just an extraordinary group of people, and I lucked into them. I hired a couple of them, but most of them were already in their positions and were my peers, the people I was sitting around a table with, reporting to somebody else. They were incredible, when I stepped into this role, about saying, “You’re the leader of the division, we’re gonna make this happen together.” It’s nine people I sit with every Wednesday morning, and who oversee the other major areas of student life across campus. They’re referred to as the student affairs leadership team, or SALT, so I refer to them as the saltines.

I’m not going anywhere, I’ll have lunch with people and go on walks with people, but there’s something extraordinary about being in a really tough work environment where you work with people you know you can depend upon in a fundamentally unshakeable way. I was lucky enough to have that, and I know that’s what I’ll miss the most.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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