Interim Dean of the College Joyce Bylander was about two years into retirement when she got an unexpected call from her longtime friend and colleague Wendy Raymond. The two had worked together for years in the network of diversity leaders at liberal arts institutions, but when Raymond asked Bylander if she would come to Haverford for the 2020–21 school year, Bylander initially said no. However, after considering the unprecedented challenges facing the college, she reconsidered.
“If there’s a way that I can be helpful to an institution during this time, then I wanted to do that,” she expressed.
Bylander is serving as the temporary replacement for former Dean of the College Martha Denney, who left Haverford earlier this year after spending eleven years in the position. A search for a permanent Dean is currently underway.
After spending time at the College of Charleston and Bucknell University, Bylander worked at Dickinson College for 20 years, serving in a variety of roles involving student affairs and diversity leadership.
But despite her years of experience, Dean Bylander still felt a sense of novelty in coming to Haverford; she mentioned that she’d never previously worked at an institution with an Honor Code. Compared with Dickinson, which has around 1,000 more students than Haverford, the extra-small environment was new to her too:
“You actually have an opportunity to engage with more people… Even in this socially distanced and sometimes virtual world, I still have had an opportunity to have interactions with lots of people, lots of students.”
Although she officially started her position at Haverford on July 1, Dean Bylander was attending meetings on college affairs as early as the beginning of June. Over the past three months, she has primarily split her time between anti-racist work and COVID-19 planning.
She has been meeting with athletic teams about how they can address racial biases and systemic racism within their cohorts—problems highlighted by the Athletes of Color Coalition and Black Students Refusing Further Inaction earlier this year—and helped organize a faculty-wide anti-racist training program. Dean Bylander also brought up her collaboration with the Office of Admission to ensure that racial bias is not a factor in the selection of Haverford’s future classes.
“Haverford has its work to do around this racial justice and… this is the moment,” she expressed. “Words are good, but if people don’t feel them then they’re just words.”
As one of the administrators behind Haverford’s COVID-19 safety plan, Dean Bylander’s role has included helping to spearhead the controversial tip line. Through the tip line, community members can report events, people, or circumstances on campus that violate the college’s safety protocols.
According to Dean Bylander, the college has responded to every single tip. As a result, they have dismissed contractors who were reported not wearing a mask on campus, and Dean Bylander has collaborated with Dining Center staff in an effort to create safe distancing in the lines during busy meal times.
The administration has also been receiving tips regarding student gatherings in violation of the college’s COVID-19 safety policies. However, Dean Bylander expressed that it has been difficult to handle such tips effectively, as they often come after the fact. As a result, she encouraged students to report such gatherings to Campus Safety, who can respond immediately.
In collaboration with infectious disease specialists from Main Line Health, Dean Bylander has been charged with facilitating the COVID-19 testing system for the college. Currently, this involves testing the whole student population every two weeks. Since the semester began less than a month ago, it remains to be seen whether this program will prove sufficient, especially in light of the two students who recently tested positive.
Dean Bylander defended the college’s COVID strategy, arguing that “testing will not save us.” She noted that despite testing twice a week, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign suffered a severe outbreak when students chose to socialize even after testing positive for COVID. Instead, she suggested that community members bear the responsibility to protect one another and prevent the spread of the virus.
“We really all know how to keep each other safe at this point. We don’t need anything else to tell us about masking and social distancing and not being in crowds… We just have to do them,” she said.
Despite the early problems that led Haverford to briefly enter Level 2 of the Bi-Co Mitigation Plan, Dean Bylander is hopeful that students will adhere to the college’s health and safety protocols, adding that “so many students are doing them.”
In contrast to President Raymond’s more restrained style, Dean Bylander has quickly become well-known on campus for the candid tone of her emails, often sent with all-caps subject lines.
There’s the warmth that comes with three decades of experience: in an email distributing the college’s COVID Policy to students on September 3, she wrote, “I know the joys and the heartaches you might find in this place. I know some of the ways you will be remarkable in this place and some of the ways you will fail. I have seen this movie many times. I never tire of it!”
But there’s also a steadfast determination. “I will not waiver in my commitment to the health and safety of this whole community. I will not allow others to do that either,” she added.
When asked about the one thing she most wanted students to understand about the current situation, Dean Bylander struck an empathetic chord:
“If we can make humane choices now with one another, you will be better positioned to understand that a little bit of sacrifice here is going to have a bigger benefit for more people over here,” she said. “We’re not just masking for ourselves, we’re masking for people who clean up, the people who cook, the people who take care of us.”
While there’s still much work to be done to build an actively anti-racist community at Haverford and keep the campus community safe through the COVID-19 pandemic, Dean Bylander expressed a sense of optimism: “I had one career goal and that’s to change the world. Working in higher education gives me an opportunity to touch the future… and have an impact that outlives me.”
As for coming out of retirement? She has no regrets: “It’s been challenging, it certainly is a lot of work… but I’m really, really glad that I came because I think this place is special.”