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New Assistant Dean Leah Flynn speaks at the UA Senate meeting yesterday. Flynn will coordinate Student Involvement and Leadership, and will meet weekly with UA President and Vice President Vrajesh Y. Modi ‘11 and Sammi G. Wyman ‘11 to hear the concerns of the student body.
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Leah Flynn, the new Assistant Dean and Director for Student Leadership and Engagement Programs, began work last week, planning for a year of “listening and learning.”

Though she did not yet have a concrete plan for her goals in her new position, Flynn said an open relationship with students is a crucial part of an administration.

“I definitely have an open-door policy and I want students to come see me; I rely on students showing me the ropes around here,” Flynn said. Her new role will include advising the ASA and UA, taking on leadership initiatives, and overseeing the Student Activities Office (SAO).

Flynn has spent much of the week getting to know the staff and students at MIT. As a guest speaker at the UA Senate meeting Monday, Flynn voiced her intent to “sit back and learn how things work around here” before moving to make changes.

“At SUNY, it took me a while to learn the culture and establish relationships with the students,” said Flynn, who previously worked at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “I didn’t come in just expecting them to respect me because I was an administrator, and I have the same philosophy coming to MIT.”

Flynn’s words resonated with some, in the wake of controversy over the transparency of decisions about MIT dining. After Flynn spoke at the UA meeting, Housing Chair Daniel D. Hawkins ’12 asked Flynn about the phrase “student engagement” in her title. Flynn takes the position vacated by Jed Wartman, whose title was Assistant Dean for Student Activities. Her title now also includes Assistant Dean and Director for Student Leadership and Engagement Programs.

Hawkins said he wanted “to get a sense of whether she was aware of the state of student engagement at MIT, good or bad.” Flynn replied that she does not have a sense of it yet.

Speaking after the meeting, Hawkins defined ‘student engagement’ as “decision-makers engaging student leaders in the process of making decisions that affect students.”

“I’m pretty happy with the student engagement that’s going on with housing issues,” Hawkins added. “I talked to Dennis Collins, the director of housing, for an hour today and learned a lot about W1, the Phoenix Group, renovations over the summer, and what’s going on with the fire alarms. It was a really good two-way discussion. I consider myself lucky in terms of student engagement.”

However, feelings on the subject of student engagement range, he said. “Obviously, our dining chair recently quit, and I believe the reason for her resignation was frustration over poor student engagement,” Hawkins said. “This is MIT; time is precious, and she felt like hers was being wasted.”

UA President Vrajesh Y. Modi ’11 and Vice President Sammi G. Wyman ’11 said they appreciated Flynn’s philosophy of openness with students.

“One of the things that I liked about what she said was that she was going to take the time to get to know the student body before starting to make changes,” Modi said. “I definitely think she’s on the right track with a very open approach.”

“The students will be very lucky to have her as a resource,” Wyman said.

Hawkins agreed. “I liked that she recognized the fact that MIT is full of culture and tradition, and there is a vast array of different cultures here,” he said. “It’s good that she’s willing to listen, take it slow, and engage students.”

Flynn said she brings her open attitude from her previous position at SUNY, where she worked for eight years as assistant director and then director of the Office of Student Activities.

“Students have a really close relationship with the administration, because the administration really made space to hear their voices,” Flynn said. “I came here with that philosophy, and I support that philosophy.”

To get to know more students, Flynn is holding an open meeting time from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Thursday in the Student Activities Office on the fifth floor of the Student Center.

In addition to fostering an open relationship between her office and students, Flynn wants “to help students keep balance.”

“You’re no good in any program if you’re not sleeping, if you’re not taking care of yourself,” Flynn said. “In the past, I’ve done this through one-on-one conversations with students. That was a smaller student population, but it’s not impossible here.”

Though Flynn does see similarities between SUNY and MIT, she said there are many differences.

“You have such a unique, wonderful culture, and I’ll need help navigating that,” Flynn said.

Two such unique aspects are the “heavily student-run” student government and the residential life structure of faculty and student-run houses, she noted.

As for long-term plans in her new role, Flynn is going to wait and see. However, diversity initiatives and the hiring of a new assistant director are definitely on the agenda, she added.

The new assistant director will fill the role vacated by Marlena Martinez Love, who was recently appointed assistant dean and director of Fraternities, Sororities, and Independent Living Groups. The search will probably begin in the spring, Flynn said.