Suzanne Keen
Suzanne Keen

Getting to know the new dean

Two weeks into her job as dean of faculty and vice president of academic affairs, Suzanne Keen had most of her books unpacked in her new office in Buttrick Hall and was awaiting the arrival of more shelves so she could finish the job. A published poet and active scholar, Keen’s research looks at narrative empathy. She comes to Hamilton from a job as dean of the college at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. Keen has a doctorate in English language and literature from Harvard University. Her husband, Fran MacDonnell, is a scholar with a doctorate in history from Harvard, and their son is a senior at Oberlin College. Even as she immerses herself in her new role, Keen carved out time for an interview with the Hamilton magazine. Here’s some of what she had to say.

What’s the most exciting part of this job for you?

Changing to a new institution is just intrinsically exciting. I’m an extroverted person who gets a lot of pleasure and energy out of meeting people. Every day I’m putting names to faces and meeting new people and just beginning to fill in what eventually will be a complete picture of the people I’ll be working with. So that’s tremendous fun all by itself. When I was leaving W&L there was one of those terrifying farewell parties that’s kind of like being at your own wake, and there was this gigantic receiving line. I realized at the end of about an hour and a half on my feet greeting people who were saying goodbye to me that I knew every name — hundreds of people, and I knew every single name. I could not have said that of myself six years prior when I began as dean there. So I know that part of the process of doing the job well is to know the people.

What made you want to come to Hamilton?

Well, at first I didn’t really know much about the position, and so even when I came on campus for the interview, it was still very much an exploratory thing. I was persuaded to come by the people I met in the interview process. I know you must know that right at the time they were interviewing the first round of candidates, this campus had a terrible tragedy, losing a previous associate dean, a person I never had the opportunity to meet. I met a committee of people who were shattered by that loss — it’d just happened. I interviewed with people, some of whom hadn’t slept, who were clearly grieving.

I was so impressed by two things. One, the intensity of affection this group of people clearly felt for Sam Pellman. Two, by the fact that they carried on. They had that sense that, “We’re here to do a job, and if he were here he’d be doing that job.” I realize that’s a very peculiar thing to say — that in the middle of that tragedy I got a positive impression about the community and about the nature of people’s relationships with one another.

There are other attractions that are really specific — for example, I was educated at Brown University, and Brown has an open curriculum. There are very, very few places that have open curricula. It was really the best thing that could have happened to me educationally. I love being able to be part of an institution that has that commitment. I also was extremely impressed by a number of the metrics that Hamilton has achieved — [including] the level of Pell eligibility and diversity of its students and faculty.

When you first went into administration, were you concerned about having to give up some of your scholarly work?

I was in a very unusual situation. Or maybe it’s not that unusual, but I was recruited with 10-days’ notice into an interim position that was supposed to last just two years. So I was in a position where I could say to the people who were recruiting me, “This is what I need [in order] to be able to do what you’re asking with 10-days’ notice.” One of those things was continuing teaching a bit. Five of the six years that I was dean at Washington and Lee, I taught two courses, one in the fall and one in our four-week spring term. (Last year I taught just one course because I had to train my successor in the spring.) I was able to bargain for teaching, and I was also able to say I’ve got to be able to continue as a scholar, because otherwise I won’t be happy with myself. Here I intend to keep up my scholarly work. There’s no immediate plan to teach; it would be madness because that big task of learning all the people is going to be time-consuming.

I have loved the Hamilton students I’ve met both on campus here and also down in Virginia. There were a group who came to work on a Habitat build in Rockbridge County. I heard that there were Hamilton College students in town working on this Habitat build, so I invited them over to the house for supper. They were really cool, and I really enjoyed them. I hope to get to know students later on as an advisor and maybe as an occasional faculty member in literature. But for now, keeping up my scholarly writing is my off-hours avocation.

Subduing the norovirus

The first case emerged in all its misery on April 22, a Sunday, and word reached College officials the next day. Two students were ill with vomiting, nausea, and other unpleasant symptoms, and Health Center Director Barbara Fluty immediately suspected the highly contagious norovirus.

“Then Tuesday, the 24th, is when we got confirmation from the health department that it was norovirus,” says Jeff Landry, associate vice president for student affairs. “That’s when it started, and then it really didn’t end until Commencement.”

It was the biggest outbreak of illness on campus in years, Landry says. The virus spreads through close personal contact, infected surfaces, and food. By the time it abated on the Hill, roughly 120 people, all but a half-dozen or so of whom were students, had reported their illness to the Health Center or local health department. The College consulted with the department and a state epidemiologist on how to cope with the outbreak.

Throughout the ordeal, Landry’s office, in concert with Fluty, urged students who were ill to stay in their rooms. There’s really no treatment beyond staying hydrated and resting. Landry says Fluty and her team were on top of the outbreak from the start.

So was the Facilities Management staff, which launched a whirlwind of cleaning, and Bon Appétit, the College food service provider. Its staff took painstaking, full-scale precautions to prevent the virus from contaminating food. Bon Appétit removed all self-service food, instead having its staff serve students. Toward the end of the first week, food workers offered “grab-and-go” boxed meals that friends could bring to sick students in their rooms. Food services workers had to modify how they handled numerous catered events on campus, too.

Facilities workers embarked on a constant cycle of disinfecting touch points in high-traffic areas, says Roger Wakeman, associate vice president for facilities and planning. “In the first week we included members of the Facilities Management team beyond the custodial group, making it a full team effort. From late April to mid-May we regularly had teams working until 8 p.m., with some supplemental support from a contract cleaning company,” he explains.

Commencement was May 20, so the timing of the outbreak was nerve-racking, Landry acknowledges. When he took a few calls from parents wondering whether it was safe for elderly grandparents to attend the ceremony, he told them to check with their doctors. But early in May, Landry’s emails to the campus signaled that the outbreak was waning.

“Today the Health Center received one new report from a student with symptoms consistent with norovirus,” he wrote to the campus community on May 3. “Proper hygiene habits from students, faculty, and staff, combined with Facilities Management’s enhanced cleaning regimen and Bon Appétit’s extra efforts to reduce the possibility of infection have made significant impact on the spread of the virus.”

American Talent Initiative logoOpening doors to talented students

Hamilton has linked arms with the American Talent Initiative, a collaboration of top colleges and universities with a goal of enrolling 50,000 more students from low- and moderate-income families by 2025.

“We believe our affiliation with ATI will help us reach even more students whose academic credentials have earned them a place at Hamilton, and we look forward to helping ensure these students’ future success,” President David Wippman said in April when the College announced its partnership.

Bloomberg Philanthropies created the initiative, which had 30 members when it launched in December 2016 and now has 100, including, among others, all of the Ivy League, 17 state flagship universities, and some NESCAC colleges. To join, an institution needs consistently to have graduated at least 70 percent of its students in six years. For the Class of 2015, Hamilton’s four-year graduation rate was 90.2 percent, and its six-year graduation rate was 94.2 percent. The initiative says some 290 colleges and universities nationally consistently hit the 70 percent mark, and the goal is to increase their collective enrollment of low- and moderate-income students from 480,000 to 530,000 by 2025.

Initiative members commit substantial resources to increase opportunity for lower-income students and collect institutional data that will be published annually in aggregate to track progress.

“Joining ATI is another step toward identifying and enrolling talented, socioeconomically diverse students from across the United States,” said Monica Inzer, Hamilton vice president for enrollment management. Hamilton’s ongoing efforts to increase access include, in 2017, partnering with QuestBridge, a nonprofit that connects high-achieving, low-income students with highly selective colleges and universities.

Hamilton is one of fewer than four dozen U.S. colleges and universities that admit first-year students from the U.S. without considering their financial circumstances and then meets each student’s full demonstrated financial need. And in each of the past two years, 18 percent of students in Hamilton’s first-year class received Pell grants, evidence of the College’s commitment to enroll lower-income students.


  • Kevin Alexander ’13, coordinator of the Utica/Oneida County Anti-Poverty Initiative at the United Way of the Valley and Greater Utica; Sarah Boole ’07, brand and content manager of Twisted Tea at The Boston Beer Co.; Nanyamka Fleming ’14, legal and business affairs support associate at The Advisory Board Co.; Jessica Moulite ’14, social media reporter and producer at Fusion; and Stephanie Tafur ’10, program director at the Posse Foundation; Career Center panel discussion “What I Did With My Major in Humanities”
  • Leeann Brigham ’09, who works for Massachusetts General Hospital; Savannah Knell ’10, campaign manager at the Partnership for a Healthier America; Nathalia Mahabir ’17, who works in therapeutic training at the Arbour Fuller Hospital; and Laur Rivera ’16, lab manager at Colgate University; Career Center panel discussion “What I Did with My Major in Neuroscience and Psychology”
  • Artist Margarita Cabrera; gallery visit in conjunction with her exhibit “Space in Between” at the Wellin Museum of Art
  • Richard Hanna, former U.S. representative who served New York’s 24th & 22nd congressional districts; talk with students and faculty on the current political climate
  • Susan Hartman K’74, writer; lecture, “Searching for Sadia” based on her project following three refugees — 16-year-old Sadia, an Iraqi translator, and a Bosnian with a love for baking — as they learned to adapt to life in Utica, N.Y.
  • Author, activist, and television personality Marc Lamont Hill; lecture, “Building Community in an Hour of Chaos” hosted by the Voices of Color Lecture Series
  • Robert Katzmann, chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; Levitt Center lecture, “Courts, Congress, and the Meaning of Laws”
  • Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State and national security advisor to President George W. Bush, and Susan Rice, former U.S. ambassador to the UN and national security advisor to President Obama; discussion moderated by Andrea Mitchell, NBC News’ chief foreign policy correspondent, at a Common Ground event combined with the Sacerdote Great Names Series.


Steinway piano
A STEINWAY SCHOOL. In 1979, Hamilton’s Steinway inventory consisted of used and rebuilt pianos that weren’t worth bragging about. After Wellin Hall was constructed, it became clear that Hamilton needed a concert instrument that lived up to the new venue. Thanks to a generous gift, the College obtained a 9' Steinway concert grand that’s still in use, and there were more Steinways to come. Some 17 years ago, the late Sam Pellman, the James L. Ferguson Professor of ­Music, began a quest to have Hamilton designated as an “All-Steinway School.” Last summer, the College attained that status. To be a Steinway school, 90 percent or more of an institution’s acoustic pianos must be made by Steinway and Sons, or their Boston or Essex brands. The Hamilton Music Department maintains 19 pianos, 18 of which are Steinways or Bostons.

Writing Center reaches out to STEM students

A photo from the Writing Center’s earliest days shows an admiring group gathered around an awe-inspiring innovation — a clunky looking desktop computer. Center Director Jennifer Ambrose borrowed the image from the College’s archives when the center turned 30 last fall. It’s aging well, and the innovations continue.

“One of the strengths of Hamilton’s center is that we’ve been here this long and that there’s so much faculty buy-in and student-buy in for this place,” says Ambrose, who is entering her third academic year as director.

At a college that prizes communication skills, the Writing Center is a critical asset, and its use by students is on the rise. In the Class of 2018, 94 percent of students turned to the center, up from the typical 89 to 90 percent. Ambrose is aiming for 100. “My background is in scientific and technical writing, and so one of the areas that I see for growth in writing support at Hamilton is for support of hard sciences writing,” she says.

That’s atypical turf for a liberal arts writing center, but increasingly, Hamilton is claiming it. Ambrose and Professor of Mathematics Courtney Gibbons teamed up last year to develop a system to require Gibbons’ linear and modern algebra students to attend conferences on rewriting math proofs. The center relies on student tutors, and Ambrose handpicked a few for the math job. Gibbons came to the center to train them — and Ambrose — in what she wanted her linear algebra students to learn. In the spring Ambrose added more tutors, and modern algebra students took part in conferences. Afterward, when Ambrose and Gibbons asked students to assess the tutoring, Ambrose was surprised how positive they were about a mandatory experience.

“From my perspective, the writing conferences with the tutors have improved the quality of the rewrites that I see from my students,” Gibbons says. “One of the benefits of working with the tutors is that they have experience responding to critical feedback on an assignment, and this is a skill I would like to help math students develop, too. I benefited from my own alma mater’s writing center (though not in a math class) and still use things that I learned when writing (or revising) an article for a journal.”

In another venture into STEM writing, Associate Professor of Mathematics Andrew Dykstra had students in a senior seminar on mathematical modeling write a research paper, directing them to the center for tutoring. And Ambrose worked with Jon Gaffney, a lecturer in physics, to design a writing assignment for his astronomy class. The assignment, Ambrose says, was essentially a piece of science journalism that challenged students to translate academic content into a story palatable to a general audience. Consulting with the Writing Advisory Committee and with department chairs, Ambrose plans to reach into more STEM disciplines this academic year.

In addition to that growth, more professors overall are requiring their students to come in for conferences with peer tutors, which is good because it supports the faculty, Ambrose says. “But it’s also great because it gets students into the center. For most students, their first contact with us is through a required conference for class, and if they have a good experience, then they come back throughout the rest of their time here,” she observes.

Here’s a look at other Writing Center initiatives under way that are likely to be expanded:

Support for upper-level student writers: Hamilton provides great help for its younger student writers, but could do more to support its seniors, in Ambrose’s assessment. To that end, spring semester she worked with Professor of History Lisa Trivedi and Assistant Professor of History Celeste Day Moore, who co-taught the history thesis seminar, to develop a writing resource for their students. Two history majors created the resource. “Then we formed writing groups in that class, and my tutors led those groups. They met periodically throughout the thesis-writing process to help the students give feedback to one another and answer questions that they had. And that sort of model, I think, is something that we could expand to other departments,” Ambrose says.

Workshops to alleviate final-paper anxiety: This idea was borne from ongoing campus conversation about student health and wellness. Ambrose and a senior tutor put together student-led workshops that provided concrete paper-writing strategies and included a peer counselor from the Counseling Center and a peer research tutor from the library.

Classroom visits: Taking Writing Center workshops into the classroom is a great way to reach a lot of students at once, Ambrose says. The center visited a dozen or so classrooms last year.


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