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Mills welcomes the new dean of students

Kelsey Lindquist

After the controversial departure of Joanna Iwata in spring 2007, Dr. Joi D. Lewis stepped in as Mills College’s new dean of students.

Lewis said that she agrees with the Mills vision and wants to “provide Mills students with a transformative student learning experience.”

Lewis arrived at Mills on Aug. 13 with more than fifteen years of experience in higher education administration. She said that she was initially attracted to what she saw as Mills’ outstanding reputation for its commitment to educating and empowering women.

“I was blown away by the institution’s commitment to social justice and access to quality education for women at various stages of life and from varied backgrounds,” Lewis said. “I really believe that Mills is a model for higher education for the 21st century.”

Lewis said she has two programs in the works to implement change and maintain meaningful relationships with members of the Mills Community. “Dining with the Dean” will be a series of lunch or dinner gatherings at on-campus dining establishments, during which students will have the opportunity to meet with Lewis and possibly DSL staff members or college officers, to discuss the issues they have with the campus.

The other program is “Courageous Conversations,” which will be a safe space where students can learn ways to build relationships with unlikely allies, thus increasing confidence and competency. Lewis said she feels that both these programs will allow her to practice working within the Mills community and she hopes to begin the programs no later than November.

According to Kennedy Golden, associate dean of students and a member of the search committee responsible for bringing Dean Lewis to the College, the committee worked hard with search firm Morris & Berger to develop a list of skills and strengths the College wanted in the new dean of students.

“Through the lengthy process, I felt that Dean Lewis had those strengths and qualities and could fill the position in a beneficial manner for the entire community,” Goldensaid. “Her commitment to student-centered work in a women’s college environment seemed to fit the bill, along with a lot of other things.”

After an extensive interview process, including a meeting on July 10 to address students’ questions and concerns, Lewis was hired and an announcement of her appointment was sent out to the college community on July 25.

During her first two months on the job, Lewis said she has discovered even more of what a “magical and special” place Mills College is and she encourages others to take time to notice the positive aspects as well as those with room for improvement.

“That’s the complicated thing about being at a place that is committed to social change,” Lewis said. “It is sometimes hard to notice what is going well, because the focus is often on what needs to change.”

She added, “I find Mills as a place where some healing must take place and where our need for justice has to be supported by a healthy dose of grace.”

Since arriving at Mills, Dean Lewis has worked with the Division of Student Life staff to make their vision of transforming the student learning experience a reality.

This process involved the creation of mission and vision statements which, according to Lewis, did not exist prior to her arrival. DSL staff also brainstormed a list of shared core values and goals for impacting the student learning experience in and out of the classroom.

“In her first six weeks, Dean Lewis has demonstrated not only her commitment to, but also her ability to facilitate growth of services and support for students and staff members,” Golden said. “While beginning what will hopefully be a long and productive position at the college, Dean Lewis has kept the needs and dreams of all students as her guiding beacon.”

Lewis said she hopes to establish positive relationships between herself and the students and staff she works with on a daily basis. She said she hopes for a relationship that is “grounded in respect and human connection, as well as
challenge and support.”

“I come to Mills with the expectation that everyone I meet wants to be my close personal ally,” Lewis said.

Lewis said she is thrilled to be at Mills and that being in her position is an honor and a privilege. As she continues to acquaint herself with the Mills community, students and staff alike seem thoroughly happy to have her here.

“I’m very glad we have Dr. Joi Lewis as a Dean” said freshwoman Lupita Molina. “She’s always friendly and easy to talk to.”

The Illinois native earned her B.S. degree in Business Administration at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and her M.S. degree in Higher Education Management at Iowa State University.

Lewis previously worked in student affairs at University of Minnesota and Iowa State University and later held administrative positions at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota for seven years, first as Associate Dean of Students and most recently as the college’s first Dean of Multicultural Life.

Under Lewis’ leadership, Macalester formed the Department of Multicultural Life, which sought to include the values of underrepresented peoples within the college community. As a result of this department, the percentage of students of color increased five percent and the retention rate rose 32 percent taking the biggest leap in the college’s history.

After four years, Lewis resigned at the end of the spring 2006 semester and completed her doctoral work for her EdD (Doctor of Education degree) at the University of Pennsylvania.

Associate Dean of Students Golden said, “I think that [Lewis] can and will be an amazing dean of students for Mills and all students. And I hope she’s here for a very long time.”