Off the Cuff with Incoming Dean of Students Karen C. Goff

Karen C. Goff will join Oberlin on Sept. 20 as vice president and dean of students. Goff comes to Oberlin with approximately 20 years of experience in higher education, most recently as vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Agnes Scott College, a women’s liberal arts college in Georgia. Goff grew up on a farm in Jamaica and moved to the U.S. to go to high school in New Jersey. She has a golden doodle, Marley, who is named after Bob Marley. Goff comes to Oberlin at a time when the Division of Student Life is in flux; several assistant and associate deans have left the division in the past four months. However, she is excited to reinvision the scope of the department when she comes to Oberlin this fall. She traveled to Ohio last week to scope out the campus, and during her trip she talked to the Review about her visions for the role.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

So you’ve been walking around campus today for the first time since you were officially named dean of students. Do you think that Oberlin will be very different from Agnes Scott? Do you think it will feel different to work here? 

You know what? No. I think it is about having an openness and willingness to be able to adapt to one’s environment. I do think being an immigrant has helped in that way; coming from an entirely different country — tropical — and then moving to the Northeast. I mean, culturally and on every level it’s very different. I quickly had to learn how to adapt to a new setting — adapt to new people. I just think that’s a skill that I’ve always cherished and had. 

Now coming to Oberlin, we’re going to figure out what works for Oberlin and for Obies. But, ultimately, all students are seeking to belong — to find a sense that people do care about what they think. They want their ideas to be heard. They want to be validated. And so I think that is essentially what my role is: to figure out what is important to Obies and making sure that they have a voice at the table. 

I think one thing about Obies is that they can kind of demand a lot and be pretty critical sometimes. Do you think that Obies will be different from the students at Agnes Scott? 

I think what I see is more commonalities than differences. You know, when I arrived at Agnes Scott, I heard a very similar sentiment. They’re feisty. They are vocal, they’re critical. They have a lot to say about everything. But, for whatever reason, there’s a part of that that I like, because I think it allows us to continue the dialogue. I am always looking to say, “How can we be better?” Even in the criticism, what I am listening for is “What exactly are Obies saying that they think we’re either not hearing or we’re not being responsive to?” My approach is always about asking a question; it’s not to take it personally. 

I think part of what we do as educators is saying, “Okay, you have this voice. Let’s use your voice, but let’s also use your voice effectively. What is the outcome that you’re seeking with the use of your voice?” Because if it’s just to yell and scream and there’s nothing accomplished, then it’s about how we teach you to organize where your voice actually can be used for change and so it’s not drowned out. So that’s one of the things I’ve been able to do with our Scotties, is saying, “You’re saying some amazing things, nobody’s hearing you because you’re talking to the wrong audience. What is it that you want to achieve? Let’s talk about how we bring about some resolutions. Let’s talk about how we bring this forward to the president and their cabinet.” And all of a sudden they’re getting results and things are getting done. 

So you’re coming from another small liberal arts school and you have essentially the same job title at Agnes Scott as you will have at Oberlin. What made you want to make the move to Ohio?

In all honesty, while I was at Agnes Scott, I really was not actively seeking to leave at the time. However, this opportunity presented itself, and the more I learned about Oberlin — the more I learned about the position and what was needed, I honestly did some of my own self-reflection and said, “this seems like a good alignment.” 

So they recruited you?! You weren’t looking! Oberlin recruited you?

[Laughing] Well, they do that all the time in higher education. You know, you have search firms and people know your work; they know what you’re doing. It’s a compliment or a flattery in a way because you’ve developed a track record of being able to leave a lasting legacy in terms of the lives that you’ve changed. I’ve never left an institution where my students or the people with whom I work don’t feel like, “Oh, please don’t go,” which I think is a great thing, because I’ve always put students first. That’s the mantra by the way, wherever I work — whether it’s the Midwest, the Northeast, or the South — if I’m working with students, my mantra is “students first.”

I think for the industry, I’ve developed that reputation. So, of course people are gonna say, “Hey, there’s an interesting opportunity over here. Why don’t you take a look at this and tell us what you think?” But for me, I’m also very selective. I have to know where I think my strengths lie, what I think I can offer, and what I think the institution needs. I particularly was intrigued with Oberlin because of its deep and abiding commitment to academic excellence, creative excellence, and this kind of artistic excellence just coming together as the residential experience. Another thing that was very important to me was its history and commitment to social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. So when I heard that, I said, “Well, this is something that is in the ethos of this college, and who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?” 

You’re obviously coming to Oberlin at a time when Student Life specifically is in kind of a tumultuous moment. We haven’t had a real, permanent dean of students in months and recently it feels like every few weeks another position in the Division of Student Life becomes vacant.

You know, when I went to Agnes Scott over five years ago a lot of what is being required now for Oberlin are the very same things that I had to do there. It was really about elevating the student experience, making it a priority — making sure that staff felt supported, they had the resources that they needed to do their job, and to serve our students effectively.

Agnes Scott has always had a high academic reputation, but in terms of looking at the full complement of the student experience, the Division of Student Affairs didn’t seem to always be an equal partnership with the academic side. That’s what I experienced at Agnes Scott and I am sensing, for whatever reason, that there might be some similar challenges in that way at Oberlin. I want to be able to elevate that experience, because I think student affairs people are also educators. I think a lot of times people don’t see us that way, but, in fact, I think we do some of the most educating. We educate students for life, because we know that you’re going to have to move on beyond Oberlin. And I don’t want to just equip you to serve and to lead and to thrive at Oberlin. I want you to thrive in the world. I want you to be a great global citizen. 

But I’ve never been one that was deterred by challenges or obstacles. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for us to reevaluate what we’re doing. And, even when you hire some of these new people, they don’t necessarily have to be from the outside. You might have amazing, talented people that already exist here that may either be untapped or might need to be empowered or mentored or developed. I don’t know what the decision is going to be and who it’s going to be; I know that I’m going to have to hit the ground running, and it’s going to be quick. I may have to tap into some of my network, but it’s actually kind of exciting to me.

I’m walking into this knowing that we are going to experience some challenges because we have some vacancies. But I’m also walking in this knowing that I also have a leader and a cabinet of people and even students and people within the community who are supportive and want to see this work. And so I think that helps to ease me a little bit.