Burrell-McRae ’94 sets goals as Dean of the College

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Dean Burrell-McRae.

This year, Colby is welcoming Karlene Burrell-McRae ’94 as its first Dean of the College. Burrell-McRae is prioritizing inclusion on campus and enriching campus discussions, using knowledge gained from her professional experience and time as a Colby student to lead the charge. Last week, The Echo sat down with Dean Burrell-McRae to discuss her experiences, goals, and her thoughts on the Colby community.

Burrell-McRae came to Colby from the University of Chicago, where she founded the Center for Identity and Inclusion, an institution dedicated to creating “intentionally diverse and inclusive communities, serving as a bridge builder by engaging students and members of the University community of all backgrounds to ensure personal, academic, and professional growth and success.” Prior to working at the University of Chicago, Burrell-McRae served as Assistant Dean of the College and Director of the Black Cultural Center at Swarthmore College and worked at the University of Pennsylvania, where she attended graduate school. Burrell-McRae has also served as a Colby trustee for the past three years. During this period, Burrell-McRae earned the support and praise of the Colby administration and trustees. In a statement to The Echo, President David Greene expressed his enthusiasm: “her exeriences as an alumna and a trustee provide her with important insights and have cemented her deep commitment to Colby. Her scholarly work and her leadership positions at top universities and colleges have imbued her with wisdom and passion for the power and potential of a liberal arts education. And her intelligence, courage, and compassion are attributes that are the very best of Colby.”

Burrell-McRae’s primary concern is inclusion and integration on the Colby campus. For Burrell-McRae, discussions of diversity and inclusion start with simply recognizing the ways we are all different, beyond the superficial. “I look at someone and I may have a particular visual,” Burrell-McRae said, “but there are all kinds of aspects of you that will make you very different than me.” She explains that these issues can be difficult to discuss and students can be apprehensive and passionate about the issues of race. Burrell-McRae is aiming to create a community where “all voices and experiences are valued, whether I’m incredibly conservative in my view, or I’m extremely liberal.” She believes the conversations on campus must be both “intellectual and personal,” and that they must take place in the classroom, in athletics and clubs, and in casual conversations with friends. And while working with typically underrepresented groups is an important aspect, Burrell-McRae also stated that it is important to work with “students who have been seen in the majority about all the different aspects of diversity in their life, because sometimes there are similarities.” Burrell-McRae also emphasises the need to respect cultural diversity, “We have to be able to have conversations around celebrating [differences], but also what does it mean to be inclusive?”

Many view this goal as particularly challenging given the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Maine. But Burrell-McRae views Colby’s “isolation” in rural Maine as a boon and not a hindrance. At Colleges that are in or near cities, “it becomes easy for students to separate if they so choose to,” but at Colby, students have the opportunity to become part of a closer community. “The beauty of going to a place like Colby is if we can get this right, we have an opportunity to become an example of what it means to live together, to learn together, to grow together, to challenge each other, and so that’s the part of the work I’ve been doing that I’d like to engage.”

Burrell-McRae is enthusiastic about the administration’s plans to further connect with the Waterville community. Specifically, she wants to find new ways to connect students with Waterville and the surrounding area. “I wanted to come back to Maine for the beauty of Waterville,” Burrell-McRae said, “so how do we go about supporting particularly our students about what we can do?” The Dean praised SGA’s commitment to community outreach praising it’s initiative to provide transportation to the Common Ground Fair
While recognizing the need to make Colby a more inclusive place, Burrell-McRae expressed her concerns with the idea of “safe spaces” in many modern-day colleges. “I think people have the right to feel safe, to me that’s a fundamental right,” Burrell-McRae said. “I think sometimes the language of safe space gets conflated with the idea that we can’t disagree. To me, safe space still includes spaces for challenge, for discomfort, but it’s also spaces for healing, to ask for forgiveness, to say I didn’t know, to say I was wrong. Not easy to get to, but I think we can’t give up on that.” Burrell-McRae acknowledges these challenges but stresses that “as long as we’re breathing, we have to keep trying.”

As a first-generation college student herself, Burrell-McRae understands the challenges that many such students face today, “I was a first-generation college student, I was on financial aid when I was here, and I wasn’t used to being around people who were financially privileged.” Burrell-McRae was a member of the track and field team at Colby and felt like she was part of a close community in some ways, but she felt separated in other ways and thereby missed out on some of what Colby had to offer. She hopes that her work at Colby will allow students to experience the depth of community that she did not feel included in. “Having the opportunity to come back and in some ways work with students and help create the environment that will allow them to thrive and feel like a community feels like a real gift for me.”

In her limited free time, Burrell-McRae enjoys watching football, traveling and eating great food. As a native New Yorker, but former resident of Philadelphia for 20 years, she is torn between supporting the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, so she says she has allowed herself to root for both teams. However, it seems unlikely that living in New England will turn her into a Pats fan, stating she “strongly dislikes” the Pats and their supporters.

Burrell-McRae’s guiding principles are “to do my best, to be who I share with you who I am, and to be able to be transparent.” She hopes she can earn the trust of the Colby community, and said “Its important to know my role is around my support and advocacy on behalf of our students. If students invite me to events, I’m showing up. It’s important for me to know my community and for my community to know me.”