New Dean, New Outlook

By Herschel Nachlis

Tommy Lee Woon, new Dean of Multicultural Life, is the kind of optimist Macalester may need.

“I think I actually like it here more than some of you do,” Woon explained at last Wednesday’s Lealtad-Suzuki Center open house, where he variously described Macalester as “perfect” and “magical,” and explained that one of his first goals would be to “collect everything wonderful that’s going on here, and reflect it back into the community.”

While these comments came after Woon was less than a week into his new position, they are based on a career’s work, with previous positions at Oberlin, Stanford, and, most recently, Dartmouth.

“Certainly he’s had a wealth of experience that will play well at Macalester,” said Dean of Students Laurie Hamre, who chaired the search committee that hired Woon.

The committee sought someone not just experienced, but versatile.

“As a committee, we all had our own agendas, were all coming from different places, and looking for different things,” said committee member Tinbete Ermyas ‘08. A second student member of the committee, Cem Ernaz ‘07, cited “inter-cultural skills” as “high on [his] list of criteria.”
“I think that [Woon] was very fluid with his personality,” Ermyas added. “With the students he made us laugh, and at the same time he was able to go to a faculty meeting and talk the way a PhD would talk at an academic conference,” he said. “When he talked to the Department of Multicultural Life, he was able to talk about different models of infusing multiculturalism in a college campus.”

According to Associate Dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship Karin Trail-Johnson, Woon was “a natural fit because of his breadth of experience.”
Woon’s hiring follows a year during which some on campus questioned whether multiculturalism was a priority for campus administrators. His predecessor, Joi Lewis, resigned due to what she and others saw as insufficient support for campus multiculturalism, especially in light of planning for the Institute for Global Citizenship.

“We wanted someone who could kind of pick up where Joi would have left off,” Ermyas said. “We weren’t looking for another Joi…we were looking for someone who can carry the torch and follow through.”

Woon says he welcomes the transition back to the small liberal arts college from the larger research university where he most recently worked.
“I look with joy at coming back to a small school, where I can let students know I care, and through letting them know I care, they’ll be interested in what I know,” Woon explained. “Students become active when they experience caring, and I think this is what distinguishes a small school from a large school—[the time taken] to care and express it in little ways.”

It quickly becomes apparent that Woon has crafted a disarmingly upbeat, and often deceptively simple approach to his work. He frequently offers assessments that could seem trite when coming from most anyone else (“If you wallow in negativity and pessimism, then you end up there,” or “I think that young people find hope when they find an older person who hasn’t given up hope and idealism”) but with Woon’s soft-spoken, earnest demeanor/deportment, such sentiments demand reflection.

“I see myself as an educator who has a responsibility to engage in dialogue,” Woon explained, a full fifteen minutes into an interview that had until that point focused almost exclusively on this reporter’s religious and cultural background.

Although he expects to work closely with Dean of Race and Ethnicity Jane Rhodes, the student life staff, and is a member of a half-dozen committees and councils at Macalester, Woon has already started reaching out in unexpected ways. “The other day I had dim sum with a couple of alumni,” he explained, and he has “scheduled meetings with the science faculty to talk about what goes on in medical schools, and how to prepare students to interact with patients…to have cultural competence.”

“I feel like I’m seeing him everywhere already, which is great,” Trail-Johnson said.