Photo courtesy of Drake University
Drake University’s new dean of students will step into his new position on On May 1. However, his name is already familiar around campus.
Jerry Parker was appointed dean of students in April, but has been serving as the interim dean of students since Sentwali Bakari left in the fall of 2016.
He was also the acting dean of students during Bakari’s leave for Semester at Sea during Spring 2016.
Parker arrived on Drake’s campus in December 2014 as the associate dean of students. He earned his Ph. D from Texas A&M, with a B.A. and M.A. in political science from Texas State.
Parker said he wanted to make the change to permanent dean because of the areas for growth he’s seen on Drake’s campus.
“You have to make sure you see that there are opportunities for our division to grow and that you have the support of senior leadership to bring forward new initiatives and to really provide a holistic environment for our students,” Parker said. “I saw that here at Drake.”
As dean of students, Parker works as the focal point for several divisions and individuals at Drake. That includes student counseling, student health, residence life, student disabilities services, student inclusion and working as the prevention coordinator for sexual and interpersonal misconduct.
“(The dean of students is) an individual on campus that wants to make sure that the environment here allows students to thrive academically, personally and professionally,” Parker said. “We want students to have a phenomenal co-curricular experience.”
Developing civic professionals
While there are many areas he will focus on once he fully steps into the position, Parker is looking forward to one in particular. He explained that after each presidential election cycle, “different waves of opportunities, concerns and angst” arise. He said he’s hoping to bridge differences of opinion through education and conversation.
“One initiative that we are going to be pushing from our area is this whole aspect of being a civic professional,” Parker said. “As a liberal arts institution with professional degrees, we want to make sure students clearly think critically, but that they’re able to communicate across difference.”
He said that programs, such as the Dialogue at Drake held earlier in April, are one way to help students learn to facilitate productive conversations with those who share different viewpoints. However, he said that actually having those discussions comes down to students and their decisions.
“Each student has control over themselves,” Parker said. “We present opportunities, whether it be through programs, forums, academic courses, community partnerships. But really it comes down to each of us saying, ‘How can we be more open-minded and learn about something we don’t know a lot about?’”
Throughout the academic year, various instances of vandalism and “intimidation” have occurred on campus as a result of differences of opinions.
“It is always our hope that we can learn who is involved in those (incidents) so we can address the matter,” Parker said. “We are an educational institution. Sometimes that means that this isn’t the right institution for that individual.”
Another group on campus was targeted in late March, prompting another email from the provost. Someone or somebodies had torn and covered up posters hanging on campus to advertise for Pride Week, hosted by the LGBT student organization, Rainbow Union. Mattison deemed it an “act of hatred.”
Despite this episode, Parker said he was proud of the strides Drake has taken in increasing accommodation for members of the LGBT community.
“You’re talking about a historically marginalized group having the ability to participate and feel as though they are a part of the majority culture,” Parker said. “But yet that marginalized culture is there to help shape the culture moving forward for all of us.”
Parker cited several accomplishments as a sign of these improvements. Drake recently implemented a student preferred name policy, allowing students to enter a name different from their birth name to be used on several media, from their ID to their email. This is especially helpful for students who are transgender who want to use their preferred name, rather than a given name that may not coincide with their present identity.
Park said another major step was the installation of gender-inclusive restrooms around campus for students.
Parker said he continues to work through UNITY Roundtable to “transform the way Drake University addresses their concerns.” He said it’s important to have conversations with UNITY, then translate the conversation into action.
“My hope is that students … see that we’re moving forward with a lot of these initiatives,” Parker said.
Over the coming summer, Parker said that Drake will be assessing campus buildings and infrastructure for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The assessment will highlight buildings and areas on campus that are difficult to access for people with disabilities.
“We are an old campus,” Parker said. “A lot of our buildings were built 60, 70, 80 years ago. It’s not an excuse, but what it does say is there are areas we need to invest funds to make them ADA accessible.”
The ADA is a piece of civil rights legislation that makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities and guarantees that those people have the same opportunity to participate in everyday life as able-bodied individuals.
Since Drake receives federal funding, it needs to comply with the ADA’s requirements.
“Right now, we do what we can to make sure that every student the comes to Drake has the ability and the accessibility into a building,” Parker said.
The ADA was pioneered by Tom Harkin, an Iowan who served in the U.S. Senate from 1985-2015.
As his official start as dean of students approaches, Parker wanted to make one thing clear: “Students come first.”
“That’s why Drake University is here,” Parker said. “That’s why it’s been here since 1881.”
Parker said he also wanted to place an increased focus on graduate students and students in professional programs.
“We want to make sure that they know that we’re here,” he said. “I think there are some potential ideas on how we can strengthen that relationship between our graduate students and non-traditional students.”