Kimberly Goff-Crews, Yale’s newest officer, speaks on building community and stewarding campus traditions

Just three weeks into her new post as secretary of the University and vice president for student life, Kimberly M. Goff-Crews ’83, ’86 LAW sat down with YaleNews in her Woodbridge Hall office to talk about her return to campus and her thoughts about her new position.

Goff-Crews, who was an assistant dean in Yale College and director of the Afro-American Cultural Center from 1992 to 1998 before serving in administrative positions at Lesley University in Boston and later Wellesley College, most recently was vice president for campus and student life at the University of Chicago.

As secretary, she will support the Yale Corporation and the University Council, and will also coordinate the University’s major ceremonial events, including Commencement, Freshman Assembly and the re-introduction of the ROTC on campus, among others. As the first to hold the position of vice president for student life, she plans to continue formal and informal talks with Yale deans and administrators — and with both new and returning students in Yale College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the professional schools — to learn their thoughts and concerns.

The following is an edited version of that conversation.

How does it feel to be back at Yale after 15 years?

I am thoroughly enjoying this transition. In my third week, when students were starting to come in and faculty members were coming back, I spent a lot of time just meeting people. So far, I have met several deans, went to two graduate fairs, attended the Freshman Assembly, Graduate School Matriculation Ceremony and Convocation for the Yale School for Music, among other activities. As an alumna of both Yale College and the law school, I’m enjoying seeing all that is familiar but changed.

I was stunned, for example, when I visited the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). The school has been in existence since 1901, but its current programs and new Kroon Hall facility are really fabulous and interesting. Seeing the passion of its students — the plans they have and their various activities and experiences — is particularly exciting. So I am coming into this new role as if I am new, even if I am not, entirely. I love it.

What are some of your fondest memories of being here, either as a student or an administrator?

I was roaming around Old Campus when the students were coming in, and I was remembering that first flush of excitement over meeting my freshman year roommate. We didn’t have Facebook back then, so when I met her on campus, I was literally meeting her for the first time.

As a student, I used to run the Yale Film Society, and during my entire time here as an undergraduate I worked in the Audio Visual [AV] department, as it was then called. I remember choosing the films, and running the films in Linsley-Chittenden Hall, and I often hung out in in the AV department. I loved the people there; they were like a family. The staff there was really important in my campus experience.

I also have fond memories of talking about life in general with members of the law school faculty when I was a student there. I realized early on that I didn’t want a long-term career at a law firm, and — in addition to the task of teaching me how to think about the law — my law school faculty mentors were really good at helping me figure out what I wanted to do.

A key experience for me intellectually took place in a class taught by English professor Margaret Homans. We were reading a piece of women’s literature — I think it was “Their Eyes Were Watching God” — and I was working very hard with a writing tutor in Berkeley College on this massive paper for the course. I can still remember the first time I comfortably took part in a classroom conversation. This interchange with my professor and fellow students — and the class itself — was probably for me a watershed moment in terms of finding my voice, solidifying my writing skills, and becoming more deeply embedded in the traditions of English literature. A lot of what I learned I have carried into my professional life.

Do you think Yale has changed a lot since you were here?

Because my vantage point has changed, my vision is much broader than it was during the other times I was here. One of the great parts of this new job is that I get to experience both the fullness of the institution, as well as the individual communities within the broader campus community. I am able to engage with students and faculty at F&ES, to learn about the fabulous things going on at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and to learn about new degrees at our other professional schools. I’m much more aware of — and will be engaged in — Yale’s breadth.

When I was last here, I was a resident fellow at Berkeley College, which was the first college to be renovated. To come back and see the campus so impeccably beautiful, and to see New Haven and how Yale’s relationship with the city has changed and grown, has been great. Of course, our student body is still comprised of the same high-quality, high-energy people it always has been, but today’s students have even more opportunities. For example, there’s been an explosion of study-abroad programs since I was last here. The McDougal Center didn’t exist when I left Yale in 1998. That center — considered best in class — is one that other institutions at which I have worked have looked to emulate. It has really had an impact on graduate student life and how it is perceived.

What other opportunities do you see in coming into a brand new position?

The position isn’t exactly new. The secretary’s position has been around since the late 1700s and has had various incarnations. But in the modern era, the position acts as a steward of tradition and change. The secretary supports the Corporation and the University Council, and is the point-person for ceremonial events. These ceremonial events — Commencement, for example — have campus-wide impact. They help to build Yale’s broader community through shared experience. In addition, the secretary has traditionally worked with the president on strategic vision and planning.

While every aspect of my new role is not entirely new, the consideration of student life will be more focused. For that piece of it, I will coordinate cross-cutting issues that impact all students. This area is something I’m fairly familiar with because of my work in student affairs over the last few years.

I am fortunate to be a part of President Levin’s tenure here, and honored to be part of his leadership group. My fellow officers and I are expected to advocate and act with the best interests of the full institution in mind — a responsibility I don’t take lightly.

Do you have any particular vision for the future?

My goal is to make all students’ day-to-day experience of living at Yale equivalent to the amazing intellectual experience available to them just by being able to study here. I’m excited to meet people around campus, to observe and listen to their thoughts and concerns. Then, in a few months, after I have had an opportunity to distill all the information, I will have a better sense of how we are going to move ahead and identify areas for potential improvement and innovation.

One particular area President Levin has asked me to think about is graduate and professional student life. Most institutions are beginning to think about life beyond the classroom for graduate and professional students in a way that is more coordinated and more broad-based, so I’ll be interested in talking to students and faculty about that.

Overall, however, my goal is to think about all of our students and to deal with the things that impact and concern them.

Will your own experience as a student here guide you in this regard?

I’m much more concerned with the students who are here now and with those who will come in the future. However, I am very aware of the impact my Yale education has had on me, while also being cognizant of the fact that things are in many ways different for today’s students.

What excites you most about your new role?

I believe that great institutions create environments that help students, faculty, and staff experience the breadth of their intellectual curiosity and the depth of their humanity. I think Yale has always managed to do that pretty well. What excites me is continuing to provide that environment in a world that is changing, with a student body and faculty body that is growing and also adapting in ways.

You’ve been cited in your former positions for your passion for building consensus. Is that an important element of your administrative style?

Building consensus is very, very important to me, because I believe it results in better decision-making and it builds a stronger community. I like to understand the whole community and also the micro-communities that are a part of it. So it is important to me to know what the nursing school is doing, for example, but also to know about the different components within that school. Everybody has a different perception or vision of what Yale is or can be.

I like working with people, understanding how they see things and what their visions are, and enjoy seeing the potential of how it all fits together as the greater Yale.

In your earlier work at Yale, you helped enhance the cultural and academic environment for students of color. Is that still a concern or priority for you?

I am still very concerned about how the institution enhances the overall experience of students of color and other groups on campus. One of my favorite experiences as an administrator here before was helping to develop the Science, Technology and Research Scholars (STARS) program, which supports, minority, women, economically underprivileged and other underrepresented students in the sciences, engineering or mathematics. I am particularly proud of my involvement in this program since I was an English major and I knew nothing about the sciences. I learned what it meant to be in the sciences and how best to be successful. It was intellectually interesting but also gratifying for me because the program we created, at the direction of faculty, has not only been successful but has transformed lives.

I care about access and I believe that students — all students — should be able to embrace and get the most of their Yale experience, whether they are students of color or women or from any other group. I am concerned with making sure that everything works for everybody, and that is my goal.

Are you excited about being in New Haven again?

From my days as a student, I spent a lot of time hanging out in New Haven. I did an internship with the parks department in the city — my first environmental sojourn. The people who live in the New Haven community have been so welcoming and supportive, and some of those I knew from before have already called me. I am so excited to be re-connecting with people and meeting new people. It seems that New Haven has grown immensely since I was here. So, yes, I’ll be out and about in New Haven often.

What would you most like to say to the students here who will be so central in your thoughts?

It’s good to be back. I’m excited to meet people and to see what they care about. I do love this institution, and I am confident about the support that I will receive from the administration and from the wider community. I really look forward to what’s ahead.