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Homecoming Dean

After nearly 30 years, Avis Hinkson ’84 completes a circle, returning to the alma mater she loves so well.

Summer 2011, Dean Avis Hinkson in the Vagelos Center Parlor

As Dean Avis E. Hinkson strolled toward Lehman Lawn last April, she was unsure of what to expect. Like most Barnard alumnae, she had heard about the College’s Greek Games. But the tradition had been abandoned more than a decade before her time here and it was the sort of ritual that might have prompted eye-rolling among some of her classmates.

When she reached Lehman Lawn on that day this past spring, however, Hinkson couldn’t help but be impressed. At the all-new Games, she spotted Millie, the Barnard Bear, dressed in ancient Greek garb dancing beneath the flowering magnolia tree; sophomores and juniors battling in a strenuous tug-of-war; and high school students, visiting Barnard, asking to join the fun. “It seemed holistic that scholars could also take time to engage in physical competition,” she recalls. “On what other campus do you see prospective students challenging current students to a tug-of-war contest?”

Hinkson, who took over the reins as dean of the College this February, has finally come home, as she sees it. She has also come home to the East Coast after more than two decades in California, serving in the administrations of four institutions of higher learning, with a final six-and-a-half year stint as director of undergraduate advising in the College of Letters and Science at University of California, Berkeley. Hinkson has returned to a city whose pulse beats in sync with her own, a city in which she grew up, a city with “an energy, a vibe, a sophistication, a worldview,” that Hinkson appreciates and understands.

And, of course, she has returned home to Barnard.

If Barnard is a home that has changed since the days when the once gritty streets of Morningside Heights didn’t feature a single sleek coffee shop, when dormitory life couldn’t include all students because housing just wasn’t available, when Barnard was in the midst of negotiating a contract with Columbia to remain independent, well, that’s to be expected, and in some ways, to be applauded.

“What I’m really pleased by is the balance of change,” she insists, speaking on a quiet summer afternoon in her freshly painted office, where the ivy creeping up Milbank Hall frames her tall window, and where Hinkson spends many of her weekdays in back-to-back meetings. It is an uncluttered space, with shelves adorned by a few treasures, including a stuffed Barnard bear, a college cup, and a folded banner embellished with the signatures of her classmates, scribbled during Senior Week in 1984.

“I was a student a long time ago,” she continues, “but there’s enough that speaks to the progress and growth and also enough that feels familiar. Now housing is guaranteed. There’s The Diana Center; there’s an increase in different kinds of academic programs; there’s a diversity of administration and faculty.

“But the faculty and staff are so hands-on, so accessible. I feel like that’s what I remember,” she says.

The dean of the College oversees a diverse array of departments, from Residential Life to Health Services. It is a multi-faceted portfolio of responsibilities.

In her first months at Barnard, Hinkson has mainly focused on two initiatives. First, she is exploring “new ways to communicate with students that will decrease the number of college e-mails that are sent, better target specific populations, and reflect greater cohesion between distinct programs and services.” Toward that end, she may institute a weekly digest that culls critical information.

Secondly, Hinkson has been working to strengthen the sense of community through the Barnard Circles program, which will be inaugurated this fall. The Circles program will divide the first-year class into more intimate groups or circles, based on floor assignment. Upper class students will serve as big sisters, and activities will be informal and oriented around discussions, such as choosing a major or internship.

Summer 2011, Dean Avis Hinkson with students

Hinkson uses her hands often in conversation to illustrate a point, and animates her features with vibrancy and frequency. When she narrows her eyes it seems to express good-natured, jocular suspicion, and when she widens them it appears to send this message: Everyone is in on a shared joke.

It is this kind of affable manner that makes students like Julia Kennedy, who was sophomore class vice president this past year, observe that Hinkson “is someone who really wants to connect with students on a personal level. Sometimes adults can seem standoffish when you’re 19.”

It is a style that communicates: “There’s an open door. It says, ‘I’m here for you,’” enthuses Aliza Hassine, first-year class president this past year, and sophomore class president this year.

While a student at Barnard, Hinkson majored in psychology, but it was the attitude of Barnard faculty and administration toward students that made the deepest impression upon her. She recalls, “Whenever I said, `We should do this,’ people said, `OK, let’s do it.’” As Hinkson remembers, the approach was not just supportive but also empowering.

As a volunteer at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater during her college years, Hinkson arranged for the renowned dance troupe to perform in the gym. As student representative to the Board of Trustees, she contributed to the debate raging across campus, offering “a very, very loud voice in favor of Barnard staying independent” from Columbia.

It was during her college years that Hinkson experienced her first taste of working in an academic setting. At the suggestion of Verna Bigger Myers ’82, who soon became a good friend, Hinkson signed up during Orientation Week to fulfill her work-study requirements in the Admissions Office, where she organized a special weekend for prospective students of color. “It was more than a job,” she says. “In many ways it was a home.”

Hinkson’s voice as a student was heard frequently on campus, but she is sensitive to those who feel left out. “Being a person of color, a commuter during my first year, and from a low income immigrant family, meant that my voice was certainly a minority voice on the campus,” she says. “As the dean, I remain committed to taking the time to seek out the minority voices that are equally valuable to the complex decisions that will influence my work.”

As an adult, Hinkson has maintained a strong affection for her alma mater. She has served as fund chair for her class almost every year since she graduated. During her interview for the job as dean, she coined a term to describe her emotions: “Barnard Love.”

Since Hinkson’s arrival in February, that sentiment appears to be reciprocated, by students—and faculty. “I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that Avis returned to Barnard as dean of the College on Valentine’s Day. With her arrival, we have all felt the love,” remarks President Debora Spar. “She’s a joy to work with and, no matter how stressful or complex the issue, she is unflappable, bringing a rare blend of high energy and total calm to any situation.”

In the words of Brenda Slade, director of Health Services at Barnard, the new dean “has this incredible ability to cut to the chase and clear away extraneous material.” Greg Brown, chief operating officer, praised Hinkson for being a creative thinker who is also grounded in data. And Jennifer Fondiller, dean of Admissions, complimented Hinkson’s ability to run tight, productive meetings in a relaxed fashion that allows for humor.

Growing up in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, a neighborhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn, her extroverted personality attracted many friends and babysitting gigs. The youngest of four children, Hinkson was raised in a conservative Caribbean household that emphasized both religion and education, according to her sister, Yvonne.

The new dean absorbed both values. An ordained minister, she preached and taught at a large church in Oakland, California, during her off-work hours. Before she leaves for the office in the morning, Hinkson squeezes in a few minutes of calm—“a space of silence” she calls it—which sometimes takes the form of prayer. “My approach to my work is driven by my own faith,” she says, explaining that she aims to contribute to society, and often “thinks about the advancement and opportunities for others.”

Hinkson has given herself six to nine months to settle upon a church to join in New York City. In the meantime, she’s busy adjusting to her new but familiar home, one that can fulfill her cravings for spicy food and limitless shopping, and one that includes a dynamic and sometimes exhausting campus life. It is a life that might demand that Hinkson show up to serve “French toast sticks” at Barnard’s annual Midnight Breakfast and reappear the next morning at 9 a.m. for a meeting of the Columbia Athletic Committee.

“Being dean of the College makes me realize what it costs to be that accessible,” says Hinkson, her eyes widening with a hint of mirth. “It means you have to get out of your own way sometimes.”

—by Elicia Brown ’90

—Photographs by (top) Brandon Schulman and (middle) Dorothy Hong