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It’s Not Easy Being Dean

The role of dean of students has changed dramatically over the years. So have the personalities.

A composite of contrasting styles, from top: B.F.D. Runk, Robyn S. Hadley, Robert Canevari, and Penny Rue Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare; photos courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVA

To a generation of students, B.F.D. Runk (Col ’29, Grad ’30, ’39) loomed large over college life. He was the archetype of the old-school, Old U, dean of students.

“Dee” Runk, as Benjamin Franklin Dewees was known, administered the UVA student experience from the mid-1950s until 1968. For some, the echo of his reprimand reverberated long after.

In the late 1950s, two students got into trouble at Madison College (today’s JMU) and, in swift turn, got summoned before Runk.

He decreed that they not go within 15 miles of Harrisonburg. Ever.

We know this because some 50 years later, one of them described to Allen W. Groves (Law ’90), dean of students from 2007 to 2021, that twinge of unease he still felt whenever he approached the city on the interstate.

“He was a very effective disciplinarian,” Alexander G. “Sandy” Gilliam Jr. (Col ’55), UVA’s retired history and protocol officer, says of Runk. “He stood for no nonsense whatsoever.”

Always respected, sometimes feared, and once hanged in effigy, Runk is among a select group of deans of students in University history who have both reflected and defined distinct eras of student life. Longevity played a role. The job has rarely turned over. Groves was just the third to hold the position of dean of students since 1970. Before that, three men held particular sway over a period of 64 years. (Before full co-education, there were separate deans of women, from 1921 to 1970.)

Since Groves’ departure in 2021, UVA has merged the dean of students position with that of the vice president for student affairs, traditionally the dean’s boss. As part of a major operational reorganization, Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer Robyn S. Hadley has taken on dean of students as part of her job title.

It’s a giant set of responsibilities. Under any organizational structure, it always has been. Here’s a look at some of the giants of the past. 

The Era of the Imperial Dean

First-year student Harold Aken (Col ’52) had some explaining to do.

“According to our records, you did not attend convocation on Sunday, September 26,” began a letter from Dean of Students James H. Newman, dated Sept. 28, 1948.

“I hope you have a good reason for your absence and will write me at once.”

Similar letters were sent to other first-years who missed the mandatory convocation that day. They are contained in Newman’s papers at UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library and provide a window into the era of in loco parentis, when the law gave college administrators broad discretion in exercising their powers “in place of a parent” to develop the character of their students.

“The Dean had the authority to tell someone to go get a haircut or to put on a coat and tie before he would talk to them,” Robert Canevari (Educ ’59, ’64), who served as dean of students from 1970-1999, said in a 1990 interview with the Cavalier Daily.

The era began with James Morris Page, a mathematics professor who had been the last chairman of the faculty and was named dean of the college when Edwin Alderman became the University’s first president in 1904.

“He seemed to have an uncanny ability to understand young men, to discipline them, and at the same time retain their affection,” Virginius Dabney (Col 1920, Grad 1921), wrote in Mr. Jefferson’s University: A History.

Given the small enrollment at the time, Page knew virtually every student. He was accessible in his own way, hosting Sunday dinners for students at his home. But he had his limits. His daughter, Constance Page Daniel (Col ’31), told Virginia Magazine in 2011 of a memorable night when her father received  a phone call about students who wanted to riot.

“My father said, ‘Well, I was in bed, you got me out of my bed, and I’m not accustomed to having business appointments at this hour of the night. But if they want to riot, tell them that they’ll have to bring the riot out here to me, because I’m not going to 
come to them.’” 

Page was succeeded in 1934 by Ivey Foreman Lewis, who held the title Dean of the University, lived in Pavilion II and kept an office at 14 East Lawn. Lewis was a professor of biology and an outspoken proponent of the pseudoscience of eugenics. He taught a course encouraging students to support sterilization and segregation as “natural” social policies, according to The Virginia Eugenics Project, a 2018 collaboration between the UVA history department and the law school. An avowed segregationist and opponent of admitting Black students, Lewis was also anti-immigrant and antisemitic; he kept records on Jewish students. His name was removed from a residence hall in 2017.

In case that didn’t make him unapproachable enough, he had a gatekeeper. Many students never made it past his deputy and longtime secretary Mary Proffitt.

From left: Runk, Page and the infamous Ivey Foreman Lewis Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare; photos courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVA

“It was said that if Miss Mary liked you, your future was made at the University,” Gilliam says. “If she didn’t like you, you might as well pack up and go home.”

Proffitt, who had worked for Page and stayed on when Lewis took over, was “regarded with a combination of affection and awe,” Dabney wrote. After her death it was revealed that she was the Seven Society’s first female member.

“Miss Proffitt ran a darned good University,” Dabney quoted a student as saying.

After Lewis also became dean of the College of Arts & Sciences in 1946, he handed off many of his student administrative duties to Newman, who took the title of dean of students. Newman’s papers show a man immersed in everyday details, down to enforcing attendance at convocation. (Aken, subject of one of his letters, replied with an apology, saying he’d been at all-women’s Sweet Briar College and had thought convocation was at 7:30 p.m., not 4:30 p.m.)

Newman also handled damage control after students celebrating a football victory over the University of Pennsylvania trashed several Philadelphia hotels in 1947. Their many acts of vandalism included tossing a heavy copper fire extinguisher down a stairwell, smashing a mahogany handrail.

Newman told the head of the Philadelphia Hotel Association that the students in question had been placed “under observation.” The hotelier accused Newman of an official “washing of the hands” and said he would have to reconsider future relations with “the gentlemen, to use the term loosely, of the University of Virginia.”

Newman left for the University of Alabama in 1950, which returned more direct responsibility over students to Lewis. When Lewis retired in 1953, it opened the way for Runk’s reign.

Riding herd on rowdy students in those days was no job for the timid. Upset over new rules restricting cars to fourth-years in 1961, students hanged Runk in effigy. They later apologized, but it fell to Corks & Curls to take up for the dean.

“It is Mr. Runk who is called to the station at two in the morning to bail a student out, and it is he who presents the students’ complaints to the Board of Visitors. He is in the ticklish position of trying to be friend and disciplinarian at the same time.” 

Runk stayed long enough to feel the cultural ground shift in the late 1960s, an era of protests in which students asserted their rights to free speech and due process, and the doctrine of in loco parentis began losing favor in the courts and on campuses.

Born in 1906, he was among many of his vintage in similar positions in higher education who decided to call it a career. “There’s a whole generation of people who left at that point,” says Penny Rue, UVA’s dean of students from 1999 to 2007 and a scholar of student affairs.

As Runk himself later remarked: “I don’t think I could have lived through the turmoil.”

The day of the imperial dean had passed.

A New Model of Oversight

“I’ve been dean of students forever, it seems like,” Canevari told Virginia Magazine’s predecessor, Alumni News, upon announcing his retirement in 1998.

He was not far off. Canevari took the job in 1970, a lifetime ago at that point. It was a period of administrative restructuring at the University, as well as a resetting of the dean’s role from the in loco parentis model to a contractual relationship subject to due process.

The University adopted its first code of conduct that October. Previously, the expectation had been that students would behave as “gentlemen” and “ladies.”

The new code grew out of protests to the Vietnam War and the realization that the previous, vague standard would not hold up to legal scrutiny should disruptive students be expelled under it. Its language remained in place for three decades.

So did Canevari. The former football player and coach became dean of students after an administrative restructuring created five vice president positions under the president. D. Alan Williams, who had been dean of student affairs, was elevated to vice president of student affairs. Canevari went from assistant dean of student affairs to dean of students.

Canevari, 86, who through a family member declined to be interviewed for this story, said in 1995 that a six-month stint in the military police provided invaluable training in crowd control in his early days as dean.

“Right after I became dean of students, all hell broke loose all over the country (Vietnam era) so every other day we had another thousand people gathering somewhere,” Canevari told the Cavalier Daily.

Canevari’s papers at Special Collections portray a man dealing with great change—increasing minority enrollment, the admission of women and, with it, dramatic expansion of the student population. The role of the dean’s office in supporting student life ramped up.

“One important factor in understanding the Student Developmental Services Program at the University of Virginia is the character of the student body,” read a self-study of the office completed in 1973. “Great emphasis is placed upon admitting students to the University who have shown leadership capabilities and who are willing to assume responsibility for their success as well as their failures.

“The office of the Dean of Students is structured both philosophically and operationally on this concept.”

During his long tenure, Canevari presided over the end of Easters, the raucous party weekend that drew thousands to Grounds each spring. He was also dean during the 1991 Operation Equinox drug trafficking raid that resulted in the arrests of 11 students and seizure of three fraternity houses by federal agents. He became the most prominent face of the University’s public response, appearing on NBC’s A Closer Look with Jane Pauley. 

“I thought you represented us well,” Leonard Sandridge (Grad ’74), UVA’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, wrote to Canevari after the program aired. “I know this has been a trying year for you – thanks for your efforts and your leadership.”

Trying times came with the job description. Near the end of his tenure as dean of students, Canevari was asked what his legacy would be.

“This entire office has tried to make every student feel that this is their University,” he said. “We’ve tried to encourage them to become involved, to develop their talents and skills. My guess is that that’s what a lot of people would do as dean of students.”

The 21st Century

The job of following Canevari fell to Rue. She arrived from Georgetown University pledging to balance continuity and change.

Looking back, Rue says, she wanted to honor UVA’s tradition of student-centeredness, but also “recognize the increasing complexity of the world around us.

“So it was really, how do you create systems and structures that create an enabling platform for people to do important work with students, but still keep it very personal?”

An example of the need to modernize came after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. UVA had no system in place to locate those studying abroad, other than going through paper files, person by person. Rue also saw a need to implement systems to provide assistant deans on call with best practices in dealing with situations such as the death of a parent or an off-Grounds fire.

It wasn’t about creating systems for the sake of systems, she says, but rather “being people first, and always leading with an ethic of care.”

Rue also worked with student health services to develop training for faculty on how to recognize students’ struggling with mental health. It was part of her focus to prevent tragedies, she says.

“I saw the best of the best and those who were struggling,” she says. It’s a part of the job she missed when she became vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of California, San Diego, then vice president for campus life at Wake Forest University.

“You have to work harder to spend time with students as vice president,” she says.

Groves made a similar transition. He now serves as senior vice president and chief student experience officer at Syracuse University. While being recruited for that position, he recalls senior administrators there posing a question:

“Talk to us about a time where you’ve handled a crisis.”

Groves could have been forgiven if he’d responded: How much time do you have? 

There was no shortage of crises during his tenure as UVA’s dean of students from 2007 to 2021. A partial list would include the 2010 murder of lacrosse player Yeardley Love; the 2014 abduction and murder of student Hannah Graham; the 2014 Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus,” found to be defamatory and since retracted; and the violent August 2017 neo-Nazi torch march up the Lawn and around the Rotunda.

The modern era: Hadley (center), who has taken over for Groves (left), who succeeded Rue Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare; photos courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVA

Groves, who had come to the aid of student counterdemonstrators surrounding the base of the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the north terrace, was struck by a supremacist’s flaming torch. “I was the dean of students,” he says. “I felt I needed to be there.”

Those words could be the epitaph of Groves’ tenure. From his first day on the job, he was determined to be visible. “That was something Dean Canevari was so good at,” he says. “He was called the ‘walking dean’ by a lot of students because he would be out walking around.

“So if you invited me to something I showed up. Big, small, it didn’t matter.”

If Canevari was the “walking” dean, Groves was the lunching dean, the getting-drenched-in-a-dunk-tank dean at charity events, the dean setting a world record for the most high-fives, the dean with 12,000 Twitter followers and a published cell phone number.

“It feels like he’s the mayor,” Hadley said after walking Grounds with Groves.

Groves, a high-powered litigator in a former life, said his approach to discipline was that many things could be handled with a conversation, rather than a referral to the University Judiciary Committee. He took that approach in dealing with breaches of regulations during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, he says. It was a way of not overwhelming UJC with COVID-related cases, but it also matched his personal style.

“COVID, I will be honest, was brutally difficult,” he says. “It was the first time I felt like I had to be the policeman of the University, and that was not a comfortable role for me.”

Not that Groves shirked his disciplinary duties. Not that he was the anti-Runk, necessarily, but he was a different dean for a different time in an ever-evolving job.

“I think a critical part about Virginia, and I think what has made it such a wonderful place, is its ability to retain the kinds of things that transcend decades—that makes it special while at the same time evolving for a very different generation of students,” Groves says. “For all the occasional criticism of a place bound in tradition, I think actually it’s been a pretty nimble place.”

Ed Miller is senior editor of Virginia Magazine.