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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Sawyer remembered for student advocacy

Published: September 6, 2013
Section: Front Page, News

As Jamele Adams takes over in the role of Dean of Student Life, his energetic personality and big plans for Brandeis’ future have thrust him into the spotlight. Busied by new classes and the club fair, many students may soon forget Rick Sawyer, the previous Dean, a man who served the Brandeis campus for 32 years. The university sent out one quiet email over the summer informing students, one that did not mention that Sawyer in fact resigned.

But for colleagues, students and friends who were close to Sawyer, his resignation still stings.
“I think it’s a major, major loss to the university,” Associate Dean of Student Life Maggie Balch said. Balch considers Sawyer a former mentor.

On his last day on campus on July 31, Sawyer sent out an email to certain colleagues whom he felt he could trust, or who would remember his legacy.

“I am resigning because I no longer see myself aligned with the University’s decisions regarding my present and future roles,” Sawyer said in the email. “I had hoped to finish out my professional career at Brandeis, but I have decided that I would not be able to participate in ways that I would find professionally satisfying.”

While the specific reasons Sawyer chose to leave the University are still unclear, the disagreement between Sawyer and other Brandeis faculty could not be resolved. “I do not resign easily or happily. I apologize to the extent that my departure was neither anticipated nor expected, and I feel confident that you all understand that quitting is not in my nature,” wrote Sawyer in the email. He later credited the University with helping build him as a person.

“Rick was an advocate for students, and if he looked around and there wasn’t a student in the room, he fancied himself the oldest student in the room. As things have been evolving, that perspective had been a little more challenging for him to carry on,” said Balch in an interview this week.

For many students and staff, the reason Sawyer was a perfect fit for his role as dean was due to his focus on the humane, and connecting with students on a personal level.

“He is an amazing individual and was really an asset to the University. He knew so much about all things Brandeis and really strived to make the Brandeis family as tight-knit as can be,” said Rachel Nelson ’13. A recent graduate, Nelson planned Orientation for the class of 2015. “He helped me work through solutions as well as managed communication with incoming families,” said Nelson. She also connected with Sawyer’s carefree nature. “One of my favorite Rick memories is our fake smack talk during ‘Hoops for Haiti’. He played a good game and the trash talk really made it a lot more entertaining!”

In his role as Dean, Sawyer built the entire orientation program for first-year students. He also oversaw multiple departments within the Division of Students and Enrollment. “He’s a dad, and when he dealt with students, he would teach them and lead them to an answer and guide them over some pretty challenging terrain. His view was to teach them and help them change their life and path,” said Balch.

While Sawyer may be gone from the University, he is not forgotten. The memory of his service lives on in those who were close to him.

“He was a leader who listened to his people and cared about his people, was concerned for his people and advocated for his people. And he considered students his people,” said Balch.

“His leadership provided a platform for several shifts in organizational structure within the Division of Student Life, for the development of our core values and for nurturing several very important student leadership programs, which I believe are still in place at Brandeis today,” said Lori Tenser. Tenser is currently the Dean of First-Year Students at Wellesley College, but she worked at Brandeis for 16 years. “Rick was my supervisor, mentor and dear colleague for 15 of my 16 years…he possesses a quick wit, impeccable integrity and deep insight into the human experience,” Tenser said in an email to The Hoot. “I feel so grateful to have worked with him and learned from him.”

And as current students apply to graduate school and get an A+ on that impossible neuroscience test, perhaps they will remember another man close to the University who recently passed through his own trials and tribulations.

“We often talk with students about defining moments in our lives, and in this particular personal moment, I have elected to leave on my own terms,” said Sawyer in his email on the day he left Brandeis.