Columbia’s Colombo Will Be Dean for Student Life

Costantino “Chris” Colombo, dean for student affairs at Columbia University’s undergraduate schools, was chosen as MIT’s new dean for student life. Colombo, whose appointment is effective beginning Aug. 18, will move into Next House with his family.

Colombo replaces Larry G. Benedict, who has held the dean for student life position since its inception in 2000. Benedict, who announced his retirement in October, will leave MIT this month.

Steven R. Lerman ’72, dean for graduate education and chair of the search advisory committee, said that he was “incredibly excited” about Colombo’s appointment. Lerman said that Colombo is “an incredibly thoughtful and wise individual” who brings a great deal of experience to MIT, having held the analogous position at two other top-tier universities.

Colombo, who has worked at Columbia University since 1992, has held the position of dean for student affairs at Columbia since 1998. From 1975 to 1992, he worked at Johns Hopkins University in a variety of positions, including dean for students. (Coincidentally, Benedict took over Colombo’s Johns Hopkins position in 1992 before coming to MIT.)

At Columbia, Colombo oversaw the consolidation of the admissions and advising divisions of Columbia’s two undergraduate schools, according to the Columbia Spectator, a student newspaper. Colombo was also part of a team of administrators that negotiated with students activists during a hunger strike last year.

A quick search in the Spectator’s archives also reveals that, among other things, Colombo created a committee earlier this year to evaluate Columbia’s “opaque” discipline procedures and met with student representatives of groups targeted by racist graffiti last fall.

“It is evident that [Dean Colombo] is a man who fervently cares about his students and loves what he does,” Undergraduate Association President Noah S. Jessop ’08 said in an e-mail. “I believe that he is very curious to learn about what MIT is like now before making any changes. I suspect Dean Colombo will put in the effort to do so in an exemplary fashion.”

Colombo, who is on vacation until Aug. 18, was unavailable for comment.

As previously reported in The Tech, a total of about six dozen candidates to replace Benedict were vetted by an external search firm, with about three dozen of those having complete applications.

Eight candidates were chosen and interviewed by the search advisory committee, with a few candidates invited to a second round of interviews and meetings with students, faculty, and additional administrators. A short list was submitted to Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 who gave a final recommendation to President Susan Hockfield.

Major issues for the new dean

In an e-mail, Jessop said that immediate issues for Colombo to address will include dining and housing, and “continuing the recent progress in student engagement.”

“Students are really in desperate need of an ally in the administration,” former UA President Martin F. Holmes ’08 said. He strongly encouraged Colombo to continue Benedict’s tradition of having weekly office hours for students. It would give students “time to interface with the dean,” Holmes said.

Holmes also stated that dining was the most prominent challenge for the new dean. It’s a “monumental issue … that needs to be handled very carefully.”

Lerman added that a long-term sustainable model for construction and maintenance of residence halls was also an issue Colombo would need to address. “Several residences are arguably in need of renovation. … We need a much more coherent plan,” Lerman said.

Continuing to support the fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups, both financially and otherwise, was also cited as another issue for the new dean, as was how to best integrate living and learning.

Colombo’s contributions to student life will build on the work that Benedict has done in his time here.

As dean for student life, Benedict has worked on campus dining issues, overseen dormitory renovations, expanded the housemaster program to graduate residences, and worked on other student services projects. His position also made him responsible for student life and well-being, evident in his work on the 2001 Mental Health Task Force.

“Part of what made this search so hard is that [the new dean] has big shoes to fill,” Lerman said.

“I am not alone in saying that Larryben created an integral part of what we consider the MIT experience, Student Life,” Jessop wrote in an e-mail. “He has done tremendous things for this institution. … I wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”

New dean will live in Next House

Colombo and his family will live at Next House for the upcoming academic year, in the vacant housemasters’ apartment.

“Living on campus with my family will give me ample opportunity to interact with students,” Colombo told the MIT News Office. “I look forward to moving to Cambridge later this summer.”

The search advisory committee determined that it would be “enormously beneficial” for the new dean for student life to live on campus, Clay said in an e-mail to Next House. As MIT reached its decision, it was discovered that Colombo would be very interested in the opportunity, Lerman said.

Holmes, a member of the search advisory committee, said that he was very excited about Colombo’s decision to live on campus. “That level of commitment and enthusiasm to get to know students and understand MIT culture is a telling sign that he is coming here with an open mind,” Holmes said.

The search for a new Next House housemaster will continue in the fall, and the plan to provide faculty and staff support to Next will remain the same. Residential Life Associate Marc A. Lo will serve as “interim house director” and will work with the house government and with residents. The dormitory’s current housemasters, Muriel Medard ’89 and John Simmons ’90, will move off-campus with their family but will still serve officially as housemasters.