Before Deputy Dean of Undergraduate Students Thomas Dunne arrived at Princeton in 1999, the traditional University Student Government (USG) concert was held in Dillon Gym and disconnected from the eating clubs’ Houseparties weekend.
As Dunne remembers it, the president of Quadrangle Club came to him with the idea to hold the concert in the club’s backyard so that all students could participate in the weekend of celebration regardless of club affiliation. Dunne was one of the primary administrative forces behind creating Lawnparties as it exists today.
22 years later, Dunne has been appointed as Harvard College’s next Dean of Students, set to begin his work in Cambridge in June of this year. Dunne’s successor at Princeton is yet to be appointed.
During his tenure in the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS), Dunne built a wealth of institutional knowledge as he developed initiatives and worked with student groups. Dunne’s expertise ranged from Vote100 and USG to Class Day and Lawnparties. Dunne’s team within ODUS is tasked with working to support student organizations and student leaders through a wide variety of projects and events.
A key administrative touchpoint
Many administrators and student leaders know Dunne for his significant impact in shaping traditions that are now staples of the Princeton experience.
“Many, if not all, of the best memories that undergraduates have at Princeton are thanks to Dean Dunne,” Taryn Sebba, the Class of 2023 President wrote in an email to The Daily Princetonian.
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Dunne described his role in creating the Pre-Rade to welcome incoming first-years and in reimagining Class Day, alongside transforming the traditional USG concert into Lawnparties as current students know it today.
Reflecting on his impact on the student experience at Princeton, Dunne said that a major part of his work and the University’s work is “to make Princeton feel more inclusive and open to everyone and to make it more socially fluid.”
Dunne has also played a critical role liaising between the USG and University administration, holding weekly meetings with the USG President to help execute student ideas. USG President Mayu Takeuchi ’23 described Dunne as having a “very students-first” attitude.
“He does everything in his power to help make [students’ ideas] happen, and at the same time, he manages to do all of that without stepping on our toes, and really, he does all that respecting students and our visions and our ideas,” Takeuchi told the ‘Prince.’
Takeuchi highlighted Dunne’s ability to foster connections and relationships between generations of Princetonians. When an issue arises, Dunne “immediately knows a similar thing happened during this President’s administration like 12 years ago, or like, five years ago and [he] can connect you with them,” she said.
USG President-elect Stephen Daniels ’24 echoed this sentiment, telling the ‘Prince’ that “if you ask him a question, he’s probably already thought about it five times and can point you to the exact right person.”
Former USG President Christian Potter ’22 described how Dunne’s relationship with USG facilitated work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When certain COVID policies needed refinement, Dean Dunne made it possible for [former USG Vice President Ashwin Mahadevan ’22] and me to provide appropriate input and actually improve the policies, which would not have been possible without the trust he placed in the USG and the strong relationship we had,” he wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’
Focus on civic engagement and gender diversity
In addition to USG, Dunne established Vote100 in 2015 and has continued to advise the group since. Vote100 is a student organization which seeks to reach 100 percent voter turnout among Princeton students in local and national elections.
“Dean Dunne is like the life and soul of Vote100,” Co-Head Vote100 Fellow Ana Blanco ’23 wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ Since the organization took off, voter turnout among Princeton students in national elections has risen from 10 percent in the 2014 midterms to 75 percent in the 2020 presidential election.
“He’s a true visionary,” Blanco wrote. On Dunne’s departure, Blanco added that she is confident in Vote100’s ability to adapt.
Dunne emphasized that he is especially proud of his work both on civic engagement and on fostering women’s leadership through his contributions to the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership, which formed in 2009 to address a decline in visible women’s leadership on campus across forums including USG, eating clubs, and Rhodes and Marshall scholars.
According to Dunne, one result of the committee’s work was reframing the way faculty and staff “deliver information to women about things like applying for Rhodes and Marshall [or] deciding to run for student body president or class president.”
Dunne had found that many female students who were pursuing those positions or honors did so because of directed encouragement from mentors. Dunne personally worked to incorporate this strategy into his relationships with female student leaders.
‘Personal memories’ at Princeton
Along with the professional successes Dunne has achieved at Princeton, he also emphasized the significance of his “personal memories” on campus.
Dunne met his wife, Molly Dunne (neé Bracken) when she worked at Princeton as an Associate Director of Admission. He proposed to her in East Pyne Courtyard and their wedding was held in the University Chapel in 2006. The pair have three children who Dunne said “spend a ton of time on campus.”
“At the end of the day, it’s really the people and the students and faculty and people in the community that I remember,” Dunne said.
Dunne recalled that he was initially hesitant about applying for a job at Princeton, but changed his mind after realizing that the University “really takes student perspectives seriously.”
“Everyone really cares deeply about the student experience at Princeton,” Dunne said, “and that also includes people from unexpected places. People like Kenny Grayson, who’s the electrician on campus who has worked here close to 50 years and [is] just a really warm spirit — someone to me that makes Princeton what Princeton is.”
Though he initially planned to stay at Princeton for just a few years, Dunne remembered a moment three months into his tenure while walking through the East Pyne courtyard, “looking around and being struck with the idea of ‘How does somebody leave a place like this?’”
Dunne said his decision to leave was spurred by talking to his children “about being open to new experiences and new adventures and not thinking that there’s only one type of way to find happiness.” He says that ultimately, he felt that Harvard “has the elements that [he loves] most about Princeton” while providing “the opportunity in [his] career to see how things can be done differently.”
“One of the things I love about this career that I’ve sort of stumbled into is that I do think institutions like Princeton and Harvard, both incredibly privileged, also have a deep commitment to equity and justice,” Dunne said.
“So having those two different experiences will, I think, give me a deeper understanding of, for institutions like this, places of privilege and resource — what [are] their possibilities, what is their promise, and what potentially [are] their liabilities, and how do you mitigate those?”
Dunne’s new role comes as Harvard experiences significant changes to its administration, with Claudine Gay taking over as Harvard’s 30th President in July 2023. Dunne sees Gay’s ascension as something that is “creating new opportunities at Harvard” and is “really exciting” to him.
A caring and passionate mentor
Aside from his professional accomplishments, students and coworkers highlight Dunne’s skill at mentoring as well as his caring demeanor.
“While fulfilling his administrative responsibilities, he always made time and space to listen to student concerns, raise student feedback to the upper echelons of University admin, and to truly serve as a mentor for thousands of Princetonians past and present,” Mahadevan wrote.
“[If] we’re working on proposals or whatever until three in the morning — a lot of the times, we've seen that Dean Dunne is also working on them,” former USG Vice President Hannah Kapoor ’23 said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’
“When we’re working on something and we're struggling, Dean Dunne has his eye on it and [is] making sure we’re all okay. It’s such a blessing to have that kind of support at a university,” she added.
Coworkers in the ODUS office also report that Dunne’s wealth of experience has been hugely meaningful. Dunne’s longtime executive assistant, Shelley Jannos, described Dunne as “hugely into mentoring” both students and staff, adding that he “didn’t realize he mentored [her] the whole time.”
To describe Dunne’s positive impact in the office, Jannos noted that he is “humble” and “doesn’t like to be the center of attention ever.” She also said that he is “hilariously, hilariously funny,” having “played practical jokes on practically everybody in [the ODUS] office.”
In an interview with the ‘Prince’, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Students Ian Deas said that as his supervisor, Dunne is constantly helping with his professional development. According to Deas, Dunne refleected on his own experiences to ensure that Deas is “prepared to lead at the next level.”
“To have a supervisor who is as invested in your own success as their own success, I think that speaks volumes,” Deas said.
Filling Dunne’s role at Princeton
Dunne, who plays a key role in student organizations on campus, leaves a gap with his departure. As shown in a slideshow for incoming presidents of ODUS-recognized student groups, Dunne leads a team of six other ODUS staffers as touchpoints for all ODUS-recognized student organizations — a relatively small number in the context of all staff working for the University.
Having only accepted his new position in late December, Dunne said that the transition process within ODUS is still “pretty new” and perhaps unexpected.
“My role now is to think about … the things that I might have not written down that I now need to write down, because I won’t be doing it the following year,” Dunne said.
“Whoever steps into this role will have enormous shoes to fill,” Sebba wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “It will be a steep learning curve, and I truly believe that Dean Dunne is irreplaceable.”
In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Mahadevan said, “I believe ODUS will be hard-pressed to find a replacement for Dean Dunne who can even begin to fill the void that his departure will create.”
In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Dean of Undergraduate Students Kathleen Deignan wrote, “I have every confidence that the training he has done with his own staff, the procedures he has put in place, and the systems he has developed will provide continuity and ensure that our office continues to support students and student groups with the same level of service and effectiveness that we’ve provided under Dean Dunne’s leadership.”
Deas echoed this sentiment, stating, “the work here is so collaborative that although [Dunne] has two decades of experience, that experience was rarely ever a solo experience... So much of his knowledge is also with those who collaborated with him on those efforts.”
“The opportunity to serve as Dean of Students at Harvard is an exciting one, and I know that he will bring to that position the same creativity, initiative, and dedication to supporting Harvard students that he demonstrated every day at Princeton,” wrote Deignan.
“That said,” Deignan added, “everyone in ODUS will miss him!”
Reflecting on his time at Princeton, Dunne said, “Most students only get to spend four years in residence here, and for me to spend 22? What a blessing. It’s been incredible, so I’m glad I have five more months.”
Annie Rupertus is a sophomore from Philadelphia and an associate News editor who frequently covers USG for the ‘Prince.’
Nandini Krishnan is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’
Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Stephen Daniels as USG President and Mayu Takeuchi as former USG President. Daniels has not yet taken office.