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Leading with ‘humor, humility, and humanity’: Dolan reflects on nine years as Dean of the College

A white-haired woman with round glasses smiles in front of a large bookshelf in a brightly lit office.
Dean of the College Jill Dolan.
Calvin K. Grover / The Daily Princetonian

“To the future, then,” reads the sign-off to a 2006 blog post penned by arts critic The Feminist Spectator about Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road.” 

The Feminist Spectator was hailed as a “tireless champion of women artists” by the Cornell committee that awarded her the 2011 George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for her profound theater criticism with gender and sexuality at the forefront, making her the seventh woman to win the award out of 56 winners in the award’s history at the time.

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The blog’s tagline is “Ruminations on how culture shapes our lives.”

Today, The Feminist Spectator is better known as Dean of the College Jill Dolan. In this role, her signature frequently accompanies the announcement of major University decisions, from the new final exam pilot to the infamous pandemic memos.

Soon, Dolan will sign off once again, this time stepping down from the deanship she has held since 2015.

As she charts a new future, The Daily Princetonian sat down with Dolan and several of her closest colleagues to discuss her trailblazing work as an academic, transformation into an administrator, and responses to the hot-button issues that have defined her tenure.

‘A giant, towering figure in the field of performance studies’

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pa., Dolan was heavily involved in theater, leading her to seek out higher education opportunities through the League of Professional Theater Training Programs.

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While Dolan settled on Boston University (BU), the opportunity wasn’t what she had originally envisioned.

“I entered this theater program that I later learned was really anti-intellectual. No one was interested in talking about ideas or plays, it was all about a kind of pre-professional orientation to the business of theater. And I’d never really been interested in that very much,” she said.

In the second semester of her sophomore year, Dolan made the decision to leave the theater program. Focusing on her true interest in “theater as a kind of craft,” she pursued a bachelor’s degree in communication and began writing for BU’s student paper, The Daily Free Press. 

It was during this time that she became a theater critic, which she described as “the thread that carried [her] through” her career.

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Dolan went on to receive master’s and doctoral degrees in Performance Studies from New York University (NYU). Her dissertation, “The Feminist Spectator as Critic,” became one of the first books published in the field of feminist performance theory and is now required reading in performance studies courses across the country.

The title carried over to Dolan’s blog The Feminist Spectator, which was launched in 2005. 

Dolan explained, “I use the metaphor of the feminist stealing the seat of the conventional critic who at that time, was always white, always male, always straight.”

“The idea that a feminist critic would steal the seat and look from a different perspective became a powerful place for me to put myself as a critic and to invite the people reading my work to sort of join me in the seat beside me and think about what changes when you look at theater from a feminist perspective,” she continued.

Judith Hamera, chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts (LCA) and a professor of dance, described Dolan as “a giant, towering figure in the field of performance studies.” 

“It’s not always clear to students [who interact with her in an administrative capacity] that Dean Dolan was a pioneering figure in queer performance and theater studies. She wrote explicitly as a lesbian feminist critic, when that was not an easy thing to be doing,” Hamera noted. 

Alisa Solomon, the Director of the Arts and Culture concentration at the Columbia Journalism School, told the ‘Prince’ that Dolan’s work has now impacted two generations of scholars in the field.

Hamera similarly shared, “​​We would read Jill Dolan’s scholarship, we would read her blogs, just as inspiration to keep going. I’ve cited ‘Utopia in Performance’ more times than I can even count — and I’m not alone.” “Utopia in Performance,” written by Dolan and published in 2005, reflects on the value of theater in creating a more just world.

“When Jill Dolan speaks,” Hamera added, “people listen.”

Stepping off of the Dinky and into Princeton

With a national reputation as a creator of feminist performance studies, Dolan was high on the shortlist to fill a new, jointly appointed position between the Department of English and the LCA.

She joined Princeton’s faculty in 2008, following nine years at the University of Texas at Austin as ​​the Chair in Drama and the head of the Department of Theatre and Dance’s graduate program in performance as a public practice.

Dolan and her partner, Professor of Theater and American Studies Stacy Wolf, accepted positions at Princeton without visiting campus.

“We just took the New Jersey Transit and the Dinky to Princeton, and we got off the train and had no idea actually how to get to campus,” Dolan recalled. “At that point Princeton was not fond of signage. So if you knew where you were going, you knew how to get around. And if you don’t, you didn’t. So we walked all around Springdale golf course before we realized we were heading the wrong way and had to turn around.”

As Dolan and Wolf settled in, they embraced the transition from their previous large public flagship institutions to a closer-knit community.

“[Princeton is] a place that’s small enough that you can have an effect on what happens, but central enough to the conversation about higher education that that effect can spill out outside of the quote unquote, orange bubble.”

Beyond her teaching responsibilities, Dolan went on to serve as Director of the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies (GSS) from 2009 to 2015. 

Associate Professor of Theater Brian Herrera — who is a core faculty member in GSS and frequent citer of Dolan’s work — highlighted her role in strengthening the program, primarily through initiatives aimed at building connections between undergraduate, graduate, and senior researchers.

“She really enlivened and, with her administrative acumen but also her generous human touch, brought GSS into the era in which it sits now,” Herrera noted.

Donning her dean ‘costume’

Following the announcement of former Dean of the College Valerie Smith’s intention to step down, a four-month search for her predecessor ensued, culminating in Dolan’s selection.

In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ University lecturer and former chair of the LCA Michael Cadden — who had been part of the effort to “woo” Dolan to Princeton — expressed that seeing her rise to the position was bittersweet, since she would be stepping back from the LCA. However, he concluded that it was beneficial to advancing the arts.

“Just to have someone like Jill … someone sort of from our neck of the woods and our kind of disciplines as the Dean of the College was a matter of pride. It felt like, ‘Oh, we’re being fully invited now to the table that is Princeton University.’” 

Reflecting on his favorite memories of Dolan, Herrera shared that he enjoyed watching her wardrobe of jeans, sneakers, and fleeces change alongside her title.

“I was like, I wonder what’s going to happen in terms of the costume when she now has to be a dean and has to wear more orange and has to wear blazers and hard shoes,” said Herrera. “One of my favorite things is just watching her find a way to look exactly like Jill Dolan … [and] maintain her own sense of personal comfort and style in a role as prominent and as public facing as the dean,” he continued.

Despite wearing this dean “costume,” Dolan has attempted to remain relatable and accessible to students.

“One of the things that’s always so interesting about her is she doesn’t stand behind the podium unless the protocol of the event [is that she] has to. She typically will step in front of the desk, sometimes sit on the desk like this sort of join the circle on the floor like she will not stand on ceremony unless the protocol of the circumstances obliges it in some way,” Herrera said.

Though Dolan has not taught a course in the LCA in recent years due to the demands of her position, her presence as a feminist spectator has continued. Herrera admired her continued place in the University community as a dedicated audience member. 

“She is a theater scholar and comes to all the shows as part of the mainstream life of the Lewis Center,” said Herrera. “I also know that she attends a lot of…women’s basketball and a couple other women’s sports, so she’s been in the stands or in the seats always, and that has not stopped since she’s been Dean.”

Dolan emphasized the importance of attending these events.“I think it would be a real shame if the person in this position felt that students were an abstraction.”

‘The pandemic memos’: Navigating COVID-19

Arguably, the greatest challenge Dolan faced during her tenure as Dean of the College was the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Dean of the College is responsible for guiding “all aspects of Princeton’s undergraduate academic program,” according to the office’s website.

From the beginning to the end of the pandemic, she was tasked with steering the University through an unprecedented moment. 

One such decision and resulting pandemic-era policy called for students to report fellow students for COVID-19 policy violations. 

When asked about how this policy could potentially foster a negative culture among students, Dolan answered, “One could ask that about the Honor Code as well … Rather than seeing it as turning one another in, it was trying to hold everyone to the same set of values about keeping one another safe. I think that’s really what it was meant to do rather than surveillance.” 

“She isn’t just Dean of the College, which is a demanding job. She has been the Dean of the College through COVID. Everything shifted in a moment. And then everything had to shift back. That's a heroic thing to manage being a Dean,” said Hamera. “That is climbing Everest on a cold day with a very heavy backpack.”

Navigating this climb meant a very demanding schedule. “I was online all day every day trying to figure out how we were going to keep Princeton going with all of my colleagues in the Office of the Dean of the College and in the President’s Cabinet and the President,” Dolan recalled.

Although decisions were the product of group deliberation, Dolan was the messenger of difficult news to the University community. Many students may remember her as the signature on these emails — a role she is well aware of.

“I tried with those emails, again, to approach everyone I was writing to as a human being who was all in this terrible situation together … I do not plan to publish those as a book, but I guess they’ll go down in the history of the institution as the pandemic memos,” she said.

In these memos, Wolf sees a reflection of Dolan’s character and skill as a writer.

“One of the things that I’ve been so impressed with watching her on the big stage as Dean as someone who’s known her for 35 years is how the public face she presents is who she is. And every single memo that she sends out, she writes those memos,” Wolf said. “It’s so important to her that everything that she does is her true self. Which I mean, I just admire that so much. I think it’s very hard for someone in a visible job like hers to kind of keep their soul,” Wolf explained.

Despite the challenges of this period, Wolf recalled several ways in which the pandemic provided outlets for joy in their personal lives.

“She didn’t have to get dressed up in her costume, her dean costume, [and] she could cook. I think there was a lot that she enjoyed about those days on the private side. There was definitely a bifurcation between what she was having to do in her job, which was very, very difficult and exhausting.”

At home, Dolan adopted a miniature schnauzer, honed her skills in the kitchen every night — often whipping up her signature miso salmon — and found community online through Friday night Shabbat services.

Looking ahead, the experience of leading through a remote era has also spurred new scholarly questions for Dolan.

“For me, there’s a connection between my work as a dean in terms of residential liberal arts education, and the necessity that in theater and the performing arts you have to show up in an audience to experience live performance,” she said.

“I’m really interested in thinking about what the live presence means.”

‘People care deeply about these issues’: A deanship marked by activism and free speech

Dolan’s time as Dean of the College is bookended by two protests: The Black Justice League (BJL) sit-in in November 2015 and the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” that began on April 25 and concluded on Wednesday.

During the 2015 BJL sit-in, protesters sat in the Nassau Hall office of President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 for 33 hours until he agreed to sign a revised list of demands, including the creation of affinity spaces for Black students and creating a committee within the Board of Trustees to consider the removal of the Woodrow Wilson name from the former residential college and what is now the School of Public and International Affairs. Following the sit-in, Dean Dolan wrote in a column for the ‘Prince,’ “Hearing student protesters shout down President Eisgruber shocked and embarrassed me. But in other moments, last week gave me hope that our community might in fact do better.”

When asked about this comment over eight years later, Dolan said, “It was an abrupt curtailment of the conversation that I kind of regretted because I didn’t think we were necessarily done.”

“While I think a place like Princeton, of necessity, privileges discourse that’s cordial and serious and respectful, we have to know how to manage heightened emotions because people care deeply about these issues. And one of the things I always try to encourage in myself is allowing my emotions to come through while maintaining a kind of ability to talk to someone through them,” she reflected.

In her final weeks as Dean of the College, Dolan similarly witnessed student protests on campus through the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.” 

The ‘Prince’ interviewed Dolan prior to the protest’s occupation of Clio Hall and relocation from McCosh Courtyard to Cannon Green.

“It feels to me too, that the historical moment is very different. And obviously what’s happening here is part of something that’s very large and very unwieldy across the country right now,” Dolan said, while referencing the tradition of campus protests.

Dolan also discussed the University’s emphasis on free speech and the University’s commitment to the expression of “even the most offensive speech.” Here, she said she agrees with Eisgruber’s approach, whom she referred to as “our guide post.”

“That has meant a lot to me in my role as Dean, that the way we negotiate these deeply controversial issues is not by taking away anyone’s right to speak in their classroom for faculty, the academic freedom issues, and not taking away the right of students to argue back with faculty, or if they feel discriminated against, to lodge those complaints … I would not be proud of a campus where things were shut down,” Dolan noted.

According to Cadden, this emphasis on a “plain spoken” exchange of ideas “is just part of [Dolan’s] everyday self,” with roots in her expression as a theater scholar.

“She wants to be clear. She wants other people to be clear. She will let you know when, as a result of expressing ideas clearly, we find ourselves in disagreement, and then we work through that. She’s also very dialogic in the way that she approaches the world and human relationships,” Cadden continued.

‘There’s always more to do’

“What I’m most proud of, in my time as Dean, are all the ways the student population has changed since I got here,” Dolan said, citing changes in socioeconomic and geographic diversity. Undergraduate admission and financial aid falls under the purview of her office.

“When I came to Princeton, and I think it’s still a little bit true, there’s such a stereotype of what Princeton is that I think is based on what it was in the 1950s and 60s. So when people come, they walk around and think, ‘I didn’t expect to see these kinds of students on campus.’”

When Dolan took her role as Dean, 59 percent of the graduating class received financial aid, and 17.5 percent came from low-income backgrounds. That same year, 42 percent of domestic undergraduates were people of color.

In the Class of 2027, the penultimate class admitted during Dolan’s tenure, 66 percent of students in the class qualify for financial aid and 22 percent are eligible for Pell Grants. Most notably, the undergraduate population is now majority non-white.

“There’s so much more I could do,” Dolan said when asked if she had any regrets in leaving her role. “And yet at the same time, there’s always more to do.”

Beyond her more tangible accomplishments, Dolan said she would like to be remembered for the ethos she has brought to her leadership.

“I would like to be remembered as someone who led with, as I like to say, humor, humility, and humanity,” said Dolan.

Herrera observed that Dolan’s leadership style is infused with perspectives from her career as a theater critic.

“There’s a principle in theater criticism and performance criticism, where you ask, ‘What is the show trying to do?’ and you assess the show based on its goals and its attempts and what it’s aiming to communicate,” he said. “I always see her deploying those same skills like, ‘Okay, where are you coming from?’ ‘What are you bringing to this?’ ‘What's your goal here?’ And ‘how might I meet you, as somebody with my own opinions and my own perspectives, but somebody who’s not going to overlay an aesthetic or other kind of judgment on what you're doing?’”

Hamera echoed, “the reason I think she’s been such a successful Dean [is because the] same intellectual and values commitments, and her same warmth and intellectual and social generosity are absolutely in play.”

‘To the future, then’

Dolan shared her plans to relax after the end of her time as Dean. “The idea of having a summer where I have no expectations for myself and just trying to rest is what I’m looking forward to for a few months,” she said.

A previous University press release announced that Dolan would take a two-year sabbatical for research and writing, then retire from the faculty.

The future for Dolan remains open-ended. “Then in the fall, I’'m going to figure out what I want my next project to be. Will I do a blog again? Will I write a book? What do I want to see and experience?”

Throughout her tenure, Princeton has influenced Dean Dolan just as Dean Dolan has influenced the culture of Princeton. 

“I’'m sure the new Dean of the College will be awesome but it’s going to be a culture change,” concluded Herrera. “Jill is such a specific personality.”

Thomas Catalano is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’

Julian Hartman-Sigall is an associate News editor for the ‘Prince.’

Sejal Goud is a head Features editor for the ‘Prince.’

Please direct corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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