The Interview USA
Dean of Students
University of Michigan Dearborn

Amy Finley

As institutions of learning, universities bear not only the responsibility to educate but also the duty to cultivate an inclusive environment where every member feels like an indispensable part of a wider community. As the Dean of Students at the University of Michigan Dearborn, Amy Finley has led her institution’s efforts in this regard. 

Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, sat down with Amy to discuss everything from the challenge of ensuring civil discourse on campus to the importance of the student voice in building engagement with students at all levels of the institution.

Amy Finley

Max: Let’s begin with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution…

My name is Amy Finley and I serve as the Dean of Students at the University of Michigan Dearborn. I've been in this role for about six and a half years, but I’m celebrating 20 years on our campus this summer! It’s a wonderful place to be: we have a campus of about 8,000 students, two-thirds of whom are undergraduates and about a third graduate students. We put a lot of emphasis on practice-based learning, so when our students get out of college they are ready to enter the workforce or graduate school. 

Max: I’d like to hear more about your journey. How did you arrive in your current role?

When I finished my undergraduate degree, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. But one day, I got an email from the national headquarters of a student organization I was affiliated with, and they were looking for a staff member in the national office to assist campus chapters across the country. I thought I could try that while I figured out my next steps. But I really fell in love with the work; I traveled to 25 different campuses across the nation to advise student leadership and recruit new members. That helped me realize that I wanted to do this long-term, so I started trying to figure out what that would look like and what kind of education I would need. I quickly came across student affairs, and specifically student life, as a great pathway. So I enrolled in graduate school and started working towards that goal. I’ve been in higher education ever since, though I have taken on new responsibilities in different facets of student affairs.

Max: What are the key things to keep in mind when creating a safe and positive campus environment for all students?

It all starts with the community you create. Students, faculty, and staff all need to feel a sense of belonging. My role is really focused on helping students feel that they belong. When they come to our campus, everybody should feel safe and able to be their authentic selves. People behave differently when they are actively engaged in the community, and active engagement in the community breeds a better campus climate. It also improves safety, because everybody's looking out for each other. It’s also important to amplify the student voice; if something makes you uncomfortable, you should feel safe to speak out. We also need to build outstanding partnerships between various constituencies, whether that’s between university administration, student government, or the faculty senate. If we build up those relationships, then we can rely on them when times get tough.

Max: How do you address the challenge of engaging students outside of the classroom?

This is something we’ve been working on for a while. A couple of things about our campus: firstly, we are a non-residential campus, and second, we have a lot of non-traditional students, evening students and first-generation students. That means we've always had to work differently to engage students, especially because they aren’t living on campus. So we need to know who our students are, so we can meet them where they’re at. This is where student voice becomes so important because without it we could be pushing out irrelevant programs that won’t connect with students’ needs. Many of our students work two or three jobs, but we still have a robust student life, though it might look different than on other campuses. 

Max: Free speech has become a controversial issue on college campuses. How can we encourage students to engage in civic discourse across political divides?

Firstly, we need to communicate clearly to students that, as a public institution, we have an obligation to protect their free speech rights, regardless of their opinions. As long as students are following our code of conduct, we are going to staunchly protect their rights. When people feel they are being supported and protected, it changes the way they interact. If students are worried they won’t be given the opportunity to share their opinions, that will create a difficult situation. So we need to show integrity through our words and our actions.  We have to demonstrate that we are content-neutral: I have no opinion on your perspective, but I have an opinion on your right to your perspective. From there, we need to build those equitable systems to create those conversations where everybody starts on an equal footing. It makes a huge difference, and we need to be willing to have tough conversations when it's necessary.

Max: You’ve mentioned the importance of the student voice. What’s the best way to leverage that to ensure buy-in from students?

We have an incredible student body; last year, we had so many people showing up to Student Government meetings that we filled up all the seats and people were sitting on the floor. This is such a great place to be for students who want to make a difference in the institution. We make sure their voice is heard; the student government meets regularly with the chancellor and myself, so they have avenues to express their concerns. University leadership can go to the Student Government or the Student Affairs Advisory Board, making it easy to involve students in key decisions. The Budget Committee includes students, as do most of our hiring teams for any position. It has to be embedded in the fabric at every level of the institution; in every decision that you make.

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

If you’re a leader, stop thinking about yourself in isolation; think about yourself as part of a greater whole. The decisions you make impact the whole institution; you're much more powerful than you realize. So you have a responsibility to affect change for good.

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