The Interview USA
Brown University
Associate VP for Campus Life & Dean of Students

Koren Bakkegard

Ensuring that the needs of all students on campus are met is an immense task. The job of a Higher Education (HE) leader is to balance unique needs with ensuring everyone feels safe, supported and valued.

GoodCourse Universities Lead, Kitty Hadaway, sat down with Koren Bakkegard, Associate Vice President (VP) for Campus Life and Dean of Students at Brown University, to discuss ensuring all students excel academically, community-building and more.

Koren's Journey

Kitty: Let's begin with an introduction to yourself and what brought you to your role.

My current portfolio includes the Office of Conduct and Community Standards, Residential Life, the Student Activities Office, and Student Support Services. Originally I was pursuing a Ph.D. in English and Renaissance Drama with the intention to become a faculty member, but I realized during a live-in graduate student role in residential life that working with students to build a sense of belonging and define their values brought me more fulfillment than research and academic writing.

Kitty: How are you promoting belonging on campus post-Covid?

Belonging is at the core of what we do in student affairs. Students cannot engage in learning unless they first feel they are valued and included in the university community. One of the initiatives we’re launching this year is a new residential student staff role, re-engaging student leaders in knowing the students in their residential communities and fostering connections between them.

We are also working on a tiered leadership development program to serve both undergraduate and graduate students, rooted in building shared values and empathy. I’ll soon also be overseeing our community dialogue project, which is to teach conflict response strategies so that everyone is equipped to deal with difficult topics that affect the whole community.

Kitty: What in particular in community dialogue do you do?

We are building a cohort of students who can be conflict mediators and facilitators, bring together groups of people to discuss complex topics, and help others empathize with differing points of view.

Kitty: What is your approach to student safety?

First, it’s essential to have policies that define what prohibited behavior is and then accessible procedures to respond, such as mechanisms of support for students who have been impacted and the ability to hold students accountable when there is a violation. We aim to do this in a way that’s developmental, so that students have the chance to learn from their behavior and do better.

We are building a cohort of students who can be conflict mediators and facilitators, bring together groups of people to discuss complex topics, and help others empathize with differing points of view.  

Investing in a campus climate that has an ethic of care is essential.  A climate of belonging and care can reduce incidents of harm and provides a foundation of support when harm does occur.

Kitty: Where do you currently see students engaging?

Student engagement is about student needs and interests; some will choose to engage primarily in social and creative activities, and others might prioritize academic and civic engagement.

Our role is to understand and respond to the conditions that enable students to engage in the ways that serve their needs. We are working to ensure there are opportunities for students to connect with one another and that those are accessible and inclusive.

Kitty: Can you touch on the gender-inclusive initiative?

Early in my career, I had the privilege of working with a trans student who helped me understand the many ways the institution’s systems and structures in place othered him. Understanding his experience inspired a group of colleagues to commit to examining these barriers and determining how structures such as student data collection and storage, residence halls and bathrooms, and health care structures could be made more accessible and inclusive for our trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming students.

Kitty: How do you meet the needs of the students you helped through the First-Generation Low-Income (FLI) Student Advisory Group?

This happened in a similar way: my colleagues and I listened to the lived experiences of our FLI students. We looked at the ways these students’ needs and experiences intersected and also where they were distinct, so as not to treat them as a monolithic population. We started with a strength-based approach, looking at the assets and capacities these students bring, to understand what would build on those strengths to improve their experiences.

We increased the visibility of faculty and staff who had been FLI students as undergraduates, and we also worked to destigmatize the use of resources such as career advice and counseling for those populations. We promoted the idea that it’s normal to struggle in college, and all students benefit from resources.

Kitty: How do you support students through high-pressure environments?

The responsibility is on the institution to understand the structures and systems that create barriers for full participation, inclusion, and success. When this is done well, it needs to happen across an institution. We need to address the structures that impact students’ sense of safety, belonging, and inclusion.

3 Quickfire Questions

Kitty: what is your most important piece of advice for anyone getting into HE?

We all need to understand there is an opportunity to learn and grow from every role and project. Regardless of whether you enjoy every part of the job, there’s always something we can learn from these experiences.

Kitty: Is there a person who you most admire in HE?

I truly admire the work of Lily Zheng, the co-author with Inge Hansen of The Ethical Sell-Out. Lily now serves as a DEI consultant for higher education, and their work is so practical and insightful with a goal for organizations to produce tangible outcomes — not just things that appear to be progressive or inclusive, but are systemic and meaningful.

Kitty: What is the most important book you've read?

Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. They use their knowledge of design thinking, compassion and interest in people to provide tools for anyone to think about creating a meaningful and fulfilling life.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Kitty Hadaway
Universities Lead
Kitty is passionate about using technology to create safer and more inclusive campuses, and is an expert on student engagement and delivering training at scale. Get in touch at to learn more.

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