Helping students with the varied academic issues they encounter has been Dean Shannon O’Neill’s job as the Dean of Juniors and Seniors, since she came to Brown in 2015. This past spring, her role has grew to include handling students’ struggles around substance abuse and sobriety.
For many the title Dean of Chemical Dependency will arouse confusion or curiosity, maybe even eliciting a snort or a chuckle. But, as college campuses are often filled with vibrant and at times destructive party scenes, the position makes sense for a lot of people. The Dean of Chemical Dependency has a job that differs from that of any other Dean because they face the trials and tribulations of students and faculty striving to remain sober. To simplify things, let’s call O’Neill the Sober Dean.
Surprisingly, this title is not new. According to Maud Mandel, Dean of the College, this job has a long standing history, having gradually evolved into what it is today. It started in the 1970’s with Associate Dean Bruce Donovan, whose passion for this kind of work filled a void on campus. As Mandel put it, the position, “was unique across the higher ed landscape.” Dean Donovan initially worked alongside Health services with the intention of aiding faculty in recovery, or those with family members or friends dealing with the disease. The support services began branching out to students and by the 1980’s supporting students’ became the primary focus.
When Donovan retired in 2003, Mandel explained that, “a number of people on and off campus that he had been working with, including alumni, endowed a position to keep the work ongoing and that’s when the position of Dean of Chemical Dependency took shape.”
This position might seem redundant when CAPS and health services already provide support in this realm. Dean Mandel clarified that the intention of the position “was for students going through recovery to continue to be successful academically, which is what the office of the Dean of the College is focused on. There was a concern that students who were still using or in early recovery might not be successful academically, so linking academic advising with chemical dependency support was intrinsic to the thinking of this position.”
Mandel had nothing but praise for O’Neill, describing her as “wonderful” and looking ahead at the work she will be doing said, “she’ll do this in her own way…and I am very supportive of that.”
O’Neill has big plans to support students in recovery going forward, in addition to what has already been done. “Historically, Brown has had a once a week, hour-long group meeting of students in recovery who are committed to abstinence from substance use. I would like to expand that to include monthly outings, social events and workshops with guest speakers, as well as provide a bi-weekly group session with a counselor. I also hope to secure a residence on campus with a lounge for meetings and hanging out. My role has been to provide academic and social support support and, help navigate the institution. I think we can build a more robust program, especially if we look at what’s been happening in the field of collegiate recovery in the last ten years.”
The struggle of an addict or alcoholic is not one everyone can understand, but it is not an uncommon affliction. The necessity of this position and the impact it has on recovering students and staff was deeply underscored by Deans Mandel and O’Neill. Having an individual always there to help a student in crisis is essential to a university campus.