Student Experience

New dean of students spends first year embracing traditions

It was an ordinary fall day—at least that is what Matha Thornton thought until she opened the door of her office.

Randolph’s new vice president for student affairs and dean of students had only been on the job a few months when she was greeted by a skeleton leaning against a bookshelf and a coffin on the floor. “The first thing I thought was, ‘I love working at Randolph College,’” Thornton said. “No other dean gets to work in a place like this.”

Earlier that week, students had asked Thornton if they could store a few of their things in her office before Pumpkin Parade. She agreed but had no clue what they were talking about. “How many deans have the chance to walk into their office and find a skeleton and coffin?” she asked. “I love the traditions here, and it is fascinating to see how they impact the student experience.”

Thornton, who is originally from Dunn, North Carolina, earned her doctorate from the University of Virginia, a master’s degree from Florida State University, and an undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The former associate dean of student life for St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, Thornton wanted to work for an institution with a close community, academic rigor, and an effective Honor Code.

“We are here to help students grow academically and personally,” she said. “And I believe those characteristics are important. You have to have a community where students are academically engaged, and you have to have a community that supports students so they can reach their full potential.”

Living with an Honor Code pushes students in a way that helps them more than just telling them what to do or not to do, Thornton added. “Our job is to support them through their challenges, but we want them to grapple and struggle with important questions as they are transitioning into adulthood,” she said. “They learn from these situations, and they grow from them. That is part of what the college experience is about.”

Thornton, who has worked at numerous colleges, including Haverford, the University of Virginia, The College of Wooster, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said she could sense that Randolph’s environment was special during her first interviews.

“Students here are happy and have fun, but they are also serious about their academics,” she said. “It’s a good balance, and it is clear they love being at Randolph.”

 

Though she is only in her second semester, Thornton has come to share that sentiment. “I don’t think anyone grows up knowing they can be a dean of students,” Thornton said. “But I love it, especially here.”