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At Tacoma's University Of Puget Sound, A 'Freshman President' Gets To Work

University of Puget Sound
University of Puget Sound President Isiaah Crawford greets students as they arrive for a new year on the school's Tacoma campus. Crawford took office July 1.

Freshman move-in day at Tacoma’s University of Puget Sound looks like you might expect.

Parents study maps under old, shady trees on this 128-year-old campus. Students wear their new keys on lanyards around their necks as they carry bags, pillows and blankets across bright green lawns toward their new dorms. There are hugs, greetings, introductions and a little crying, stifled and otherwise.

And in the middle of it all is Isiaah Crawford, the university’s newest president. It’s hard for him to get very far without stopping to talk. He asks families and students where they're from and what they plan to study. First-year student Nia Henderson, from California, says she plans to study psychology.

“You’re just saying that,” Crawford says to her, pointing out that he’s a psychologist. She laughs, and insists that it really is her interest.

If it takes some time to get where he’s going today, Crawford doesn’t seem to mind. He’s much happier walking around than he is at his desk. In fact, he says he plans to schedule time to not be at his desk, hoping to spend it out among the faculty, staff, and 3,000 students on this 97-acre campus.

Crawford’s first day of college was in 1982, at St. Louis University.

“I arrived to campus feeling excited and anxious about what the future had in store,” he said. “I felt I was prepared, but you know …”

He laughs.

“You’re just not sure,” he said. “But it all worked out.”

Crawford grew up in St. Louis, Mo., in a “household of books,” he says, with parents who were adamant he’d finish college – something they never did.

After undergraduate studies in St. Louis, he went on to DePaul University for master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology. He was on the faculty at Loyola University Chicago, dean of their College of Arts and Sciences, and from 2008 until this summer, served as the provost at Seattle University.

Freshman move-in day is a big moment for students and parents – but also for this freshman president.

“I’m embracing that term,” he said. “We’re starting our Puget Sound adventures together.”

Besides his long career in academia, Crawford brings a personal background that the University of Puget Sound has never had in a president. He is the institution’s first African-American president, and he’s gay; two things he says will inform his role as president.

“The intersectionalities I bring to this as an individual are different than my predecessors,” Crawford said. “But it allows me to be able to have a lens through which I experience life. Understanding how things are presented and done allows me to be able to help us be more responsive to the various needs of this full community. I’m the president of everyone.”

The University of Puget Sound saw demonstrations last fall – calls for more diversity in the administration, faculty, staff, student body and curriculum, among other things. Crawford says the college is making great strides toward being more inclusive and accessible to all students, and that a quarter of the freshman class claims some form of minority status. The university’s fact sheet says 88 percent of its undergraduates identify in part or completely as Caucasian.

The call for more diversity on college campuses is part of a larger campuses colleges and universities are grappling with nationwide: What is a college campus? What’s it for? Education, certainly, but Crawford says it’s also for personal growth.

“We’re also in the interpersonal development business,” he said.

And that includes exposure to a lot of viewpoints, including challenging ones. That’s where the tension has been found on a lot of campuses. Elsewhere in the country, there have been high-profile instances of universities banning or canceling certain controversial speakers. There are trigger warnings and safe spaces and a lot of fraught questions about race, gender and politics.

Difficult conversations on college campuses are unlikely to stop, especially during such a polarizing election year. Crawford says institutions like his have an important role in times like these.

“All colleges and universities are places for that type of dialogue about issues of the day – thoughtful, civil, reflection and conversation and discussion about issues that matter,” he said. “But we also look to do that in a way that allows people’s voices to be heard and understood in clear and unfettered ways.”

Crawford says that’s a delicate job, and that his background – both professionally and demographically – lets him approach those conversations in ways that help everyone be heard.

“At the end of the day, if I can look back and see that I was able to be of assistance to someone – particularly a student – it has been a good day,” he said. “I’m a psychologist, you know. That kind of runs consistent with that.”

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.