Erika Randall, new associate dean for student success, wants CU Boulder to be a university in which students feel that their authentic selves are woven into the campus community
Posters from dance performances and paintings created by friends, family and colleagues adorn Erika Randall’s bright blue walls.
She points to one referencing the children’s book, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, where one of the story’s characters, a woman who is soaring through the air with the assistance of a flock of flying books, is made to look like herself.
“I love this book so much and its messages about writing one’s own story and the importance of taking care of the stories of others,” says Randall. “My partner, Megan, knew how much I loved it and re-imagined a character from the book as me. … The painting hangs in my office as a reminder to be both a custodian to the dreams of others and the author of my own imagination and becoming.”
Which is a mission Randall, the College of Arts and Sciences’ new associate dean for student success at the University of Colorado Boulder, has taken to heart. She’s determined to bring people together and celebrate their passions with an apparent ease and tireless excitement.
She believes in her students' potential and wants to make CU Boulder a place where each student feels what she calls “their authentic selves woven into the community’s fabric.”
“Student success asks, ‘what are we doing to support each individual student, and how are we supporting those students to want to become part of something bigger?’” says Randall. “How are we finding ways to truly meet the student where they are and help move them through the university that they need?”
From narrow conservatory thinking to the broad liberal arts
For Randall, part of the process of helping students discover a broader purpose begins with expanding what the university believes it and its students can achieve. She frequently speaks of her interest in widening ideas, fields of study and points of view by identifying, playing with and crossing self-imposed boundaries.
“People talk about how selfish artists are,” notes Randall. “Any discipline can get into this: Is it right for me? What am I going to do? And what am I going to get back? Versus what am I going to give back. … Often in the arts and within other disciplines, there is a fairly narrow container of identity and understanding of success.”
Randall grappled with these constraints early in her dance education. She studied at The Julliard School but found conservatory instruction narrow and restrictive. When she transferred to the University of Washington and later completed her Master of Fine Arts at The Ohio State University, she discovered what she felt was boundless creative possibility by synthesizing disparate fields.
“I was dancing and studying feminist theory and film and working with independent film artists to make multidimensional performance-scapes,” says Randall. “It got me really excited about what liberal arts education could do for artists.”
Randall began to collaborate with thinkers, researchers, artists and makers—what she calls “imaginearians”—and realized that her field could improve her capacity as a dancer and help transform communities for the better.
“The work at a university level and a learning level didn't just stop with the bound of my body or a student's body,” says Randall. “It became about knowing ourselves, so that we can give back to communities and be in service to ourselves, to our art and to the planet.”
As her interest in teaching at the university level grew, she found CU Boulder’s theatre and dance department especially compelling because of its desire to improve lives through innovation.
“The call that went out to hire me was steeped in social justice and anti-racism work,” says Randall. “This was in 2006 and 2007, before schools were using language around decolonization, particularly with regard to dance programs. … The humans here were both kicking ass in the field and transforming it at the same time.”
Inverting students’ relationship with higher education and the academy’s relationship with students
Once at CU Boulder, Randall developed a teaching style noted for its emphasis on collaboration, embrace of failure and celebration of individuality. Rachel Halmrast, who has worked closely with Randall throughout their undergraduate experience and especially in ballet classes, notes that Randall’s distinct style and her approachability were transformative.
“I would be a completely different person if I hadn't met Erika, and I attribute so much growth to her and my relationship with her,” says Halmrast, a senior earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance. “Through her guidance, I can see how the field (of dance) can fit onto me, instead of how I can fit into the field.”
Over 15 years as a faculty member at CU Boulder, Randall excelled in helping master dance while leaving space to break from conventions and innovate. She says that when people give themselves permission to embrace their disparate interests, they achieve increasingly compelling, creative work. She calls this process “anding” or “ampersanding.”
“It has been really exciting how galvanizing the notion of ‘anding’ and ‘ampersanding’ has been,” says Randall. “It’s why I wanted to leave conservatory thinking—to be in a liberal arts education where, when I study the history and theory of French feminist scholars from the 1970s, the way they speak of the body changes my making with my own body.”
She believes the inversion allows faculty, students and staff to become their most creative selves and unleash their imaginations, no matter the problem they are trying to solve. Randall’s fascination with unlocking new pathways and ideas using a broad, liberal arts education matches the vision James W.C. White, acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences established for the college.
“Erika is the person we ask to be the visionary when it comes to student success,” says White. “To think about new ways in which we can serve our students and then be the messenger of that ethos of service that we want to establish in the college.”
White created the position in 2017 to move the college away from reacting to student needs and, instead, to proactively connect students with caring, responsive networks that anticipate barriers to their success. He believes Randall will broaden the vision of the college and improve the college’s ability to connect meaningfully with students.
“We wanted someone with compassion for students,” notes White. “This is a person who will be out there talking to students when they first come to campus, meeting with student government organizations and conveying to students that we are, indeed, there for them. This is one of Erika’s great strengths.”
If you meet Erika or you cross paths with her or you even bump into her, your trajectory will change because, with her, you have so much space to believe in yourself.”
The College of Arts and Sciences is committed to improving its student retention and graduation rates, especially for Black, Indigenous and people of color, underrepresented students, and students who are the first generation in their families to complete college degrees. Randall’s ability to recognize the complexity of students’ distinct backgrounds combined with her desire to understand the way students experience CU Boulder position her to fulfill this goal, observers say.
“Erika is responsive; she is communicative, and she is highly transparent,” notes White. “That combined with her warmth and her humaneness make her the perfect person for this job.”
Randall and the A&S student success team—faculty, academic advisors, academic coaches, program staff and recruiters—focus their programs on student belonging, which they hope underscores students’ wellness and gives them opportunities to flourish.
“I wish that I could set up a little lemonade stand like Lucy that says, ‘the dean is in,’” says Randall. “And then talk to everybody, because it's when I have those conversations—when I get to actually meet someone—it helps me learn through their experience. I want to be a dean with an open door. I really do.”
For Halmrast, having Randall as the associate dean for student success is exciting because it means Randall can share her openness and approachability with students across campus. Simply by being herself, Halmrast says, Randall will strengthen the CU Boulder community.
“If you meet her or you cross paths with her or you even bump into her, your trajectory will change because, with her, you have so much space to believe in yourself,” says Halmrast. “You see it reflected in her, you can see how much she shows up for you and cares for you and believes in you.”
“Because you see that, you can start doing it for yourself.”