In an era of change—growth plans and mailboxes and coffee cafes—Director of Student Disability Services (SDS) Meighen Hopton was a constant for many students on campus seeking accommodations, like emotional support animals (ESAs) or help with classes and professors. However, over the summer, Hopton’s contract was not renewed and members of the administration are not at liberty to explain why. An email announcing her departure was sent out to students who had previously received accommodations, but not to the student body at large. In her place, SDS Coordinator Meghan Machold has stepped in, while Dr. Elyse Chaplin has been brought in as a consultant to assist the department as they search for a new director. Although Hopton’s departure leaves a significant vacancy in an already understaffed department, administration and students say the transition has been smooth overall.
“Dr. Chaplin and I have been working very well to ensure a seamless transition for our students and the campus,” Machold said in an email interview. “Students have been terrific in adjusting to the transition, working with both Dr. Chaplin and myself, and communicating needs during this process. Students’ voices and insight are an invaluable resource to us as we look at moving forward.”
Chaplin’s business, Chaplin Educational Consulting LLC, “works with educational institutions in a variety of capacities, as well as provides one-on-one coaching to students with disabilities,” Machold said. Chaplin, with one doctorate in Higher Education Theory and Policy and another in the works (A.B.D), has over 25 years of experience working with students with disabilities at the postsecondary level, including serving as both Director of SDS and as a dean at Brown University and working in accessibility services at Harvard University. She also served as the Interim Ombudsperson at New College and is thus “familiar with our campus,” Machold said.
“In her current part-time role with Student Disability Services, we are working to help maximize students’ personal and academic success by working individually with students in the determination and provision of disability-related accommodations,” Machold said.
In the meantime, Accessibility Representative and second-year Liz Bates worries what will happen if Hopton’s vacancy is not filled before the end of Chaplin’s short-term contract in September.
“If Elyse leaves and someone needs accommodations in the middle of the semester, I don’t know what we’re going to do about it,” Bates said. “What if they can’t find someone before January?”
However, in an email interview Dean of Student Affairs Robin Williamson noted they may extend Chaplin’s contract if needed.
At the beginning of the semester during Mini Classes, New College Student Alliance (NCSA) Co-presidents third-year Selena Goods and third-year Steven Keshishian, Executive Secretary and third-year Elan Works and Bates met with Williamson and Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs Mark Stier.
“[We] just kind of said, ‘Look, we’re curious what happened to Meighen, we realize you can’t tell us anything, but we need to know that every student who seeks accommodations receives enough time and consideration and respect in the conversations that they have with SDS,’” Bates said. “And if they’re overwhelmed and understaffed it’s concerning to us. And so they said, ‘We’re working on it,’ essentially.”
“The process will be like every other hiring process for Student Affairs,” Williamson said. “We will conduct a national search. The entire campus will be invited to participate in the interview process.”
Even before the vacancy left by Hopton, students have been under the impression the department has been understaffed in the past.
“There were only three people on this campus who were designated to work [with students with disabilities],” Bates said, referring to Machold, Chaplin and the student Accessibility Representative. “And now there are four. For a campus of what, 800 students, four people is not enough.”
The fourth position Bates referred to is the newly created Accessibility Support Teaching Assistant (TA), for which Bates helped draft the legislation, confirmed at the Towne Meeting on Sept. 6. The Accessibility Representative will work under the Accessibility Support TA and provide auxiliary support to the department.
Four people is especially not enough, Bates clarified, since neither the Representative nor the TA can grant accommodations. Last spring, the department was in the midst of a job search for Assistant Director of SDS. However, according to Bates, the job search ended when Hopton’s contract was not renewed.
“With our growth plans, we have allocated positions and funding to have two full-time staff who are able to review documentation and make accommodations in addition to a full-time support staff,” Williamson said when asked if there is any current plan to increase the size of the department.
In the meantime, work in the department carries on.
“It hasn’t been too rough, it hasn’t been too smooth,” Bates said of the transition since Hopton’s departure. “People bring to the table extremely varied mindsets [on accessibility and disability], and Elyse’s is absolutely different than Meighen Hopton’s was. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a change.”
Bates stated she has heard good things from students overall about the work SDS continues to do in the midst of the transition, and spoke very highly of both Machold and Chaplin.
“Our goal has been to maintain student disability services as seamlessly as possible while we search to fill that position,” Machold said. “Services and policies are being maintained, with the intention of reviewing best practices and striving for continuous improvement in the provision of services to students with disabilities.”
For now, there are “tough shoes to fill,” Bates said, as the department searches for Hopton’s replacement.
“I feel for anyone who’s having a difficult time with the transition because she meant something to a lot of the students here and we didn’t get to say goodbye,” Bates said. “I’m sure we would’ve thrown her a big party.”