Quarterback Andrew Luck isn’t the only Cardinal powerhouse who won’t be returning to the Farm this fall. Julie Lythcott-Haims ‘89, associate vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising, will step down in June to pursue a master of fine arts in writing, with an emphasis in poetry, from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
“This is something that for four years has been my hobby and I’ve decided to make it my focus,” Lythcott-Haims said of her choice to turn to writing full-time. “I got to a point where it felt that not to do it would be to suppress an important part of myself.”
Lythcott-Haims, known across campus as “Dean Julie,” has been a part of the Stanford community since her undergraduate years, when she served as a Resident Assistant in Branner and as a senior class president, in addition to participating in a host of other extracurricular activities. After Stanford, she graduated from Harvard Law School and practiced corporate law in Silicon Valley.
She joined Stanford in 1998 as associate dean for student affairs at Stanford Law School and became a member of University President John Hennessy’s senior staff in 2000. In 2002, she took on the role of Stanford’s first dean of freshmen.
Lythcott-Haims became dean of Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR) in 2009 and continued her work with freshmen and transfer students. In 2010, she was awarded the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for contributions to undergraduate education.
“She’s been an incredible and iconic figure at Stanford, both in terms of her work with students but also her work with faculty and parents,” Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam said. “Everybody knows Dean Julie and I think that’s a tribute to her passion, her commitment to Stanford and her concern about people.”
According to Elam, the University will begin a national search for a replacement.
Discovering her voice as a writer
Lythcott-Haims’ development into a writer was not something she predicted.
“I got feedback when I was an undergraduate here that my writing needed a lot of work – and they were right,” she said. “I shrank in the face of that advice. I was ashamed.”
Now, after discovering poetry, she is coming full circle to embrace an identity as a writer.
“Until NSO [New Student Orientation] 2007, I was pretty sure I couldn’t stand poetry,” Lythcott-Haims said. She connected with the medium for the first time when she read Lucille Clifton’s collection of poems, “Good Woman,” for the annual NSO Three Books panel that fall — an event that Lythcott-Haims, herself, kick-started.
“It was the first time a set of poems really spoke directly and deeply to me as a human being,” she said, recalling how she was moved to hear a white, male freshman share how Clifton’s poems spoke to him, as well.
A few months later, Lythcott-Haims began writing.
“I was discovering myself, my voice, through poetry,” she said.
Though she has kept her work largely private, Lythcott-Haims has shared some of her creative endeavors with the public through the Stanford Storytelling Project, the Red Couch Project and Dance Marathon, where she performed her song, “Can’t Tell You His Name,” about a loved one’s lost battle with AIDS.
Her first formal project, however, will be a work of nonfiction about parenting in America.
“I intend to write about something I care deeply about, which is the way in which parenting has changed in the last couple of decades and the importance of young people turning into independent, self-actualized adults and the potential consequences to us as a society – not to mention to the individual – of not doing so,” she said.
Though she will draw from her role at Stanford and her experience as a parent, this is a national issue that is not special to Stanford, she noted.
Lythcott-Haims and her husband, Dan, have a son, Sawyer, who is 12, and a daughter Avery, who is 10.
Lythcott-Haims’ departure from Stanford will not be the first significant change of direction in her life.
“My first transition was to flee something that was making me terribly unhappy and to find something that would bring me joy,” she said of her decision to leave the world of corporate law to come to Stanford.
“Being a university administrator has indeed brought me joy. The difference now is I’m not fleeing,” Lythcott-Haims said. “I love what I do and yet I’ve decided that in order to feel fulfilled I need to turn to writing.”
She said she hopes her decision will inspire others.
“I hope that my decision to go off into the realm of creative and artistic expression may give some students who are reluctant to make that choice a little bit of confidence that it is a path that people pursue and an incredibly rewarding one.”
Advising at Stanford
Those who spoke with The Daily agreed that Lythcott-Haims’ legacy will be her work in transforming undergraduate advising at Stanford.
“She’s made a real difference,” said Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam, noting a survey on which 71 percent of students said they were satisfied with advising.
This past fall, Lythcott-Haims presented a report on undergraduate advising to the Faculty Senate and cited similar positive statistics, such as an increase in faculty and staff serving as pre-major advisors. Much of Lythcott-Haims’ work has focused on lending credibility and relevance to the advising process for undergraduates, she said.
“I’m really proud of what my team has done in the name of advising,” she said, particularly noting the developing Stanford 101 program, a University-wide collaboration to create a curriculum for freshmen with themes of navigation and reflection on their time at Stanford.
“One of our ongoing challenges is to help our undergraduates value getting advice from people older than the upperclassman down the hall, but I’m sensing we’re making real inroads there,” she added.
Students and colleagues reflect
“She really made me confident to pursue what I’m passionate about and what really interests me, even though it wasn’t what my peers were doing,” said Brittany Rymer ’13, who had Lythcott-Haims as her pre-major advisor. “Having her as an advisor was really important to build that confidence.”
“Everyone at Stanford who’s been lucky enough to come into contact with Julie has met a deeply humane and compassionate person,” said English Professor Jennifer Summit. “Her message has always been to take risks to bring our best selves to our work and her decision shows that that’s a process that never stops.”
“I know it’s not an easy thing to do to follow a dream and that’s what she’s doing,” Elam said of Lythcott-Haims’ choice to pursue writing. “I think it’s an exciting time for her.”
Michael Tubbs ’12 described Lythcott-Haims as “a fixture of the freshman experience” and referenced what many students will remember most vividly: her leading students in shouting their class years at big campus events.
“I expect that Stanford students will be shouting their class numerals into the next century and beyond, I’ll just miss getting to be a part of it,” Lythcott-Haims said of the tradition, adding that she will be back in two years to shout hers at her 25th reunion.
A longtime fan, Lythcott-Haims noted that she has renewed her season tickets for Stanford football. For the first time in awhile, however, she won’t be cheering with students in the Red Zone.
“Stanford is not an institution in my life. Stanford is like a human being to me that I cherish like a mentor or like a good friend,” Lythcott-Haims reflected. “There is nothing I won’t miss.”