University appoints first SDS executive director

By WILL EDMONDS | April 18, 2019

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COURTESY OF CATHERINE AXE

Before coming to Hopkins, Axe worked at Brown University for 15 years.

Catherine Axe joined the University as its first executive director for Student Disability Services (SDS) on March 11. Vice Provost for Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger and Vice Provost for Institutional Equity Kimberly Hewitt announced the creation of the new position in a schoolwide email sent in July 2018.

The position, they wrote, would help to coordinate student disability services across all nine Hopkins campuses, in addition to increasing collaboration between SDS and the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE). OIE addresses cases of sexual violence and discrimination in accordance with Title IX. University officials began searching for someone to fill the newly created position at the beginning of the fall semester and announced Axe’s hiring at the beginning of the spring.

Shollenberger and Hewitt’s email followed the forming of a student group called Advocates for Disability Awareness (ADA) in April 2018. ADA members released a series of demands on April 1, 2018 calling on the University to institute better accommodations and resources for students with disabilities. Particularly, ADA members called for students with disabilities to be supported more extensively by faculty, staff and University administrators.

Axe explained in an interview with The News-Letter that University officials had been reviewing disability services for several years before announcing the creation of her position. After the external review, which started in 2016 as part of the Roadmap for Diversity and Inclusion, administrators concluded that the best way to consolidate disability services was to hire an executive SDS director.

Before she came to Hopkins, Axe worked at Brown University for almost 16 years. At Brown, she served as the associate dean for Campus Life and director of Accessibility Services.

“We went from having an office of just me to a staff of eight,” she said. “I really built and developed the office there.”

She added that a major part of her work at Brown involved coordinating different services across the university, which she felt sufficiently prepared her for her role at Hopkins.

For Axe, moving to Hopkins was a welcome challenge, particularly because it would give her the opportunity to work more strategically and at a larger scale.

“One of the trends I’ve seen in terms of meeting needs right now in the broader Disability Services field is to think ahead, to be more proactive than reactive,” she said. “This role seemed to build toward some of that work, which was exciting.”

Currently, each of the nine Hopkins campuses has an assigned student disability coordinator, as per the OIE website. According to Axe, however, disability services tend to differ across branches of the University. Often, she explained, information is not exchanged or shared across campuses, primarily because there is no mechanism to do so.

Both by using technology to enable more frequent communication and by setting up regular meetings between these administrators, Axe aims to improve coordination among disability services offices University-wide. She also hopes to do so by standardizing any future trainings. 

Axe connected this idea to one of the aspects of University President Ronald J. Daniels’ Ten by Twenty plan — the concept of “One University,” through which administrators intend to increase collaboration across different areas of Hopkins.

“I work across all of the campuses, so that’s one of the things that’s really important about this role, because it’s University-wide and it aligns with the idea of becoming ‘One University,’” she said. “I’m hoping that this will both increase our capacity and allow us to design policies, programs and processes in a way that really benefits all the campuses.”

She also emphasized the importance of collaborating not only with the various campus administrations, but also with the student body, particularly in light of the list of demands released by students in ADA. 

“[ADA] is the primary group that I’ve had the opportunity to work with. We talked about where things were with their list of demands because I wanted to get their perspective on how things have progressed,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that I’m developing relationships and connecting with those groups in the best ways.”

ADA members also expressed concerns regarding the location of the SDS office during the last academic year. In Shollenberger and Hewitt’s schoolwide email sent in July 2018, they assured students that the SDS office would be moved from its current location on the third floor of Garland Hall to a more accessible location on the ground floor of the Mattin Center’s Offit building. 

At the beginning of March 2019, however, Daniels announced upcoming plans to create a new student center in the current location of Mattin, which brought plans to move the SDS office there to a halt. 

In response to student concerns about where the SDS office will be relocated to, Axe asserted that she and other administrators are working toward a feasible solution.

“I’ve been working already with the Student Affairs folks around where things are going to go from here. Disability Services is among a number of offices that have been impacted by that, so this is still a key priority,” Axe said. “They’re looking at a range of possibilities at this point and... they understand the level of importance of finding workable solutions.”

Additionally, ADA’s list also included a demand to institute mandatory trainings for faculty members who interact with students with disabilities on a daily basis. With these trainings, ADA members hoped to ensure that faculty members would be more inclusive and sensitive toward the needs of students with disabilities in the future. 

In addition to mandatory trainings, Axe hopes to create an environment in which faculty members work to learn about disabilities out of their own volition and not just because they were obligated to do so. 

“What we want is for people to engage with an open mind,” Axe said. “We want to reflect this in a way that people don’t feel it’s obligatory, because the response is so different.”

She acknowledged that faculty members play a crucial role in making the University more accessible and welcoming to students with disabilities. She identified the Hopkins Universal Design for Learning (HUDL) Initiative as a major part of this process. HUDL seeks to redesign course curricula in order to make all University courses more accessible.

“Faculty are key partners in this process,” she said. “There are a number of mechanisms we will explore. One is a Hopkins Universal Design for Learning project that was actually faculty-initiated and that’s going to involve looking at best practices in teaching across the board, but that also factors in accessibility and inclusion.” 

Correction: The original article stated that Axe wants faculty members to attend trainings of their own volition instead of having mandatory trainings. However, Axe actually supports faculty members having mandatory trainings in addition to creating active interest among faculty, beyond the required training. 

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