For the last twenty-five years, students needing a good talking-to have landed in Tom Bechtel's office. The bearded, sixty-two-year-old dean has been a source of emotional support or has had to play the tough guy for manic-depressives, overzealous partygoers, and other Brown students who, for personal reasons, just need a little time away from classes.
Bechtel, who retires at the end of September as dean of undergraduate counseling, has spent much of the last twenty-five years dealing with the emotional consequences of college's pressure-cooker atmosphere. On several occasions, he has even had to tell parents that one of their worst fears has come true: their child has committed suicide.
His long tenure at Brown gives Bechtel insights younger counselors may not have. Inside a locked filing cabinet in his quiet corner office on Benevolent Street, he keeps exhaustive records on every student consultation he has had. "When I started," he says, "a dean's authority was much more clear cut - and a panty raid was a big deal. Now there are family attorneys waiting in the wings." Although he says the number of students with psychological problems has increased dramatically since 1973, new medications have allowed those with learning disabilities and mood disorders to achieve more than has ever been possible.
After earning a master's in education and counseling from Harvard, Bechtel came to Brown during the same month several hundred students stormed the Refectory to protest a ban on using hot plates in their dorm rooms. The protests aren't the only things that have changed, Bechtel says. As the case administrator for the University Disciplinary Council (UDC) for the last twelve years, Bechtel has played a central role in some of the University's most high-profile student discipline cases - a role that earned him the nickname "the no-comment dean" from the Brown Daily Herald. "Every time [the editors] called me," Bechtel says, "they would start off by telling me, 'I know you're not going to respond to any of these questions, but I have to ask them anyway.' I never had anything to say, but I appreciated their efforts."
Dean of Student Life Robin Rose, who has worked closely with Bechtel, says that his devotion to students is unsurpassed. "Tom's been a quiet soldier," Rose says. "He may never be a famous person in the scheme of things, but no one has had a bigger impact on students at Brown. He gets teary-eyed at Commencement as he watches people go down the Hill. He has been involved in some of the greatest triumphs in people's lives."