Dwight Watson likes to walk at night.
Sometimes when he’s restless, he’ll go out at midnight or 1 a.m.
It’s therapeutic for him.
Watson is new to the area—he started this month as UW-Whitewater’s 17th chancellor.
But he knows—as “a large-body black man in a predominantly white space”—his title alone can’t keep him safe. So he’s taking precautions in his new home.
“I told the campus safety and the police officers, I said, ‘If you see me at night, I’m not some sort of vagrant.’ I’m on campus because I live right down the street,” Watson said. “I’m walking around, and I have sneakers and shorts on and a T-shirt—and I’m a bit of an anomaly in this neighborhood.”
Watson doesn’t really fit in, but that’s kind of the point.
“Those are the skills I want our students to have—know how to navigate your space,” he said in an interview with The Gazette last week. “This is a welcoming, affirming, supportive community. But you still need to know yourself, and you need to know others.”
His plan to address decreasing enrollment—what he said is the biggest issue facing the university—is about recruiting more diverse and nontraditional students who don’t look like most others on campus and who might not have thought college was possible for them.
And that’s not entirely different from his own journey in education.
UW-Whitewater has seen enrollment decline again, several top administrators leave and a new campus join the institution. The new chancellor answers questions on those topics and more.
Growing up as the youngest of six, Watson has said his family didn’t have much money. He spent a lot of time helping to raise his nieces and nephews, and today he remains connected to them (there are 10).
As a child, he loved to read. He still does. His dissertation was on bibliotherapy, the use of books as therapy for mental illness.
To this day, he starts and ends his days with reading and writing. Recently, he’s been writing thank-you notes and reading “Educated” by Tara Westover—a first-generation college student with a dramatic life story—and books by Toni Morrison and Quint Studer, a UW-W alum.
When it came time for college, Watson started toward an elementary education degree on the University of South Carolina-Sumter campus not far from his home before finishing up in Columbia, the flagship.
But like reading and caring for his nieces and nephews, Watson’s past influences his present. He said that personal history informs how he’ll manage the Rock County campus, which is entering its second school year under the UW-W umbrella.
He said his college experience gave him a dispositional understanding of students’ needs.
“What I bring to the table is I know about these alternative pathways,” he said. “I know also how it feels to be on the fringe.”
Watson is still learning—he’s been on the job for only about three weeks.
His favorite part so far?
“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “It’s the people.”
On a walk through the University Center last week, he stopped to meet and chat with Brian Martinez, a member of Whitewater Student Government, and employees who worked at the bowling alley. He also jumped into a photo with resident assistants.
And he got a little lost.
“Is this where we came in?” he asked before eventually finding an exit.
Watson’s first few weeks have been full of introductory events—lunches, dinners, a retreat with his cabinet to Janesville, a Beloit Snappers game and a golf outing for scholarships in Milwaukee.
Those aren’t always natural settings for Watson. He said he’s a “really quiet and reflective person” who has to be conscious of his vibrancy.
He looks for “me time,” such as his night walks and reading, to recharge him.
He said his wide diet of magazine subscriptions includes Time, Sports Illustrated and People. He has 2,500 pieces of vinyl and 2,000 CDs. He watches a lot of movies—most recently “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and the new Dora the Explorer movie (his elementary school teaching days keep him connected to kids’ culture, he said).
“I have to eat right. I have to exercise. I have to sleep. Take my vacations,” he said. “I’m not going to let this job consume me.”
And that should help sustain him. Watson is 57. He said Whitewater is his last stop before he retires in 10 years.
He’s coming from Southwest Minnesota State University. He said he doesn’t have any wanderlust for another chancellorship. To move up in his career, he’s had to move out, and now he’s with “the right people at the right time in the right place.”
This job, however, asks him to be “on” a lot. As the face of the university, he sometimes will have to put on that mask.
And if you spend time with Watson in his office, you might see a mask—or 30.
Kids made the set of colorful, decorative masks at an event with the Children’s Defense Fund back in the 1990s. They were therapeutic, allowing the kids to tell stories through the masks.
He said he takes them with him to each job.
They remind him of where he came from.