A Friend to Students in Need

During her 17-year tenure at Rollins, Karen Hater helped develop services for students with disabilities, a program for first-year students, and a women’s center.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

From teaching children with disabilities to mentoring college freshmen, Karen Hater leaves a legacy of befriending students in need.

Hater, the Rollins College dean of student affairs, retired May 12 after 36 years in higher education—17 of them as a Tar.

When she took the position on an interim basis in 2008, “Karen was the third dean in four years,” says Leon Hayner, director of residential life. “As a result, the division had been experiencing turnover and lacked some direction and stability. Karen was able to provide much-needed leadership during her six-year tenure as dean and helped move the division toward the place it is today.”

Born and raised in Cleveland, Hater would forge deep ties with higher education in Ohio. She got her undergraduate degree at Ohio State, where she also earned her master’s in special education. Following her receiving her doctorate in school psychology and special education from the University of Cincinnati, Hater worked several years as a faculty member at Xavier University, College of Mount St. Joseph, and Cleveland State University.

After directing a private school for students with disabilities in Memphis, Tennessee, it was back to Ohio—this time at Miami University, teaching in the Department of Educational Psychology and holding a dual appointment as director of the Office of Learning Assistance in Student Affairs.  

That’s when the Sunshine State beckoned.

“I hadn’t really planned on leaving,” Hater says, “but one of my graduate assistants was looking for a job, and he walked into my office one evening and handed me a Chronicle of Higher Education, and there was an advertisement for someone to develop an academic support center. He said, ‘Wow, I can’t do this, but it could be the perfect job for you.’ I thought about it and figured it would be a great opportunity to create and develop a support center at Rollins.”

The year was 1997, and two men—Dean of Faculty Steve Briggs and Dean of Student Affairs Steve Neilson—needed someone to put their ideas into action. Hater proved the perfect fit to oversee what later became TJ’s”—The Thomas P. Johnson Student Resource Center. Her first orders of business: Develop services for students with disabilities, and create a system that offered comprehensive academic support for all students.

Smoothing the transition from high school to college was a big part of Hater’s mission. In that capacity, she helped establish Explorations, a program for first-year students, and taught 10 years in the freshman-oriented Rollins College Conference (RCC) program. Looking back on those early days of Explorations, Hater credits Hoyt Edge (associate dean of faculty), Bill Boles (faculty director of the RCC) and Doug Little (director of first-year programs) for being “a great collaborative group.”

“The great thing about Rollins,” she says, “is certainly the people that I worked with—whether it was the team I was able to put together at TJ’s or the team I was able to have working closely with the dean of student affairs.”

As for the deans who hired her, Hater counts Briggs and Neilson as “incredibly supportive, hardworking professionals with such great integrity.” The two Steves, she adds, rank among the people who influenced her the most, as does Roger Casey, former provost and vice president of academic affairs.

Women’s Center

In addition to TJ’s, the history books will also recognize Hater for another Rollins first: working with the Women’s Studies Program and Mahjabeen Rafiuddin, director of multicultural affairs, to establish a women’s center on campus.

The idea had been around since at least the mid 1970s, according to records in the Rollins Archives and Special Collections, and forming a women’s center was actually approved in 1998. However, a shortage of space put the project on hold. It wasn’t until 12 years later that Hater commandeered a room in the newly reorganized Chase Hall.

“That was a feel-good moment for me,” she says about the genesis of the Lucy Cross Center for Women and Their Allies, which opened October 14, 2010. “At least we could begin something. From there, it just grew.”

As dean of student affairs, a position to which she was elected on a permanent basis by faculty in fall 2009, Hater supervised the offices of Community Standards & Responsibility, Multicultural Affairs, Career Services, Disability Services, Residential Life, and Student Involvement & Leadership; the College Wellness Center; the Lucy Cross Center for Women and Their Allies; and WPRK radio.

“It just lit a fire in me.”

Hater’s parents, John and Victoria Cirbes, never attended college, raising her in a working-class environment. “It was important to them that my brother and I get an education,” she says. “Having a good work ethic was something I saw all the time, and that stuck with me.”

Brother Dennis Cirbes went on to become a vice president of Ford Motor Company, while Hater developed a passion for students with learning disabilities.

Her freshman year at Ohio State, she was majoring in medical technology but didn’t like the long hours and staring at a microscope. That summer, Hater volunteered in Cleveland at a state residential institute for people with severe disabilities and mental retardation. “I absolutely loved it,” she says. “It just lit a fire in me. I went back to Ohio State and changed my major to special education.”

Calm and Collected

The compassion and gentle approach Hater displayed toward those in need carried through to all of her relationships—whether with difficult students, emotional parents, or stressed-out colleagues, friends say.

“Karen has this amazing ability to remain calm in even the most trying of circumstances and quickly determine the root of the issue,” says Diane Willingham, director of community standards and responsibility. “She was always focused on what is best for the student and making sure students had the support and resources they needed to be successful at Rollins.”

Post-retirement, Hater plans to stay in Central Florida but would like to do some traveling and catch up with friends in Ohio. She also wants to rediscover her passion for golf and do some volunteering. Another bonus will be spending more time with her daughter, Kristen Hater ’01.

As for her colleagues at Rollins, “I think we all will miss her wisdom, guidance, and support,” says Raymond Rogers, director of career services. “Regardless of the challenges I have faced, both personally and professionally, I always felt that all would be OK after talking things through with Karen.”

“We all looked to Karen for guidance and knew that she would always be there to support us,” Willingham says. “I am sure there are many Rollins graduates who may never have walked across the stage at graduation if it wasn’t for the support and guidance they received from Karen.”