Dr. Erin Robinson and Darren Mathews
By Gayle Guynup
Meet Dr. Erin Robinson, associate dean of students and director of student health services, and Darren Mathews, director of human resources, two staff members who have been instrumental in Ringling College of Art and Design’s efforts to help maintain the health and well-being of the Ringling College community.
Dr. Erin Robinson
Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Health Services
Dr. Erin Robinson oversees Ringling College’s counseling and medical services. The team works with Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH) in what Robinson describes as “an amazing partnership.” With the onset of COVID-19, SMH has dramatically increased its services, bringing nurses out to the campus and handling all of the COVID testing for students.
“They have really gone above and beyond, as far as providing personnel and services that are critical to our campus,” Robinson explained.
Originally from Connecticut, Robinson met her husband while attending College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. They moved to Sarasota, where Robinson worked at The Coalition (now The Florida Center), doing case management work with kids in the foster care system. After going back to school and earning her doctorate from the University of Hartford, Robinson worked for seven years as a post-doctoral fellow at New College, working her way up to the position of associate director at The New College Counseling Center.
“That is where I found my calling, working with college-aged students,” she said. In 2015 she opened her own practice, which she still has today. When the position at Ringling College opened, Robinson knew that it would be a perfect fit, as she was missing her work with college students and working in a collaborative, team-inspired environment.
When COVID struck in March, Robinson said her team had to move quickly to address student needs and understand how the pandemic would impact the College. “In terms of counseling, it meant getting my staff certified to do tele-mental health counseling and going from person-to-person counseling to working with someone who might be thousands of miles away on a computer screen.”
“Fortunately, the summer gave us the opportunity to see on a small scale how we would handle a positive test result and contact tracing, and to establish the protocols that would have to work on a much larger scale once students returned in the fall,” Robinson said. “Every department on this campus has worked together to think through all of the different scenarios that might develop, and then developed systems for how we would handle those situations.”
Robinson gives much of the credit for the College’s successful health and safety efforts to the students. “All of our students who have had to isolate or quarantine have been just wonderful, as have their parents,” she said. “They have taken this whole situation very seriously, adhering to the safety protocols we have in place, and their parents are just so thankful for all of the care we have been providing.”
Robinson also credits Facilities for securing a lot of the personal protective equipment (PPE) that has been required. “We provided cloth face coverings for faculty, staff, and students. When a student goes into quarantine, they receive a bag filled with disposable face coverings and gloves, a thermometer, and other necessities,” she said.
While Robinson added that she is optimistic about the new year, she is anticipating a certain degree of anxiety as students, faculty, and staff return for the spring semester. “As always,” she affirms, “we will be there for the students, whatever their needs.”
Director of Human Resources
Originally from Louisiana, Darren Mathews earned his undergraduate degree in marine biology (essentially pre-med) from Texas A&M University. His first job out of college was in AIDS research at the University of Texas Medical Branch, doing microbiology and cellular chemistry. From medical research he moved into computer programming and database administration for the University of Texas. He realized he really had an affinity for human resources, and went on to earn his master’s degree in Human Resource Management from the University of Houston.
After graduation, Mathews moved to Colorado, where he worked for 12 years as the Human Resources director at a college there. After about three years of living in the mountains, which are breathtaking and beautiful, he realized he was not going to do well growing old in Colorado. “There is way too much shoveling involved,” he said. “My wife and I wanted to get back to the Gulf Coast. I have an adult son with Down’s Syndrome who just loves Disney World, so we wanted to live, not in Orlando, but close enough that we could easily get there.”
So, they moved to the Gulf Coast, hoping that there would be an HR position in Sarasota, preferably in higher education. It just happened that Ringling College was looking for a new director of human resources. It will be four years in April.
In his role, Mathews is responsible for creating an environment where employees feel they can contribute 100 percent. “We make sure people have the tools they need, that they have a safe and secure work environment, and that they receive the pay and benefits that give them a sense of security.”
Historically, Mathews said, Ringling College has not engaged in a lot of remote work. This school is all about collaboration with the long-held belief that being in close proximity is important to the creative process. “In March, we went from no one working remotely to 95 percent of our faculty and staff working remotely – and we did that in less than a month,” he explained.
For Human Resources, this transition included helping to define which work could successfully be done remotely, working with IT to get all of the resources in place, and then a huge effort helping faculty and staff set up their home offices and remote routines. “We provided some guidelines – like you have to move 95 percent of your workforce off campus in a week, and here is the support we can provide. But then each individual department took it from there and made it happen,” Mathews said.
“Faculty had to figure out how to meet learning objectives when they could no longer use the familiar methodologies. Methods were absolutely turned on their heads for everyone, but the objectives stayed the same. The quality of our programs – academic and co-curricular – and our support services was never sacrificed,” Mathews added.
Mathews said that there was so much change going on over the summer months that both he and Erin (Robinson) would spend a lot of time on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, keeping up with the latest information that could then be shared with faculty, staff, and students. “Erin and I would often collaborate on different situations as they arose. I knew I could trust her judgment, and that she would give me honest feedback,” he said, adding, “and that is the strength of Ringling College. In my experience, everyone on campus has the best interests of the College and the students at heart.”