Soon after Transylvania University's new vice president for student affairs and dean of students moved into a dormitory there, a student asked her which room she was in. "Room 210," the new dean, Barbara LoMonaco, told her. The student's face fell. "Oh," she said. "We share a wall."
Moving into a dorm room is one of several efforts that Ms. LoMonaco, 47, is making to participate in daily life on the campus. An anthropologist who has taught there since 1996, she relies on methods she uses in the field in her new role at Transylvania, a private liberal-arts institution of 1,070 students in Lexington, Ky.
"I thought a fine-grain understanding of student life meant I needed to immerse myself in a way that wasn't very traditional," says Ms. LoMonaco, whose previous research has included studies of how mixed-martial-arts fighters express their identity through tattoos and how fans waiting overnight to get into a U2 concert might react to people cutting into the line.
Ms. LoMonaco's immersion efforts at Transylvania included relocating her office from an administrative building to the more student-accessible campus center, joining resident advisers, or RAs, on rounds, and going through Greek recruitment.
Living a few nights a week in the coed Poole Hall (where residents have private bathrooms) helped her see the campus from a student's perspective and spared her from making the daily 30-minute commute between the campus and her 12-acre farm, she says.
The experience has opened her eyes to issues she would otherwise have missed, she says: for instance, the nonexistence of late-night food options. So she arranged for food trucks to visit the campus each night from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. "I would never have agreed to that before," she says.
Ms. LoMonaco was one of the most popular professors at the university even before she championed late-night burritos, says R. Owen Williams, the university's president, who made her dean last summer. He praises her interest in making connections between students' academic and extracurricular lives.
The dean has led efforts to highlight the resident assistants' role as peer mentors, instead of just focusing on their disciplinary duties. "She's very hands-on as a dean," says Ashley Carter, a junior and an RA. "She purposely tries to go to events that students host for other students as well as the administrative stuff."
At an event last September in which people were challenged to turn campus parking spots into temporary green space, she brought along her goat Jonas, who ended up appearing in many photos.
She has also invited students to bring student-life memorabilia to decorate Room 210 in Poole Hall. Whether the dean's busy schedule allows her time to get much sleep in that room is up for debate, Ms. Carter jokes. Mr. Williams calls her "a one-person nuclear-power plant."
Ms. LoMonaco expresses one regret about her new responsibilities: "I can't fox-hunt anymore."
Along with holding her position as dean, teaching an anthropology course, applying for a federal grant for her exhibit "Ink in the Cage: The Stories Behind Mixed Martial Arts Fighter Tattoos," and keeping up her farm and garden, Ms. LoMonaco has already begun collecting ideas for the future. Among them: encouraging professors to bring homemade goodies to students in the dorms during finals week.
"I think it would really help faculty to visit the residence halls and see what life is like," she says. "And if they're bringing cookies, then, my God, it doesn't get better."
Correction (2/4/2013, 3:30 p.m.): The original version of this article gave an incorrect enrollment figure for Transylvania University. It has 1,070 students, not 1,700. The error has been corrected.