Skip to main content

Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Sarah Anderson ’98 and Donna Dralus ’89

Part of an occasional series about Grinnellians, past and present. This particular essay serves as both a tribute and an apology.

As you would know if you went to last week’s convocation, there are a wide variety of people on campus who work behind the scenes to support the educational mission of Grinnell, and every institution of higher learning. Convocation focused on custodial staff, but there are also many people beyond that who you don’t know. Here are two. I have the good fortune to regularly work with Sarah Anderson ’98, who serves as our Director of Interactive Media and Web Publisher [1] and Donna Dralus ’89, who serves as our Communications, Online Media, and Web Coordinator [2]. What do Sarah and Donna do? It’s pretty clear that I only have a partial view of what they do, but I do know that in encompasses a wide array of things related to the College’s many Web services.

I don’t remember when I first met Sarah. Probably soon after we made the transition to the new Web site and I was ranting about it. Most of my interactions with Sarah have either been through committee work (most recently, on our Task Force on Accessibility and Academic Technology) and through chats (in person and via email) about Web technologies [3]. There are many things I appreciate about working with Sarah. She knows a lot about the things we work with - the technology, the law, design, and more. She cares deeply about Grinnell; she’s up late at night worrying about things we could do better. She works really hard; our Task Force was clearly the most successful of the subgroups of the campus Accessibility Task force in no small part because Sarah would make sure to get things written for the rest of us to work with. (Sarah tells me that Donna also did a lot of the work. However, as I note below, Donna often hides a bit more behind the scenes.) Sarah tries to work collaboratively; I recall when she was tasked with some part of our new SharePointless site, and used some good HCI approaches to helping people think about what they wanted on the site and where. I also feel like she’d rather have a group work together to make choices than to make them herself. She also fits in the class of people I don’t always agree with, but I feel listens carefully to what I have to say and explains her own perspective well. Sometimes she convinces me to think differently. Sometimes I convince her to think differently. Sometimes we continue to disagree. But I think we almost always understand each other’s perspectives.

I’ve known Donna for longer. I interact a bit less with Donna, because she works more behind the scenes. I do get regular notes from her about pieces that are getting posted to Grinnell’s version of the CS Web site [4]. She also gets stuck handling some of my questions to ITS about failed features of the too man Web sites on campus. Like Sarah, Donna is an excellent collaborator - thoughtful at meetings, caring about Grinnell, able to work with other people, and more. I don’t think I argue with Donna as much as I argue with Sarah; of course, that may be because my critiques and comments usually end up going to Sarah, since she is the public face of our Web. But when Donna and I do have different opinions, I find that we listen to each other thoughtfully.

I do not envy Sarah and Donna their jobs. You know the phrase All the responsibility and none of the authority? They seem to have it worse than that. First, Sarah is the public face for campus Web decisions, decisions which are usually made by others. Second, there don’t have nearly enough staff; Sarah and Donna have to do the behind-the scenes work mostly by themselves. And they have to deal with concerns about the dozens of Web sites that crop up on campus over which they has no control [5]. Neither of them decided to kick lots of stuff off of, but they were the target of complaints. They didn’t decide to put that stuff on SharePoint, but had to help do so and deals with complaints about that. They don’t create inaccessible Web sites, but they have to deal with the implications of those who do create inaccessible Web sites.

I particularly appreciate their work on Web accessibility. I’ll almost certainly write more about Web accessibility in a separate essay. Nonetheless, I think I should let you know about what they do and have to do about Web accessibility. As I hope you know, we have a moral responsibility to make sure that our Web sites are accessible. If our goal is to educate people, both at Grinnell and elsewhere, we should make sure that a wide variety of people can use the materials we provide, even if they can’t see or hear or easily manipulate a mouse or …. We also have a legal responsibility to ensure that our materials are accessible. And that’s a serious responsibility, since the Office of Civil Rights of the US Department of Education has been suing institutions who do not ensure that their materials meet accessibility standards. I know from my conversations with Sarah and Donna that they worry about accessibility for both reasons; they want to make sure the College is protected, but they also think we have a real responsibility to make our materials available to others.

Now, put yourself in their shoes. People all over campus create Web content. Most are clueless about accessibility, in spite of regular attempts to educate them. (How do I know that people are clueless? Because when I see alt tags in images, they are often either (a) the file name or (b) a repeat of the caption below the image. And alt tags are the most obvious accessibility issue.) Large amounts of the Web content on campus is created without their knowledge [7]. I’m told that managing faculty is like herding cats. Dealing with Web proliferation sounds even worse. And, as far as I can tell, they don’t have nearly enough staff to identify Web accessibility issues, and, as importantly, to help people on campus to resolve those issues [8].

Finally, let me tell you a bit about my most recent email conversations with Sarah [9]. First, I wrote to her about my department’s concerns about the requirement that we have SiteImprove monitor our Web sites, and the complications associated with identifying Web sites. Then I followed up with reports about a variety of inaccessible pages on campus. When she responded about the latter issue with these are the kinds of things that keep me up at night, I apologized for the tone of my first email (and, perhaps, for my other emails). Her response? No, don’t be more moderate! I know the spirit in which you’re complaining, and I hope you’d say the same of me. Yes, Sarah, of course I’d say the same of you.

Thank you, Sarah and Donna! We are so fortunate to have you in your positions. I hope others are aware of how much of a difference you make. I hope the College finds a way to give you the resources you need to be successful.

Because Sarah and Donna would want me to remind you: Pay attention to Web accessibility. It’s not only the right thing to do, you put the College at risk when you don’t.

[1] I think that the Director applies only to Interactive Media, and that she serves as our Web publisher rather than directing our Web Publisher, but perhaps I’m wrong.

[2] In this case, I think the Coordinator applies to all three of Communications, Online Media, and Web.

[3] Are you feeling for Sarah and Donna yet, particularly given my rants about our Web sites?

[4] The CS department runs its own Web site at The College runs a separate site for computer science at We also have a CS GrinCo site, but that serves mostly the way SharePoint is supposed to serve, as a place for departmental workflows, such as peer educator reports.

[5] I know that they have no control over these sites because (a) when I complain about them, Sarah or Donna sometimes tell me that they have no control over them; (b) I’ve been on enough discussions about Web technology on campus that I know that there’s not even a centralized list of sites, let alone centralized control [6]; and (c) I’ve watched Web sites pop up on campus that I know no one in authority knows about. But I guess that’s one of the advantages of a decentralized campus.

[6] I don’t think centralized control of Web sites is ideal; but I do think there is benefit from someone knowing what we have and being able to convey concerns and ensure our compliance with the law.

[7] A major Web site on campus completely restructured itself recently, and no one thought it was useful to coordinate with them. I’m pretty sure that at least three of the sites on campus I’ve recently critiqued were ones they didn’t know about.

[8] I know that if we find problems with the 34K or so pages that I’ve written in my 20 years at Grinnell, I’m going to need significant help with them. And I know HTML and know enough to write useful alt tags.

[9] Donna probably feels fortunate that I reserve these kinds of conversations for Sarah, rather than for her.

Version 1.2.1 of 2016-09-19.