Campus Climate and the Power of Presence

Pat Whitely, Vice President for Student Affairs, University of Miami

March 30, 2018

This semester, I will complete my twenty-first year as the vice president for student affairs at the University of Miami. Next year (2018-2019), I will work with my twenty-second student government president who was elected this month and reminded me that he wasn’t born when I was appointed by President Tad Foote in December 1996. For those in our profession who question the value in making a long-term commitment to one university, my 36 years on staff at UM have provided incredible experiences and impactful opportunities. As I reflect upon what has contributed to my success despite the multitude of technological changes and the introduction of social media, two important initiatives that, while relatively simple, have served me well and been extraordinarily fruitful.

The first initiative involves the importance of monitoring the campus climate. When I was promoted to vice president, I convened immediately a group of staff and faculty entitled, “Campus Climate Committee.” There are approximately 30 individuals on the committee who represent staff from dining, police, counseling, athletics, undergraduate education, admissions, and multi-cultural student affairs, to name only a few areas. While several members hail from student affairs, the majority are from units outside of the Division of Student Affairs.

We meet six times annually for 90 minutes each time. There is no set agenda except to answer questions such as the following: “How is my current work and initiatives effecting the campus climate for students?” “Are there any issues that may disrupt the climate of the campus?” “Are there patterns or information that we all may need to address?”

Literally, we have worked together in countless meetings to immediately address issues before they became more significant. It has been especially important to schedule meetings at the beginning, middle and end of each semester. Examples of complex intervention topics have included: upper class housing registration; an increase in campus thefts, particularly laptops; food service options and hours; deferred Greek rush; student tailgating at football games; and issues that affect the culture of belonging such as additional prayer space for Muslim students, and the possibility of exploring a robust Lunar New Year celebration due to a considerable increase in our undergraduate Chinese student population.

The Campus Climate Committee also helped to initiate a number of significant task forces pertaining to issues affecting our Black students, LGBTQ students, and Veteran students, among others. All task forces ultimately recommended transformational changes and responses to student needs.

In addition, I have met regularly throughout my tenure with groups of student  leaders at my “VP Roundtable”, which meets monthly (more frequently if necessary), and have also made certain to schedule focus groups of random students from all of our student populations, undergraduate, graduate, law and medical. These meetings are often joined by members of the Board of Trustees and help to insure that I keep my pulse on student issues and the campus climate. Of course, it goes without saying that I utilize social media to keep the student community abreast of important information.

The second and one of the most important intentional initiatives that I have always executed has been “the power of presence.” With the exception of this year (due to construction), I have actually parked my car 15 minutes away from my office and on the outskirts of campus. Why? Because doing so allows me to “walk in” every morning, interacting with staff, students and faculty, hearing about problems and successes,  and keeping a pulse on the campus climate. This practice enables me to achieve personal contact with literally hundreds of people on campus that I may not see routinely, if ever, and frequently leads to follow-up contact and problem solving.

Throughout the years, I have found that a quick walk around the lake (located in the middle of campus) or over to a dining hall for lunch pays dividends. This year, I began a new initiative entitled, “Pancakes with Pat” where, with the help of Dining Services, I serve pancakes around the Shalala Student Center and the student residential areas from 9:00 – 10:30 PM five or six times a year. This informal time is another example of expanding my presence on campus and meeting more students.

In summary, regardless of your position or campus structure, the importance of reaching out, getting out, and initiating formal and informal systems that allow you to keep your pulse on the climate of the campus cannot be overstated.

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