The Interview USA
Cleveland State University
Assistant Vice President for Campus Engagement and Dean of Students

Ali Martin Scoufield

Navigating inclusion and belonging alongside freedom of speech while valuing different opinions can be difficult, but it is essential for universities to try and find that balance. For Ali Martin Scoufield, Assistant Vice President for Campus Engagement and Dean of Students at Cleveland State University, this has been a point of focus.

Ali spoke to GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews about the importance of inclusivity being valued by the university at every level, and how this can be implemented simultaneously with sharing ideas and different viewpoints.

Ali's Journey

Kira: What brought you to student affairs?

Teaching was my original plan, but upon realizing it wasn't for me, I was advised to go into student affairs by my mentor because of my involvement in student activities as an undergrad.  I didn't know anything about the field, but thanks to this mentor of mine who noticed I needed help with what I wanted to do, I found this role.

Kira: How do you find doing a Ph.D. alongside your role as a leader in student affairs?

The doctoral work is hard, as it should be, but I also hold two spaces in the same institution, student and faculty.  I try to keep them separate and be very intentional about the differences, but of course, there is overlap.  For example, there have been students in my classes that have been referred to offices I oversee. That’s when I take a step back because I don't want to cause them any discomfort; I want all students to be able to access resources when they need them.

Kira: Has the experience of being a learner at the same time as working in Student Services given you more insight into the student experience?

Absolutely.  It’s interesting working in HE while doing a course in HE because a lot of what I did as a practitioner was very different on a curricular level. The curricular side of interviews, for example, is so different from the student administrator role.  I think these could be blended more because they have a lot of joint applicability.  Doing both at once is both humbling and energizing at the same time.

Part of my studies focuses on widening access for those with disabilities. I also oversee the office of disability here, so that has direct impact.  I try to support the staff and students in that space and always think about how to make processes easier and create better access.

Kira: What is the university doing to up engagement post-Covid?

We have seen a gap in student and campus engagement.  For me, a big part of narrowing it is having the upper-class students be role models for the students that are coming in.  We know as practitioners that research supports campus engagement in terms of learning outcomes, relationship building, graduation rates and more.  We know the data is there, but since Covid, it’s been on us to work hard to get that engagement where we want it and demonstrate to them what the benefits are.

Engagement also doesn't need to look the same as it did pre-Covid — we can embrace some of the online spaces and make it work for all of our students, using them to make engagement more inclusive and accessible.  We must go back to the foundation of why we know engagement is important and make sure students know that too.

Kira: How do you go about creating a welcoming environment?

I think inclusion and belonging are critical to any community, and certainly to university communities, given that they are often microcosms of the wider community in that town or city.  Universities have the power to be that welcoming space, but it has to be infused everywhere — it cannot be down to one specific office to implement belonging on campus; it needs to be embraced by the entire university.  We need to value diversity and everything that comes with that, which means engaging in tough conversations and taking the steps to ensure that everyone feels seen.  

I think inclusion and belonging are critical to any community, and certainly to university communities, given that they are often microcosms of the wider community in that town or city.
Kira: How do you navigate inclusivity and freedom of speech on campus?

One of the best things about university is that you will meet people with different ideas from you — we are all here to learn, and sharing ideas is a big part of that.  I also think agreeing isn’t the most important thing — there is a fundamental way that we should be treating and respecting one another. Still, I think real movement and momentum can come from the things we don't agree on and from hearing other viewpoints.  This doesn't mean your mind has to change, only that we realize that other opinions can hold value too.  Respectful dialogue is hard, and people can feel hurt. It's important to hear a variety of opinions but it has to be a balance; the dialogue needs care, guide posts, and practice. 

3 Quick-fire Questions

Kira: What advice would you give to anyone coming into the HE space right now?

Follow your passions — there isn’t one route you have to take.  I would never have seen myself in this role, but I love it, and do my job well.  It’s also important to try different things and find what fits.

Kira: Who do you admire the most in HE?

My mentor in undergrad, Theodore Zern, really led me on this path which I will always really appreciate.  There is also my good friend Naomi Sigg who is now head of DEI at another university — I have always admired her and her support for her community; she constantly pushes to make things better.

Kira: What is the most important book you have read?

I don’t think I can pick one because I enjoy reading so much, but I’ve recently loved books that push me to reflect.  One is The Artist’s Way which is about finding your passions and making change.  The other is Be Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, which is essential work on being anti-racist and a better individual.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Kira Matthews
Community Engagement Lead
Kira leads our community outreach team working hand-in-hand with changemakers on both sides of the pond. If you want to join the next series of The Interview, or just learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at kira.matthews@goodcourse.co
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