Ensuring that students are challenged but not fearful is a difficult balance to achieve. As they return to campus, it’s important that universities are conscious of how students from different backgrounds come together, how their learning might have been impacted by the pandemic, and what can be done to support them.
Allen Groves, Senior Vice President and Chief Student Experience Officer at Syracuse University, sat down with GoodCourse’s Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews, to discuss the importance of comfort spaces for everyone, how Higher Education (HE) officials can ensure that students feel safe, and more.
My current role is Senior Vice President and Chief Student Experience Officer at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.
Right out of undergrad, I worked for my college fraternity and traveled around the United States visiting schools and chapters. I probably visited one hundred colleges and universities during that time. Then I went to law school and practiced law in Atlanta, Georgia, for sixteen years.
When I was a law student at the University of Virginia, I had a job as an Area Coordinator. I was responsible for eleven freshmen dormitories, so I worked very much in HE even though I was a law student. And then sixteen years into practicing law, the University of Virginia reached out and asked if I wanted to return to my alma mater to help out.
Life is about relationships. The person I worked for as a law student was the Associate Dean of Students in charge of housing and residence life. When that phone call came in late 2005, she was the VP of Student Affairs at Virginia.
I’m going to begin simply by saying something that I didn’t catch when I first came to work at Syracuse. The nickname for the university is ‘Cuse. ‘Creating an unsurpassed student experience’ is also ‘c-u-s-e,’ so there’s a bit of branding involved in that slogan. That said, the slogan is taken very seriously by my team, chancellor and everyone. The way I think about it, whenever we discuss a new program, undertaking, or initiative, our first question is: How does this help students? What is it about this that will make their experience better, or reduce a barrier that they face? Will it solve a problem?
More broadly, I think that Student Affairs teaches a tremendous amount of skills. At the end of the day, our objective should be: ‘What do we do so that this student is the best they can be in the classroom’ because they’re here for an education. We’re doing things that allow them to be their healthiest, most focused, least concerned or fearful. Are they feeling safe, well, and supported? Have we done everything we can to reduce those external things, so that they really are the best they can be in the classroom?
The chancellor challenged everyone last year to ‘create academic excellence in a university welcoming to all.’ Certainly, the second part of that is tasked to all of us, but it has great resonance with what we do in student experience.
What I try to think about, with an array of different communities, backgrounds, experiences, et cetera, is: ‘How do we make sure that students feel safe?’ That is a fundamental issue. It has to do with things like quickly responding to incidents of bias when they occur; trying to make sure that we’re teaching the entire community about the importance of inclusion and connection; and actually being open to people who are different from you — especially when you have many young people coming to college who will have been in a much more insular situation, and are now meeting people very different to them. Sexual orientation and identity are great examples of that.
Any group that is in a minority should feel physically and emotionally safe. Not in the way that they won’t be confronted with challenging issues — because all students should be — but in a way that they’re not fearful. That’s hugely important. They should understand that if something happens, we will respond quickly, with empathy and strength, pushing back against something like a bias incident if it occurs.
Do we have spaces for them where they can be with folks like themselves, and do they choose to do that? I know oftentimes you hear the phrase ‘safe space’, which is a phrase I don’t really like because I think it’s a misnomer — I like to think about comfort spaces. Let’s say I’m a Black student: do I have a place where I know other Black students will be congregating together, that we have a space where we’re the majority and feel that sense of family?
At the same time, you have to engage all students across the board to engage fully in the life of the university. If we do both of those things, everyone learns. But I don’t think we can honestly say that having something like an LGBTQ+ center is self-segregation — that’s ridiculous. There need to be comfort spaces.
A few years ago, I was talking with some alums. When I was at Virginia, I was the most senior member of administration who was openly gay. Students knew this and would oftentimes reach out to me. I was having conversations with alums about these ‘safe spaces,’ not in a positive way, who said we didn’t use to have anything like that. And I said, sure we did — I had a safe space when I was in school. When they looked at me, I said my fraternity. My fraternity house was made of guys who had similar backgrounds to me, not in terms of my sexual identity, but most of us were White. I remember some of them said they had never thought about it like that.
Everybody should have spaces in their life to retreat to when they need that security and feeling of comfort, and then at other times we can go out and engage more broadly.
We need to listen genuinely, ask good questions, and then be honest about what we think is and isn’t achievable. I think when you’re honest about that, students feel that you’re legitimately listening.
You have to be sincere in asking students about their concerns, especially in marginalized communities. What are they worried about, and what barriers are they facing? First, we need to listen genuinely, ask good questions, and then be honest about what we think is and isn’t achievable. I think when you’re honest about that, they feel that you’re legitimately listening.
At my prior institution, I heard about a group called the Black Male Initiative, which was started by a really impressive African American fourth-year student, who I knew well. It involved a number of African American men who would get together every week to have open conversations. I asked if I could come, simply to listen and educate myself, and he asked everyone else, and they said sure. So I went and listened and learned so much. From that, I built even more important relationships, which helped me know what I could do to support them.
Think about a first-gen student — students who are not first-generation have a road map from their parents or older siblings. A first-gen student does not have that road map. So the support of comfort spaces is so important for those who don’t have a reference.
I’ll start with the positive. Since the spring of ‘20 when Covid hit, Syracuse has been in residence throughout the pandemic. We tried to figure out a way to stay open, which predated my arrival, and I was very impressed with the leadership for figuring out a way to do that safely.
This fall was the first time that things really felt ‘post-Covid’, even though we’re obviously still dealing with many aspects of it. Classrooms felt normal in a lot of ways and the energy during the opening convocation of students in our stadium was palpable.
Last week, I compared notes with a colleague from another institution. Across the spectrum, we all feel like there is so much positive energy and excitement — because these students lost so much. There is an eagerness to engage because Covid drove home how important those human connections are, and what it was like to lose them.
The challenges are: We’re only now beginning to understand how deep the learning loss was. I’ve asked faculty whether they have seen gaps with incoming freshmen, and the answer was yes. You have to work a little harder with the students because their base of knowledge is not the same.
In the last month, there have been two studies on the learning loss from younger people. We haven't seen those students yet, so what’s going to happen when the person who went through Covid in ninth grade arrives? And then, a decade from now, the really young people who didn’t learn the socialization that they would have during critical, formative times in their lives — what happens? Can we capture those skills later in their development, or is there always a gap? We’ll be watching this closely in Higher Ed for years because we don’t really know yet.
The then-governor of Virginia established this task force. The charge was to develop a set of recommendations for colleges and universities in Virginia — private and public — on sexual assault, misconduct, and harassment. He put the attorney general in charge and thirty citizens were selected to serve. There were three working groups. Ten people were on prevention, ten were on response — I was one of them — and then ten were on law enforcement. The citizens he appointed ranged from community activists in cities and towns, HE officials like myself who worked in the area, prosecutors, police officers and investigators, social workers and mental health professionals. It was a really good array of thirty people that spanned a lot of different fields.
We frequently met in our groups of ten, thrashed out theories and ideas, and proposed a set of recommendations in each of these areas, which culminated in a report. It was really important and intense work, which would have been published around 2014/15 if my memory is right. I was really proud of the work that was done.
I came out of it realizing how privileged I was at the University of Virginia because we had the resources in the 2010s to set up and fund a standalone Title IX office and employ the people we needed. Doing this work on the governor's task force — smaller schools would say they didn’t have the resources to hire investigators, and so one of the unfortunate things that came out of this, in my view, was that smaller schools asked the state for a small task force of investigators that they could use as needed, which ultimately didn’t happen. I would have loved to have seen that.
I have had the chance to work in so many interesting areas. Something that I have spent a chunk of my career on, which is influenced by my sixteen years as a lawyer, is navigating the balance between making a university inclusive and welcoming, as free as possible from targeted harassment and bias, with the need for free expression, open inquiry, and a willingness of students to take chances, put opinions or ideas out there and have those tested.
I have tried to figure out how to walk that balance. I’m proud of the work that has been done in that area, not just by myself but also by others. I remain concerned, because of the current climate where young people feel that they can be canceled if they misspeak in good faith. I’m not talking about someone who is harassing another or being a racist, I’m talking about a person who takes a less popular position on an important issue that maybe the bulk of their classmates disagree with.
There was a time when I was younger when you could have those debates, and when it was over, people were still friends. But the climate now is that young people are genuinely afraid to say the wrong thing or test an idea because the blowback can be pretty aggressive.
When I spoke with new students this fall, I told them that they need to be able to extend grace to each other. There is little grace in the world today, and everyone will make mistakes, they’re all young — but they need to be understanding. I’m proud of the work I have done but I believe that there is so much left to be done.
This one is often missed: You have to understand the economics of HE. I think many people don’t. There are serious headwinds facing HE in the United States. We have the enrollment cliff that will start in 2025, maybe even earlier. We have very high inflation, net tuition revenue is increasingly being crimped, and we have tuition discounting now that is crossing 50%. I gave a talk this summer to young professionals, walking them through in great detail the economics of HE.
To be perfectly frank, a decade from now some schools won’t be here anymore. So if you’re a young person entering the field, it’s very fulfilling and rewarding work, but you have to understand the economics of the business and know which schools are strong and which ones will struggle economically.
Freeman Hrabowski, who was for many years the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). If you look at his life story — a Black man, growing up during the time that he did. What he experienced, what Birmingham was like in the 50s and 60s, and the kind of discrimination he saw — and here he is leading UMBC. He is such an innovator, an extraordinary fellow with a brilliant mind. I think he recently stepped down after a thirty-year run. He is a transformative figure. When I hear him speak or read his writing, it inspires me immensely.
I’m going to give you two. They impacted me a lot in the last year in my new role, which is much larger than the role I had at Virginia. One is a book called Think Again by Adam Grant. It’s about challenging ourselves to rethink what we believe. This willingness to be open, nimble, and rethink perspectives. The other is a book called Range by David Epstein. Again, it talks about the fact that the real strength is in being a generalist in your skills and focus, not in being hyper-specific. Because that is what we need in a world that is constantly evolving. Both of them have massively impacted me; I have recommended them to students and to our board of trustees because they’re really powerful books.