The Interview USA
The University of Tennessee
Acting Vice President for Academic Affairs, Research, and Student Success

Bernie Savarese

While we tend to think of universities as single institutions, but in actuality, they’re often massive ecosystems composed of a huge number of smaller environments, all of which need to operate both independently and as part of a cohesive unit. The challenge can be in bringing all of these micro-worlds together and making sure they communicate with one another. This is so students not only have a smooth introduction to university life but feel supported throughout their time there in pursuing their interests and goals. 

Kitty Hadaway, Co-host of The Interview, spoke to Bernie Savarese, Acting Vice President (VP) for Academic Affairs, Research, and Student Success for the University of Tennessee (UT) System, about creating supportive systems and communities across a vast number of students. 

Bernie’s Journey

Kitty: What first brought you to a career in academic affairs and student success, as well as your current role?

I often think about the impact higher education (HE) has had on me and on the people I care about deeply. I came from a relatively low-income area in southeast Ohio. I started by attending my state’s flagship land grant institution, which gave me a lot of opportunities. I hadn’t been planning on a career in HE but I had a lot of really great mentors who believed in me and thought this was a place I could have an impact. So I kept taking those steps and new opportunities continued to present themselves. I consider myself lucky, thinking about how we help every student we admit achieve success, whatever that looks like for them.

This is my first-ever system role. Previously, I worked at two campuses: The Ohio State University (OSU) and New York University (NYU). Working for the UT System, I’m able to work across five campuses, which are all very different: different environments, different students, different needs.

Kitty: You were part of many impressive initiatives at NYU. How have they fed into your work at UT? 

At NYU, I was their inaugural student success officer, working across our campuses in NY, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai, building a central team there, and for those who know NYU, it’s very decentralized. A lot of work happens at the college and school level, whether it’s Stern or Tisch or many others, and so for me, it was looking at a really outstanding campus with wonderful faculty and students, and helping it seem a bit more stitched together and intentional. I wanted to make it a more intuitive place where it was easier for students to navigate. Student success isn’t about getting students to do things differently. It’s often about us holding up a mirror to ourselves and ensuring that the university’s doing what it needs to do to advance students. I took those learnings here. While NYU was a university and this was a system, given NYU’s decentralized nature of having campuses in three different countries and continents, the two have a lot in common. My role was and is to bring colleagues together, to have us focus on evidence and data, to put students at the center of our work, along with good teaching and research, and do our best to make sure our systems and processes empower our learners and faculty to do their very best.

Kitty: You led OSU’s nationally-recognized first-year experience program. Can you tell us about that and its link to students’ ongoing success?

Strong starts matter and how students are brought into the university couldn’t be more critical, especially at a place as large as OSU with 65,000 students. OSU is very well-resourced, but how do you make a big place feel small? How do you make sure every student feels like they matter? That was my role. I leveraged the copious data we had on our students to be proactive and personalize the experience for them. Instead of waiting till students arrived, we partnered with the admissions team and did a lot of work with students before they were admitted. We were able to make really good handoffs, create trust, and set students up for success, and what we saw was our first-year retention rate climbed almost 95% by the time I’d left. 

Kitty: How do you work to advance cultural competency across the student population?

Students’ ability to feel like they belong and can be part of communities where they welcome and accept others is critical. At the system office, our role is about convening colleagues around important conversations about belonging, elevating really good practices we see happening across our five campuses and helping students feel included. We have teams across the system working to expose students to new ideas across the spectrum, whether it’s through speakers, workshops, or student organizations.

Kitty: How do you track levels of student engagement and reach out to students who perhaps need more help in this area?

I think we’re getting better at understanding that engagement happens in many forms. I think for a long time we as universities were limited by not understanding how students define it for themselves. For them, it’s broader than just participating in clubs and organizations. They have interests and are forming connections in more informal ways. I think in recent years, we’ve been doing a much better job of engaging students. Peers are critical in this work, sharing in honest and vulnerable ways in which they’ve struggled, in order to help normalize the fact that students have ups and downs. It’s about establishing help-seeking behaviors and convincing students that asking for help is a sign of strength and maturity. Often the students who need us most seek us out the least. When I’m training teams, often we’re talking about who are the students who need you most, how do you know, and how do you reach them. And there are two sides to it. There’s educating students through many means and channels about the importance of seeking help. Meanwhile, we as a university have to know who’s likely to need us most, and who aren’t likely to reach out on their own. We have to be on our game. It isn’t just on our students.

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