The Interview USA
Tulane University
Vice President of Student Affairs

Dusty Porter

For today's students, the pursuit of knowledge extends far beyond the classroom, demanding innovative approaches to cultivate meaningful engagement across the whole student experience. For Dusty Porter, Vice President of Student Affairs at Tulane University, this means creating spaces where individuals of different backgrounds can come together.

Dusty sat down with Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, to share his insights on everything from the importance of fostering a sense of belonging for students from diverse backgrounds to promoting respectful dialogue and engagement across diverse perspectives. 

Dusty's Journey

Max: Can we begin with a brief introduction to yourself and your organization?

I'm Dr. Dusty Porter, and I'm the Vice President of Student Affairs at Tulane University. A little bit about my background – I went to Emory University in Atlanta for my undergraduate degree in psychology before studying for my master's degree in College Student Personnel at the University of Vermont. Then, I studied for my PhD at the University of Maryland, College Park. After I earned my doctorate, I stepped out of the profession for a few years and worked for Andersen Consulting and the American Psychological Association. I returned to become the Vice President of Student Affairs at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. After 10 years, I was ready for another challenge, when this opportunity came up at Tulane. I’m wrapping up my 10th and final year here, and I'll be retiring in 10 weeks!

Tulane is one of the nation's premier private research institutions with about 13,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. It has two campuses in New Orleans and attracts students from all across the nation and the world. We have a really interesting synergy with the city, and after Hurricane Katrina, we introduced a new requirement of service as part of every student’s degree. So it's a very special place to be.

Max: What inspired you to pursue a career in Student Affairs?

I was hugely influenced by my experience as a student, especially the campus culture. I was very involved and connected with campus life in a whole variety of ways. That helped me realize that Student Affairs could be the career path for me – helping students grow and develop sounded really compelling. So by the beginning of my junior and senior year, I was looking at different master's programs; I’d grown up in Georgia, and I wanted to go someplace different, which drew me to Vermont. The longer you stay in this profession, the more removed you become from the student experience, so you have to work really hard to actually get to know students and understand their needs. 

Max: What’s your approach to creating a sense of belonging for students of all backgrounds?

I often find myself thinking about the student affairs concepts of mattering versus marginality. That means getting a sense of how to help students within an institution feel like they matter, and that someone cares about them. That can be complex work, depending on the size of the institution and the diversity of enrollment. It's not enough to simply increase diversity; you really need to think about how well your services and programs support those students. For example, you don't want to have all the international students only hanging with each other; you want students of all kinds meeting and learning from one another. The whole point of a college or university is learning about people who are different from you. That's what makes America such an amazing place. But how do you do that? Well, I think it begins with how the institution signals its values and how students come into the space. We’ve been thinking deeply about how we talk about our values in authentic ways.

Orientation is key; you need to think carefully about the five days when they first arrive here. By the time a student has been here for six to twelve months, they should be able to say that Tulane cares about being innovative and inclusive. But undergraduates are still developing, so you need to approach them through multiple avenues to make sure your message gets through. Another thing is making sure your programs, services, and organizations fit the students’ needs. For example, we’ve established a Center for Academic Equity, a unit dedicated to first-generation students to help level the playing field.

Max: How can we encourage students to engage in respectful dialogue across differences?

We’ve had a great initiative this year and our students have been in the driving seat. Our student government has been sponsoring a series of roundtables on engaging in civic discourse; you may feel differently from another student, but you still need to respect each other. We have a great group on campus called Bridge USA, and their sole purpose is to choose a current topic and invite different perspectives to be heard. I think it's really powerful when students take the lead. Inclusion is one of our key values, and that means we need to be thinking about ways of including different perspectives in the discourse.

Max: How do you address the challenge of actually getting students to engage with these initiatives outside the classroom?

At a place like Tulane, there are hundreds of things for students to get involved in. However, some students have told me it can be overwhelming because there are so many ways to get connected. So one thing we’ve done is gone out to talk to alumni and asked them what experiences they remember best about Tulane. And they’ll talk about those big events, like football games or orientation events, but also smaller events, like joining a climbing group or having dinner with a bunch of friends. So we realized it’s not enough to tell students about those large events – we also need to point them towards those smaller events to help them find connection. In a post-COVID world, it’s harder to get students to turn out to smaller organization events, so we still have a whole spectrum of events that are going on virtually. 

Max: What’s one piece of wisdom that has helped you in your career?

Know your values. They will be challenged along the way, by your workplace or by the culture around you. So you need to be able to articulate what they are because when you get to that point, you don't want to be unsure. 

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