As the tides of Higher Education (HE) continue to shift, students must navigate a sea of increasingly complex challenges. To support students in the face of these changes, staff must be intentional, empathetic, and adaptable. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by James Conneely, Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of North Georgia, who has worked tirelessly to improve student welfare for over four decades.
James sat down with Charles Sin, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss changes in student affairs, how to protect free speech and encourage open discourse, and the importance of student safety on college campuses.
Sure! I’m the Vice President of Student Affairs at the University of Northern Georgia. We’re based in Dahlonega, Georgia, and have 19,000 students over five campuses.
I’ve been in HE for 43 years. At first, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. As a hall coordinator at the University of Northern Iowa, I truly enjoyed it, and I knew I had found my calling. I’ve been at nine different institutions during my career — to move up, sometimes you need to move on. That includes all types of institutions: public, private, faith-based, flagship, and single-gender. When I started, my goal was to become a Vice President of Student Affairs, and I achieved that at Eastern Kentucky University. After that, I had the opportunity to hold two presidencies before I took some time off. When I returned to the field, I was offered this position at UNG — and it was a perfect fit.
It’s important to remember that all students are developing as people. They might have different experiences and backgrounds, but they all face the same challenges when coming into college. Since I started, mental health has become a huge focus in how we work and educate students. I don’t know whether mental health issues have become more prevalent, but there’s certainly an increased awareness of the challenges facing students. There’s a greater willingness to speak up — it isn’t as much of a stigma as it once was in the past. If students are encouraged to be more open about mental health, then we can work better to serve their needs.
However, there’s certainly been an increase in severity, including cases of students dealing with suicidal ideation. Within DEI, we’re still talking about many of the same issues as 20 or 30 years ago. Though we’ve made strides, there’s certainly a long way to go. Most of all, we need to create a climate of open and honest dialogue to ask difficult questions and avoid judgement. As institutions, we have a moral obligation to make our students feel part of a community. All organisations must openly espouse their values so students can choose what is the best fit for them.
It’s changed significantly over the past decade, not just in education. Across our whole society, the standards of civility and discourse have shifted. We need to create dialogue and expose students to various viewpoints — it’s unrealistic to try and change people’s minds, but we can challenge them to think and understand different perspectives. We all have biases, so the question is how to create a common ground for dialogue. When my staff create DEI programs, my first question is always “How can this create opportunities for dialogue?”
In HE, we have an obligation to promote open discourse and allow people to ask questions in a civil and respectful manner. There’s no secret formula, but no matter what, institutions need to be consistent with their values. Much of the debate around free speech focuses on mechanisms: instead, we need to prioritise the process of creating open and honest dialogue.
All students are affected in different ways. We all have pressures, but today’s students struggle more than ever. It’s important to acknowledge that not all students can access emotional support or healthy coping mechanisms. We need to understand individual struggles — some students are first-generation, some have food insecurity, and others face mental health crises. We have adult learners and veterans who are worrying about how they’re going to pay the bills or put food on the table for their families. As the student population evolves, so do the challenges they face, and people in different stages of life will need to deal with different obstacles. So we need to help students develop greater resiliency and help them figure out how to deal with the hurdles in their path.
We need to be very careful in our approach. No matter what precautions we take, there can never be an absolute guarantee of safety. We’re constantly improving physical security and reporting systems on our campus. But we can’t do everything, and students need to meet us halfway — sometimes you are responsible for your own safety. You know what it’s like when you’re eighteen: you think you’re invincible, that nothing can hurt you. But that’s simply not true — the world can be a dangerous place. We don’t want our students to be scared, but we do want them to be mindful and maintain a high standard of situational awareness. After all, college is a microcosm of our society: if we can succeed here, then students will be better prepared when they venture out into the wider world.
Listen. You have to listen before you can start a dialogue. Only then can you begin to create a common understanding.