Active listening and speaking with authenticity are important for successful communication between students and Higher Education (HE) leaders. This is something Jeffrey Gray, Senior Vice President for Student Affairs at Fordham University, knows all too well through his 40-year-long career, platforming the student voice and putting their needs front and center of the decisions he makes on behalf of student bodies.
Jeffrey sat down with Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, to discuss his journey into HE, fostering social connections for young people that missed out on formative experiences during Covid, and more.
I am the Senior Vice President for Student Affairs at Fordham University. We have campuses in New York and London and two primary residential campuses in the Bronx and Manhattan. I’ve been in this role for 27 years! A lot has changed since I started. We have gone from 2200 to 5000 students, for one thing.
I started my career as a high school guidance counselor in a junior-senior high school, in a small, rural school in upstate New York. I made the transition to HE, mainly in housing, before I came to Fordham. Residential life is where I grew up professionally and cut my teeth.
For starters, it grounds you in good listening and engagement skills. I’ve got degrees in business in human resource management, as well as psychology and counseling. They’re important every day from a management standpoint. From a student perspective, my academic background has always benefited my ability to engage students directly, especially since the rise in mental health issues.
Students appreciate authentic engagement and transparency. When I have students on advisory councils, I’m candid, and if I’m able to share information, I will.
Students appreciate authentic engagement and transparency. When I have students on advisory councils, I’m candid, and if I’m able to share information, I will; if I don’t know the answer, I’m not afraid to say I don’t know. That’s the starting point from which I have all my conversations.
Broadly speaking, we’ve expanded our housing capacity by 2800 students, and with that, we’ve expanded support services for many different groups. Our disability services office started years ago with one part-time staff member and 50 students, we now have 5 employees and over 1500 students registered with the office.
If I can identify one thing, it’s that over the last few years, we’ve built out better physical spaces for students. It has such a positive impact on recruitment and retention — we’ve built out a new campus that has more social space, dining space, study space, and physical fitness space. Not only more, but better space.
I started the office of multicultural affairs at Fordham. We didn’t have one, and it now has four team members. They advise our cultural clubs, and they have cultural programming committees that sponsor ongoing programming on campus, which has certainly made a tremendous difference to our communities.
The impact has been unbelievable, almost hard to quantify. We just finished a huge campus center project as we came out of COVID. I feel very strongly that in-person engagement is important for those who want to be here. The timing of the opening of the campus center couldn’t have been better, as it was so important for us to re-engage as we came out of lockdown.
It’s going to take us a long time to make up for the lost learning and lost social engagement skills. It won’t be solved overnight. One thing we have noticed is an increase in occupancy of our residence halls — it used to be at 65% during peak COVID, but now, it’s back to nearly 100%.
We’ve seen it manifest itself in more conduct reports, more mental health issues requiring intervention, and also in roommate conflicts. People really struggle with having and engaging roommates at a time when we’ve maxed out housing capacity. Students need to learn mediation skills and how to diffuse difficult situations.
My daughter is an elementary school teacher, and the issues are present there too. When you take two years out of the lifetime of a high school or college kid, that’s 25% of their time in school. They’ve lost opportunities to develop social skills, and we’ve felt the impact of that through the limited numbers and development of students that want to be in leadership positions.
There’s a mission that matters more than anything, you’ll work hard, and you’re not always going to get paid well. The work you do on the ground is really important. When you’re working with students on the ground, it’s like drinking water through a firehose – you’re not always going to get that work-life balance in daily life.
I can’t say there’s a particular person I could identify, but there are characteristics I appreciate — people who show up, lean in, work hard and do more than they talk.
More than books these days, I’ve been immersed in voluminous reading of the journals and studies related to COVID and its impact. I also do program reviews, which is one of the ways I stay current and immersed in what’s happening.