The Interview USA
University of Arkansas
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs

Jeremy Battjes

Creating a sense of inclusion and belonging within educational institutions is not just a moral imperative but a foundation for academic success. Through intentional programming and a commitment to active listening, schools can become havens for students from all walks of life.

Max Webber, Co-Host of the Interview, sat down with Jeremy Battjes, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of Arkansas, to talk about topics including free speech in higher education, the challenge of tackling hazing on campus, and the need for targeted support to meet students’ needs. 

Jeremy's Journey

Max: Can we start with an introduction to yourself and your institution?

My name is Jeremy Battjes and I serve as Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of Arkansas. I have been here for 21 years now. We’re a growing institution, with just over 32,000 students in total. So it’s definitely an exciting time to be here. In the past, we might have been a second or third choice for many applications, but now Arkansas is becoming a first-choice destination for students.

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

When I was an undergraduate at Central Michigan University, I found lots of ways to get involved on campus as a student employee. I loved working on campus and the connections that I built not only with peers, but my faculty and staff mentors along the way. It felt like I was part of a community. When I started my career, I was working in Campus Recreation, and I loved it because everyone that came to see us was there for a positive reason. They wanted you to be involved. That helped me realize that my passion lay in working with students and helping them develop.

Max: What initiatives have you taken to foster a sense of inclusion and belonging for students of all backgrounds? 

Above all, you have to listen to students and what they're looking for while they're here. As professionals, we can put on as many programs as we like, but if they aren’t catering to students’ needs, you can’t guarantee that anyone will show up! So we need to ask how we can intentionally craft our services, programs, and resources to really support students where they need it. Communicating with students is also key; we spent two years coming out of the pandemic, asking students about what they need to feel a sense of belonging – everything from the on-campus parking challenges to affordable housing and mental health resources. The fact that we could take that time to intentionally and craft a plan we could then share with the campus was invaluable. It allowed us to identify the areas they need support, and helped us figure out how to deliver it.

Max: Free speech is a contentious issue on college campuses. How can we encourage students to engage in civil discourse across political divides?

It’s hugely important. We try to work with our faculty on campus to build certain elements of those types of hot-button issues into the classroom environment if possible. That’s also a form of career preparation; we know that employers are looking for these sets of skills for students to build. We’re working very hard to engage our students in building those competencies; we don’t want them to be robots, but instead to walk away with transferable skills that will help them in their lives and careers. We try to make these things part of our everyday programming so that students can get the most out of those engagement opportunities.  Whether it’s climate issues or sustainability issues, we're seeing a lot of student activism right now. So we try to be purposeful in how we engage students and meet them where they are and ultimately to be as engaging as possible. 

Max: How do you address the challenge of building sustained engagement with students beyond the classroom?

When we talk to students, they tell us they're struggling with three main things: affordable housing, financial resources, and mental health access. So we need to think carefully about how we can deliver support for those issues, and how to incorporate it into our programming. We hear quite frequently from students that they’re working two or three jobs to support themselves. That tells us that their time is precious, and that we need to think carefully about how to provide opportunities. So we have put a renewed emphasis on data to try and learn more about our student body and its demographics. Who is eligible for federal funding? What counties do they come from in Arkansas? Arkansas isn’t the richest state, so we understand that many of our students may experience financial hardship. We’re aiming to build these things into scholarship opportunities as well moving forward. We need to be highly intentional; the old days of just slapping programs together and putting them online are not effective, because students are being pulled in so many directions when they come to campus.

Max: Half of all students will experience some form of hazing during their time at university. What is your institution doing to challenge this kind of behavior?

It’s hugely important for us – just this past fall, we had a pretty big case of that within a fraternity on campus. We try to talk about it from a prevention standpoint; if students recognize hazing behaviors, we encourage them to report it to the university. We tell our student groups in no uncertain terms that hazing is prohibited in Arkansas – there is even a state law that comes with pretty severe penalties if an individual is found guilty. But deterrence is only a part of the solution – we also need to train and educate our students, helping them build the confidence to report it. The culture of some of these organizations dates back for decades, so we need to work hard to tackle those kinds of ingrained behaviors.

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

To me, it's simple: listen actively. As a young professional, I thought I knew at all. But I soon realized I was wrong. I learn so much from talking with students every day. Having those real conversations with students is so meaningful to me.

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Max Webber
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