The Interview USA
Columbia University
Senior Vice President for Student Affairs

Joseph Defraine Greenwell

As students confront a rapidly shifting global landscape, universities must rise to the challenge of providing an education that equips them with the skills, knowledge, and resilience needed to thrive in an ever-changing world. No one understands this more than Joseph Defraine, Senior Vice President for Student Affairs and University Life at Columbia University, who has advocated a nimble and innovative strategic approach to allow his institution to respond better to change.

Joseph sat down with Kitty Hadaway, Goodcourse’s Universities Lead, to discuss topics ranging from building a safe and inclusive campus culture to the evolving landscape of higher education. 

Joseph's Journey

Kitty: Can we begin with a quick introduction to your current role and institution?

I’m the Senior Vice President for Student Affairs in the Division of  University Life at Columbia University. I’ve been in this role for four years, and I’m the first person to hold this inaugural position. I founded and lead, in partnership, the  Student Affairs Network, convening the Deans of Students for our seventeen schools, and Columbia’s central unit leads to strategize how to enhance the student and Student Affairs staff experience across our institution. I’m also involved in all high-level student matters as well as partnering with students and stakeholders on issues of student activism, inclusion, and wellbeing. We strive to continually be innovative given Columbia’s unique structure and opportunities, thinking outside the box: not only for the current generation of students but also for the future.

Kitty: You’re the first person to hold this position. What was it like to step into an inaugural role?

If you’re taking on an inaugural role, you must put a lot of effort into continually building trust and establishing meaningful relationships. This has been my approach at every University I served, but even more so at Columbia in this role. I am not only a new human to the University, but this is also a new position for colleagues to get to know, understand, and help define. I try to continually create opportunities to listen intentionally, share information, and understand the various viewpoints across the University. As a person taking on a newly created position, you will likely already have an infrastructure in place, but you must actively engage with the campus in a thoughtful and meaningful way, working together to define needs and priorities. It’s a brilliant opportunity, but it demands great care and thoughtfulness. This is how I have approached my work throughout my career and it is an honor to partner with the amazing Student Affairs professionals, students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community partners at Columbia.

Kitty: Looking back over your career in student affairs, where have you seen the greatest changes in terms of student experience and the role of practitioners?

There’s been a shift in what’s expected of practitioners. Over the last two decades, the field of student affairs has transformed, and the work has changed at an elevated pace. We need to work hard to keep up with current and future needs of our students and the staff who support them: firstly, making sure we’re providing the right education,training, and support for student affairs staff, and secondly, giving the students the skills and support mechanisms they need to be successful. I often talk about how the student and staff experiences mirror each other. We must intentionally focus on both in order to create the best student experience. 

Student life is changing more quickly than ever before, so we need to be nimble in our approach. Technology is a perfect example: it’s evolving so dynamically right now, and that influences the needs that students are bringing to the institution. People used to talk about ten-year strategic plans, but I believe it’s impossible to think that far ahead anymore. Sometimes in higher education, we can get used to a certain way of doing things, but the current pace of change demands a more innovative approach. 

Kitty: You seem to have quite a progressive outlook. How do you encourage people to get on board, and do you ever encounter resistance? 

I think there is a mix in every institution, balancing daily work with strategic thinking. Post-Covid, people in higher education (and other industries) feel busier than ever. It’s difficult to create space and time to think strategically, as people feel struggle to keep up with their everyday tasks. Sometimes I worry that student affairs is becoming more about just getting the work done (which is important) than trying to enact meaningful change. So we need to think hard about how to carve out that time so we can work more intentionally. One of Columbia’s great strengths is its human capital: we have such incredible expertise across the institution. When we take the time to strategically leverage their knowledge and skills,  it helps us to accomplish our strategic goals to continually create a vibrant student and staff experience, addressing current and projecting future needs. 

Kitty: Recent guests have discussed the need to advance cultural competency to create a welcoming student environment. What initiatives have you been working on to this end?

First of all, you need to create spaces where people can feel comfortable and have a sense of belonging. We must help students understand what it means to be a part of a large, dynamic, and diverse community. It’s particularly important for first-year and international students (undergraduate and graduate) — we want them to know they are part of a community that is supportive of and embraces all identities. So we conduct a lot of programming, training, and workshops. One of the biggest challenges is something the whole nation is facing: there’s a huge divide, and we don’t know how to communicate across differences. To address that, we’re helping students build skills for constructive dialogue: for example, we’re running a series that teaches students how to engage in difficult conversations on different topics. You might not agree with everyone you meet, but it’s important to understand and empathize so there can be growth on all sides. We have students coming from different cultures, across the globe, so the key is to meet them where they are. 

Kitty: Student safety is a huge concern on college campuses. What steps are you taking to ensure a safe and welcoming environment? 

Safety has many dimensions: physical, psychological, and emotional, to name a few. We all have a responsibility to promote safety on campus and be active community members. We all need to step up, because too often the onus is put on the community being directly impacted to protect themselves and make change. We must work hard to inform students about current issues impacting our community: holding workshops, assigning relevant readings, and advising them on what to do if they witness an incident of bias, hate, abuse, etc. We want students to feel empowered to speak out and know which resources are available to help them as they also help each other. 

Kitty: Student engagement is a challenge for many leaders. Where do you see students getting involved the most?

Engagement is based on passion. Students get the most involved with the things they love: whether it’s activism, volunteering, or leadership opportunities. What I’m hearing from our students is that they want to engage with their peers at other institutions. So it’s not enough for us to think of inclusion and belonging in our institutions: we must consider its impact across the sector. We’re also mindful that the graduate and professional student experience is changing. With the pandemic, many of them feel they missed out on the full college experience, so we are seeing more and more of them getting involved in student life. Institutions sometimes focus predominantly on the undergraduate student experience, but graduate and professional students have similar needs and expectations. At University Life at Columbia, we serve all students, across all schools, on all our campuses. 

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