The Interview USA
Austin Peay State University
Vice President for Student Affairs

Leonard Clemons

Diversity and inclusion efforts are incomplete without the crucial element of belonging. To help students reach their full potential, it’s crucial that they feel part of a welcoming and inclusive learning community. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Dr. Leonard Clemons, Vice President for Student Affairs at Austin Peay State University.

Leonard sat down with Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing higher education today, from the challenge of encouraging respectful dialogue across political divides to the importance of investing in staff who care for students and developing a positive institutional culture. 

Leonard's Journey

Max: Let’s begin with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution…

My name is Dr. Leonard Clemons, and I serve as Vice President for Student Affairs at Austin Peay State University. I'm casually referred to as “Vice President of Fun” – I like that name because it's all centered around finding opportunities for students to engage in various ways. I came here from prior stints at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, the University of Chicago, and the University of Miami.

Max: What drew you to this field of work?

I was driven by my experience as a student. I went to a small public institution and was pretty engaged, serving as President of the Student Government Association. That was an excellent opportunity to engage with advisors and staff members, and it helped me realize this could be a career. I was a fierce advocate for my peers so that they could enjoy their college experience. So I jokingly tell folks I went to college, and I never wanted to leave!

Max: What’s the most important thing to get right when creating a sense of belonging for every student on campus?

My approach has been to find time to actually listen to students and learn about their experiences. As practitioners, we can come in with plenty of preconceived notions, but higher education is continuously changing. With that, the expectations of students constantly shift. I’ve found the best approach is to be nimble, gauging students and making sure to engage in active listening. Try to stay ahead of the curve and not get too set in your ways; what worked in the past might not be effective for the next generation of students.

Max: How can we foster a culture where students support and help one another to be successful?

I have a couple of strategies. One is making sure that we invest in the staff that are caring for our students. I often say that we ask our staff to fill the cups of students, but empty cups can't fill other cups. And so it's absolutely crucial to develop those who are tasked with leading and caring for our students. Part of that is that within our division; we've shifted towards a strength-based model and a positive mindset. As practitioners, we need to make sure we are engaging each other, not just the students. If we have a positive mindset when engaging with students, then that will spread throughout the whole institution. You can develop all the strategies you want, the strategy will not survive.

Max: Recent guests have discussed the issue of free speech on college campuses. How can we encourage students to engage in respectful dialogue across political divides?

I always like to remember what one of my mentors told me: always remember why you got into this career. Always keep humanity at the heart of your work. Remember that everybody has their own story; we all come from different backgrounds, families, and cultures. Come into discussions understanding that everybody has unique experiences that shape their values. We welcome free speech, so when folks have the opportunity to speak or protest in whatever format they choose, we try to make sure that they are respectful. Generally, we don’t have a problem with that: our students are very respectful, even when there's a difference of opinion. And so we've been lucky in a sense; in the wider landscape, there is a lot of tension and a lot of disappointment as a result of those conversations. Our goal is to continue building a community where everybody feels like they belong, no matter where they come from. We've just launched our strategic plan, and right now we're working on a new implementation strategy. But the first step we need to make when engaging folks in meaningful conversations is identifying the barriers to entry – only then can we start bringing people together. 

Max: Students have busy schedules, and little free time. How do you address the challenge of keeping busy students continuously engaged and enthused?

You can have all the best initiatives, but if you don't have the culture, it will all fall on deaf ears. So we’re fortunate to have really engaged students who want to hear what we have to say. Our strategy is about being proactive: we don’t want to sit and wait for things to happen, but to go out and actively make a difference. To take the information we have and put it into practice in holistic programs that connect students to peers from different backgrounds – and make sure that we're continuously engaging them along the process. 

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Max Webber
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