The Interview USA
University of Chicago
Associate Vice President for Student Life 

Michael Hayes

In our increasingly polarized society, there has been an intensifying debate about the nature of freedom of speech on college campuses. On the one hand, universities have a solemn responsibility to uphold free speech, but on the other, there is an increasing need to create a safe and inclusive environment for marginalized students. In his role as Associate Vice President for Student Life at the University of Chicago, Michael Hayes has worked tirelessly to advance the values of free expression, academic freedom, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). 

Michael sat down with Kitty Hadaway, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss topics including the course of his career so far, the importance of free speech on campus, and the effect of the pandemic on student engagement. 

Michael's Journey

Kitty: Let’s kick off with a quick introduction to your current role and institution.

I’m the Associate Vice President for Student Life at the University of Chicago. It’s a position I’ve held for the last eight years. My role involves most of our student-facing units, including working with our student leaders. I have the chance to work in the places which bring our institution to life, such as the Center for Leadership and Involvement, the Office of International Affairs, and our International House. I also have the pleasure of working with our incredibly talented students: they are inquisitive, engaged, and bring out the best in all of us. 

Kitty: So, what attracted you to a career in student affairs? 

Like many of your guests, I started out as a residence assistant when I was an undergrad. I had some excellent staff mentors, and when I was in my sophomore year, one of them told me that I could make it a career. Since that moment, I’ve always been on a college campus.

Kitty: Over the course of your career, what changes have you seen in the field of student affairs?

Everything is the same, and everything is different. I don’t think there has been a change in our core function — helping students to thrive personally, professionally, and intellectually. Students still want to succeed academically and find their place outside the classroom. Ultimately, students want to make a difference. As practitioners, we’ve had to change with the times. Thirty years ago, students didn’t have the same demands on their time, and they weren’t as engaged with wider political issues. Of course, technology has complicated everything, for better or worse. We’re also more aware of mental health and wellness, and we’re doing more to support students. Today, higher education has a more consumer-driven mindset, and that brings demands for both staff and students. Above all, students want to plug in and thrive, and it’s our job to help them get there.

Kitty: You have worked in roles across several different institutions. How has this experience influenced your approach at Chicago?

I’ve had the privilege of working at institutions of all types and sizes, including some highly selective ones. I’ve worked at small liberal arts colleges, such as DePauw University, with 2,400 students as well as a large state University, the University of Maryland.  Here at Chicago we have approximately 7,000 undergraduates and a large number of graduate students, and that brings different challenges. I’ve been able to take something from each of those institutions and go on to apply it in new ways. 

Kitty: Recent guests have discussed the need to advance cultural competence to create a welcoming environment for students. What initiatives have you been taking to this end?

It takes a village — everyone needs to get involved. It’s our role to help students understand how they can contribute, whether it’s in their student groups, residence halls, or house communities. For me, it needs to start with the ability to listen. It helps you gain insights from other people, challenge your own beliefs, and find common ground. Finally, we need to implore ourselves and our students to consider their impact on the community. If we want to make everyone feel welcome, we need to show everyone that they have something to offer and that we welcome their contributions. 

Kitty: The political landscape is more divided than ever. That has prompted a debate around free speech on college campuses. How do you encourage students to have difficult conversations?

I have the privilege of working at an institution that is a champion of free expression. Along with rigorous and critical inquiry and DEI, it’s one of our core, fundamental values. We call those the Chicago Principles, and they have been adopted by around 100 other institutions across the world. During first-year orientation, all of our students have a mandatory free expression requirement. If you don’t like what someone else is saying, we are not going to suppress debate, even if what they are saying is abhorrent. But what we will do is emphasize that free speech means the right to counter-speech, whether that is through protest or counter-programming. However, we won’t encourage people to be disruptive. We live in a marketplace of ideas, and if you hear something you disagree with, you should use that to hone your own argument. At the same time, we stress the importance of civility: we often say that just because you can say something, it doesn’t mean you should, and free speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. 

Kitty: Safety is a huge concern for many students. What’s your approach to cultivating a safe and inclusive community?

We don’t want to scare students, but we do want to equip them with the tools to make good choices. As an institution in a large city, we want our students to be mindful of crime and safety: for example, we have developed a system that allows “virtual walk homes” if students need to return home alone at night. We are working hard to show students what resources are available and how they can play their part.

Kitty: Where are you seeing students getting engaged the most?

Again, for better or worse, technology has changed engagement. This past year, we’ve felt like we’ve gone back to normal after the pandemic. At the start of the year, students were coming out in droves for events. We have more than 400 student groups, and they really bring the campus to life. But there seems to be a focus on smaller group activities over larger events. So we’re now thinking about ways to harness the power of those smaller cohorts to build intentional, engaged communities. 

Kitty: What’s your top tip for anyone starting a career in higher education?

You need to invest — both in yourself and others. If you show up asking questions, willing to plug in, and eager to volunteer, then so many doors will open for you. If you show care for the place around you, it will take care of you too. 

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