The Interview USA
Kean University
Senior Vice President for Administration

Michael Salvatore

Higher education institutions don’t just have a duty to ensure equality on their campuses; the real challenge lies in the mission to foster true equity within the broader society. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Michael Salvatore, Senior Vice President for Administration at Kean University in New Jersey.

In today’s conversation, Michael sat down with Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss everything from strategies for creating a positive campus climate to the importance of proactive listening in bridging divides.

Michael's Journey

Max: Can we begin with a brief introduction to yourself and your organization?

I’m Michael Salvatore, Senior Vice President for Administration at Kean University. We are a comprehensive public university with over 17,000 students, and we’re New Jersey's only urban research university. We also have a major campus in Wenzhou, China, with about 4000 students. 

Max: What led you to pursue a career in higher education?

I wasn't born into higher education – I worked as an elementary preschool special education teacher in New Jersey for more than 20 years. As well as being a teacher I was a principal of a building which was an amazing job to have. I eventually worked my way up to assistant superintendent and then I was superintendent of schools for the City of Long Branch for 10 years. While I was superintendent, I had an opportunity to come into the higher education space with Kean University.

Max: What’s the best way to create a positive campus environment?

I've taught students all the way from three years old to the doctoral level, and I’ve learned that building positive, sustainable, relationships is the answer for everything. When you learn how to communicate and truly connect with people, that's the best way to promote a positive culture. People need to realize that you're a human too, and that you understand them on a human level. So it's more than just having empathy. It's really about understanding the way someone thinks and their preferred style of learning. So we put a lot of energy into intimately understanding our students, our staff, and our faculty as well. 

Max: How do you ensure students from all backgrounds feel a sense of belonging and inclusion within the university?

That’s the golden question. I've been fortunate to always work in really diverse environments; the city that I worked in had students speaking different languages from all over the world. Then I came to Kane University, which has a similar population in a burgeoning metropolitan area, right outside New York City. So our campus population is one of the most diverse in the country. We try to embody that diversity in our leadership team and in the way we conduct ourselves. We also make efforts to be inclusive so we can be attractive to various populations. Students should feel that, regardless of their background or circumstances, we're going to meet you where you are and get you to where you want to be. In terms of belonging and inclusivity, we have more than 70 different affinity groups on campus and we make sure that if somebody has a great idea for another one that we haven't thought of, to provide support and guidance to make that happen. We’re fortunate to have a highly active student community. For us, inclusivity is not only ensuring that there’s a space for them, but that they feel welcomed everywhere on our campus. 

Max: What’s your approach to ensuring every student is engaged with inclusive principles and behaviors?

Right now, DEI is a controversial topic in the US, and some states have introduced restrictions on equity work. But we are not one of those states. In New Jersey, we have it in our mission statement that we are determined to change society through equity and excellence. But to do that, we have to have diversity represented in our leadership team. So we have highly qualified folks from all different walks of life. We also talk a lot about cultural competency training here, for both students and staff. We’ve recently reworked over 100 of our policies through an inclusive lens to make sure they are equitable for everybody. Another project we’re working on is called “Moonshot for Equity” – we’ve partnered with a large international firm to help close equity gaps on college campuses.

Max: Students have many competing demands on their time. How do you make sure they stay engaged with these sorts of topics?

I think there are a number of ways you can go about it. There are some pretty critical topics that students want to talk about, whether it’s about what's happening in the Middle East or the political situation here in the US. One way to approach it is through structured facilitation of conversations; those are designed so that they feel safe, without limiting what is said. The other piece is that, as professionals, we need to be able to speak candidly. If people don't feel safe and comfortable, then you can’t have constructive conversations. We want to make sure education is at the forefront of any time we're asking our students to put themselves out there, and make sure they're educated on both sides of the topic at hand.

Max: With the increasing polarization of the political landscape, how can we encourage students to speak across difference respectfully?

That's never an easy thing. We've seen that on the national stage, even with seasoned professionals. But I think there's a technique around proactive listening that’s really valuable. It’s important to teach our students that proactive listening is key, including how to validate other perspectives. That's a skill that is essential when people are trying to hear somebody else's opinion or viewpoint. But I also think it's critical to teach our students the importance of following up and to stay engaged. They have to know that your voice isn't about just going out and doing something one time and walking away from it. It's about staying the course and being committed.

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

There are three things that have really stuck with me: stay humble, be curious, and connect with others.

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Max Webber
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