The Interview USA
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Vice President of Student Affairs

Renique Kersh

In a world where higher education plays a pivotal role in shaping the leaders of tomorrow, universities are not just centers of academic excellence but also drivers of social and cultural transformation. At the heart of this evolution lies the commitment to nurturing an environment that is both inclusive and conducive to the holistic development of every student.

In today’s conversation, Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, sat down with Renique Kersh, the Vice President of Student Affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) to discuss everything from strategies for creating an inclusive campus to the challenge of building dialogue across divides. 

Renique's Journey

Max: Let’s start with an introduction to yourself and your institution…

I’m the Vice President of Student Affairs at UMBC. I’ve been in Higher Education for 23 years now, and I began my career here at UMBC as a Community Director. I started in Student Affairs and I spent most of my career working in Academic Affairs before transitioning back into Student Affairs a few years ago. UMBC is a minority-serving research university which is well-known for producing STEM graduates from underrepresented communities. For example, we are a top producer of Black MDs and PhDs. Many people know UMBC for the Meyerhoff Scholarship program, which has a reputation for its outstanding graduates. Our student body is highly diverse; 53% are from underrepresented domestic communities, and 18% are international students. People here have a saying – “It’s cool to be smart” – and our students are really committed to their academics and their learning community.

Max: What inspired you to pursue a career in the field of Higher Education?

I started my undergraduate career in the sciences – I originally wanted to be a pediatric cardiologist, and I began training as a nurse. But I didn’t really enjoy it; I loved working with people, but I struggled working in a hospital and seeing people pass away. So I switched paths to Communications with the ambition of pursuing a career in Higher Education. David Herman, who was the Dean of Students during my time at Oakland University as an undergraduate, was a real mentor to me. I started off as a generalist, working in Residence Life, which helped me to learn a little bit of everything. Throughout my career, I’ve kept a foot in both Student Affairs and Academic Affairs. In my role at UMBC, my focus is on building bridges and helping people to break down barriers to progress. 

Max: Safety is a key concern for many students. What’s your approach to cultivating a safe and inclusive campus environment? 

It all starts with how you engage with students. As a leader, you need to make yourself as accessible as possible to the community – you can’t shy away from challenging conversations. College should be a place where people can express themselves freely, and I really value that. The worst thing you can do is create a campus where students feel like their voices don’t matter. At the heart of this job is a desire for all of our students to reach their fullest potential; to achieve that, we need to make sure students are cared for and foster an environment which encourages growth. But growth can sometimes be uncomfortable; we need to remember that safety and comfort are different things. In terms of physical security, we make sure we are well-prepared, but ensuring emotional safety is more challenging. Sometimes we need to have difficult conversations, but that helps you get comfortable with discomfort. We understand that those discussions can be challenging, and sometimes even upsetting, so we make sure there are adequate supports in place.

Max: What’s the best way to engage time-poor students on key topics like diversity and inclusion?

It’s not easy – there are issues like doxxing and “canceling” which discourage people from engaging with sensitive topics. We recognize that diversity alone is not enough; you need to create an environment where diverse individuals are able to meaningfully engage and learn from one another. That doesn’t just happen in critical conversations, but also in the classroom, during activities, and in student groups. We’re also creating structures to encourage collaboration and break down barriers between groups. For example, we’re working on an initiative called “I am UMBC” – which is really about recognizing the beauty of the intersecting identities that live and work on our campus. It’s dedicated to reaffirming our commitment to inclusive excellence and defining what that means as a collective community – including things like critical conversations and trained facilitators building dialogue between students, faculty, and staff. We will also introduce community conversation spaces that allow for more passive engagement – that came about as a request from students, as they felt that after Covid it has been harder to connect informally.  

Max: Some students can be hard to reach. How do we ensure we engage everybody and make sure we aren’t just preaching to the choir?

You need to have a multi-pronged approach. You can’t force students to come into these conversations – it just won’t work. There’s no single best way to do it; you need to assess the readiness of your community and make sure you have the right facilitators in place for engagement. Different things work for different people; some students will be happy to fill out surveys but others would prefer to sit around a table. Ultimately, we’re trying to create a more accessible approach to gathering feedback and engaging students in discussions.

Max: We live in a time of increasing political polarization. How can we encourage students to speak across difference and build respectful dialogue? 

I wish I had the solution! It’s not easy for our students to navigate, so we need to make sure they understand what free speech means; what speech is protected, what isn’t, and what are the consequences if you cross the line. As a public institution, we have a duty to uphold students’ rights to free speech, but we also need to remind them where the lines are. Using your voice to promote fear isn’t productive. We need to educate students about how to use their rights respectfully. 

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

My friend and mentor, Dr Vernese Edgehill-Walden, once told me “It’s important to lead with humanity.” As I’ve progressed in my career, and have risen to a senior leadership role, that’s really resonated with me. You need to recognize the humanity in yourself and others, regardless of whether you agree with them or not.

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