The Interview USA
Buffalo State University
Vice President of Student Affairs

Timothy Gordon

At the heart of the modern university lies a mission as bold as it is necessary: to harness the power of education in fostering diversity, ensuring inclusion, and providing access, thereby transforming not just student lives but whole communities. No one understands this more than Timothy Gordon, Vice-President of Student Affairs at Buffalo State University, part of the SUNY (State University of New York) system. 

In today’s conversation, Timothy sat down with Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss what inspired him to get involved in higher education, the importance of creating a diverse and inclusive learning environment, and the paradigm shift in the higher education sector in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Timothy’s Journey

Max: Can we start with a quick introduction to yourself and your institution?

I have the pleasure of serving as Vice-President of Student Affairs here at SUNY Buffalo State University. I’ve been in Higher Education for just over 26 years now. Buffalo State is the only urban institution in the SUNY system, and also the most diverse, serving about 6,000 students. We have a very special mission in terms of engaging with our community and centering diversity, inclusion, and access. Our ambition is to help students transform both their lives and the lives of their families. 

Max: What inspired you to pursue a career in Student Affairs?

For me, it’s very personal. I was a first-generation college student and I grew up in the city of Detroit as someone from a multiracial background. We didn’t have a family history of involvement in the Higher Education (HE) system. I knew what it meant to be new to HE, so after I arrived at college I knew I wanted to pay it forward; to work in a career where I could help people. So as an undergraduate, I became highly engaged on campus, and went on to study for a Master’s and then a PhD in Educational Administration. I’ve also developed a love for urban higher education; it has a unique character, drawing a diverse range of students and creating a synergy with the city. I believe it gives students a much richer experience, as they can apply their learning directly to the laboratory of the city. 

Max: What’s your approach to creating a sense of inclusion and belonging for every single student?

It’s never easy. For us, it’s a little different from some of our counterparts which aren’t quite as diverse. We have an interesting complexity – we like to talk about “diversity within a diverse community.” It’s important to remember that students within a particular community are not a monolith. Equity and inclusion is central to our approach. For example, we’ve carried out a racial equity audit of our policies and procedures, and we’re always creating opportunities for students to get involved with affinity groups and multicultural Greek letter organizations. We’re trying to embed these ideas and train our teams around areas of racial equity and challenging bias. No one does this work perfectly, but it is possible to do it purposefully. 

Max: How do you try to engage students from all identities and backgrounds to build a sense of belonging?

We start even before students arrive on campus, communicating what it means to be on campus. We encourage students to engage in open dialogue, embrace different perspectives, and leave their comfort zones. At new student orientation, we partner with a program called the Anne Frank Project – that’s all about helping students to tell their stories and appreciate the stories of others. We also have a number of activities such as Social Justice Circles which encourage students to proactively explore issues of identity. They can sometimes be very challenging topics – just recently, we carried out a series of sessions based on what’s happening in Israel and Gaza. That helps us keep open dialogue at the core of the educational experience. But we’re always looking for ways to do things better, regularly checking in with students to hear feedback. Finally, we’re focusing on hiring processes and community engagement to ensure that our workforce reflects the diversity of our community.

Max: We live in a time of increasing political polarization. How can we encourage students to cross the divide and engage in respectful dialogue? 

Firstly, we always make sure that students are aware of the support resources available. If a student has a concern, such as experiencing bias, they need to know where to go. If a student is feeling anxious, we need to make sure they can access counseling and support groups. But we also have something called our Campus Compact, which is built on the understanding that we engage in civil discourse. It doesn’t mean we need to agree, but we do need to do so civilly and respect the perspectives of others. But we also need to be clear about boundaries: If people aren’t working within those parameters, we need to provide a clear path to get them back on track. We support all of our students in exercising their free speech rights, and that means listening to a variety of perspectives. So we work with student organizations and our educational faculty to run educational programming around difficult issues. 

Max: Students these days are busier than ever. How do you make sure your key messages get across to everyone?

We need to give students multiple avenues to engage. For example, we hold online virtual sessions as well as make space for regular in-person meetings. Peer learning is essential; we partner with students to help them to educate each other. So we run a wide range of programming, from our Justice Circles to our Fireside Chats, and we make sure they encompass a variety of formats, from faculty-led discussions to student organization forums. 

Max: Higher education has changed rapidly over the past few years, especially since the pandemic. How have you seen the field evolve during this time?

The key issue is mental health. The pandemic really brought that into perspective. But we’re trying to be responsive, redefining the issue as one of wellness. Not every student needs one-on-one counseling, but they might need support in other areas. We’ve also seen issues with engagement: before, we might have seen 200 students at an event, whereas now we might only get 50. So we’ve gone back to square one – reacclimating students, intervening early, and pointing them toward support resources. We try to take a holistic approach, working together to ensure students can be successful in all areas of university life.

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

It’s all about doing this work with care and understanding the level of responsibility that comes with it. We’re helping people along the path of their lives, and it’s important to understand the difference we can make. Early in my career, one of my supervisors told me “The power you have is the ability to have a conversation.” We can help students have the conversations they never normally have, to help them think critically about their own ideals and ambitions. As agents of change, our role is to support other people to be successful.

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Max Webber
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