Every student who comes to university has their own story. But sometimes institutions can be too focused on the bigger picture, so the needs of individuals can be overlooked. If we want students to reach their full potential, then it’s first necessary to understand them as people and provide them with the support they need.
Valerie Randall-Lee, Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Salisbury University, understands this more than most. Valerie sat down with Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, to discuss her approach to leadership, the debate around free speech on campus, and the importance of treating students as individuals.
I’m Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Salisbury University. My responsibilities have changed over the years, but in my current role, I am part of a leadership team working with strategic planning, student health services, student conduct, and the disability resource center. I am also Deputy Title IX Director and oversee our behavioral intervention team.
In some ways, I took the traditional path here. As a student resident assistant, I had a mentor in one of my residential directors. So when I graduated, I decided to make student affairs my career. I found it helped me contribute to students’ futures. Soon I was hooked, and I’ve stayed with it ever since.
When I started out, I had more of a singular view. I was thinking about how to entertain students or how to get them connected to each other. I really related to students’ experiences, but over time I came to appreciate that there must be a careful balance between students’ needs and academic affairs. These days, students approach our institutions as single units incorporating academic and social life. But internally, we still see ourselves as separate departments — so we need to bring everyone together to provide the best possible support for students.
For me, all Title IX work was part of Student Conduct, until 2013. My work began as an entry-level hall director, dealing with behavior in residence halls. I grew to love this work: I found it was the one place we could really sit down with students and talk about motivations. I became invested in the processes we developed; and worked to evolve the system, so there was less emphasis on punitive action and more focus on educating students. At two institutions, I had the opportunity to revise codes of conduct, and I learned it was beneficial to have students involved in the process.
Regarding Title IX, the 2011 Dear Colleague letter had an enormous impact in redirecting policies and procedures for responding to cases of sexual misconduct. Eventually, this work moved out of our conduct office, but still relies on significant communication between student affairs and our Office of Institutional Equity. This is now the office on my campus that deals with sex-based discrimination and non-sex based discrimination.
It’s imperative to remember that students are individuals. We really need to understand their backgrounds, their cultures, and what draws them to our institutions. I want our staff to create personal relationships with our students — and truly understand they are real people, not just statistics. My emphasis is on learning what each student needs to be successful and then assisting them to find the resources to be successful in this environment.
I’ve helped to develop a page on our campus website about freedom of expression. It’s important to understand the history of free speech in America and recognize it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. We’ve worked to provide avenues for speakouts on campus and we try to speak with individuals regarding their concerns. The feelings and experiences of individuals need to be respected. But at the same time, we need to support students to listen and solve problems together. For example, we’ve had students demand that we crack down on social media use due to hate speech. Now of course, we don’t have the power to do that, but what we can do is educate students about free speech issues and how to advocate for themselves..
As part of our repertoire in student affairs, we’ve developed a case management program to support students and help them succeed. Students have many different needs: we have students who are homeless, who are parents, who are veterans. Being able to identify their needs is pivotal to providing the necessary support.
Know that this is hard work. You have to be invested in it. You need to think about your focus and priorities — almost anything you can do outside of HE can be done here too. Your education will never stop: I’m still learning new things every day.
So many people have impacted me along the way. It’s impossible to choose just one person. But the people I most admire are the ones with the highest level of integrity and commitment to their students.
I recently read What the Eyes Don’t See by Mona Hanna-Attisha. She was a pediatrician during the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. It’s about the intersection of racism, classism, and broken systems, as well as the need to expose the truth.