Klass discusses new role as VP for student life

As part of this summer’s senior administration realignment, Vice President for Operations Steve Klass will take on the role of vice president for student life, overseeing offices such as Facilities, Dining Services and Security, among many others. Record Editor-in-Chief Kaitlin Butler and Managing Editor Laura Corona recently sat down with Klass to talk about the challenges and excitements of the change in responsibilities, as well as his experience before coming to Williams in 2006.

How do you see your new role as the vice president for student life?

First of all, it’s an amazing opportunity for me to take what I used to do before I came here and meld that with parts of what I’m doing now on this campus. Not many people get the opportunity during their career to knit the pieces together like this. Before I came here, I was at the University of Chicago, and the last position I had there was vice president and dean of students in the university. It was a larger version of what I’m currently doing here. Then this opportunity came up [to come to Williams], and I jumped at it because I’d always thought so highly of Williams. It was an opportunity to do things a little differently but still be in a place where I had a lot of contact with students. That was the first thing I asked when they said “vice president for operations.” You can have that job and not have any real substantive contact with students. They said, “No, no. On a campus like this, where it’s smaller and the community spends more time together, that is not an issue.”

What I’m seeing here is a real opportunity to think about the quality of life and quality of student experience outside the classroom. The life of the mind is the center of what we do here, but at the same time there’s so much more to your lives – four years of personal and academic development and so many things that occur in addition to what you accomplish in your studies. It’s such a great opportunity to think about what that means, especially with a student demographic that’s changing like ours is, with an economy that’s changing and a campus that’s changing Giving this additional senior administrative attention and the intentionality that comes with that, thinking about how those pieces of your life fit together, I think is where we’ll be focused, especially in the first few years.

How does your experience here compare with your experience at the University of Chicago?

They’re two very different campuses. There, it was also the first time anybody had taken on a role like this. In a big decentralized place like that – at that time, there were about 4500 undergraduates in the college, four graduate divisions, six professional schools, the hospital – this big enterprise. There were 10 other deans of students in those divisions who didn’t report to me but reported to their own academic deans. We had to find ways to work together, so I had athletics, the registrar, the bursar, minority affairs, graduate affairs, their version of OCC all reporting to me.

In a way it’s not that dissimilar to what we’re going to be doing here, but the scale is such that we can really focus. We have amazing people doing the work here. We’re going to be thinking here about your spiritual lives, physical and mental well-being, emotional health, where you live, the quality of the spaces you live and work in, where you eat, what you eat, the safety and security on campus, your student activities and leadership development opportunities. In some ways, it’s very similar to the aspects of student life that I was responsible for there. Also, thinking about sculpting a new organization that at its core has to overlap meaningfully and intentionally with other areas within student life support. Dean Bolton and I are already working very closely, and we’re excited about looking for all the cross-hatched areas where our offices will work.

I think that the most successful organizations are fluid and dynamic. If you take a snapshot and assume you’re going to be doing the same thing in 20 years, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunity. I think it’s a really good start – a coherent and potentially powerful grouping of offices.

What are the some of the challenges you’ve faced in your current role as vice president of operations?

I think the thing that surprised me the most in coming here was that even though it was a smaller scale, there was still a lot of decentralization. There were lots of things you would think only one office would be doing, but there were a lot of duplicated efforts.

One of the biggest challenges for us was looking for ways to use our resources better. We’ve got considerable resources but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always be thinking about how we can do the infrastructural work more effectively so that we can use those resources for what we’re really here for, which is the quality of teaching, research and everything students do with [their] lives on campus.

I also got to build some stuff. Paresky was a hole in the ground when I got here, so I got to work on that, plus Schapiro and Hollander Halls, and now I get to work on the library. Those were huge challenges, but all good stuff. All the challenges I’ve faced here have been really exciting. Adapting the principles that you work by that are constant, adapting them from place to place because the institutions, the cultures are so different, but the principles you work by stay the same.

What new challenges do you think you’ll face in your new role, and what are you doing to prepare for those challenges?

A lot of it will have to do with the complexities of change. I’m somebody who has often been asked to be a “change agent.” I’ve been asked to lead organizational change and think about how to do things differently, and that’s not easy for people. You have to be very respectful of that. I think the biggest challenges will be how transparent we are, how well and frequently we communicate with the people in these areas and offices. It’s important to be a good listener and help folks adapt as we go along, make sure that the pace of change is doable for people.
There’s also physical stuff like where the offices are going to be and how we’re going to bring the right people together. How do we marshal the appropriate resources? At a time when we’re still focused on a constrained financial sense of who we are, how do marshal those resources in places where we find that it will take more work to do something well? But this is the kind of stuff I live for.

What are you most excited about regarding your new position?

The best thing for me is that I’ll get to spend a lot of time with students, which I didn’t realize how much I miss. It was funny, because I think it was something that was even more apparent to my colleagues. Even dealing with the challenges of the dining situation last year and having to make the announcement, knowing that people were going to be very concerned and some people upset. I would leave those things, and people would say “You always beam when you come back from working with students.” I wasn’t even aware of it, so that is going to be the most exciting thing – taking what I used to do and doing it in a new way on this campus with students who I have great relationships with.