On Monday, Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass sat down with Matthew Piltch ’12, Record editor-in-chief, to talk about his first semester serving as part of the newly reconfigured senior administration. He discussed the highlights of his job this semester, the challenges he has faced so far and specific goals moving forward.
What were you expecting coming into your role as vice president for campus life?
I was expecting to have, and have found that I was correct, a steep but really rewarding learning curve when it comes to understanding student culture here to a greater degree than I had become aware of in my earlier position.
I think the two advantages I brought to that were having done that kind of work at another institution and also having those five years here as a starting point. Because I came from a student life perspective, as a dean of students at University of Chicago … I came here wanting to ensure that I had regular opportunities to work with students. As vice president of operations, I did have many of those opportunities. But by the time President Falk came in and asked if I was interested in rethinking my work here, it was a no-brainer.
When you ask about expectations, this first semester has had no real surprises but rather revelations … I am constantly learning. That’s one of the things after 23-ish years of doing this kind of work in higher education – the beauty of it is that you are in a learning institution and organization, and I don’t think of that as a bad thing at all. It is one of the joys, and it is part of what I expected.
What other aspects of your new position have you enjoyed most? What have your biggest frustrations and challenges been?
My biggest frustration is that I still want to find more natural, organic ways to spend time with individual and small groups of students, because that’s the most meaningful time I’ve spent. There are two things that are part of the challenge – the first is the way the job is structured and the sheer size of it, and the learning curve in all the areas that I am working on for the first time. And the second part of the challenge is making sure students are aware of who I am and what I do and what my position entails; that’s a challenge. The other things I have really enjoyed and that have been revelatory for me are working with new offices. The people I am now getting to spend time with – chaplains, the Office of Community Engagement, the Office of Student Life, Health Services and [Psychological Counseling Services], Campus Safety and Security – those are the new teams that I am spending time with, and I am learning a ton. I am amazed with the degree to which they know, understand and stand alongside individual students.
The other things that I recognized as going on before I had this job, but that I still get to see every day, are the ways that dedication exists in places you might be surprised about – such as the custodian staff, maintenance staff, dining workers. They really care about students.
One of the things that lets you learn about the mentality of a community is seeing the way it responds to a crisis. When I was standing on the steps of Paresky [after speaking about the hate crime on Nov. 14] looking out, it was amazing to see how many people from those staff as well as the students and faculty were in attendance. That’s a real telling thing about how tightly woven the basic fabric of this community is. It is always going to be stretched by something like this, but when you have such a strong basic fabric to build from, that is a great thing.
The thing that I am learning, that I expected to learn and that doesn’t surprise me at all, although it’s fun to watch, is that the quality of students’ co-curricular lives, talents, passions, abilities is so remarkable. Just going around and sampling things last weekend, the Kofa/NBC show, Lessons and Carols, the Percussion Ensemble, athletic events, all of it is of the absolute highest quality, and it’s not like that is all anyone is doing. That doesn’t shock me, but it impresses me.
You have talked a lot about things that don’t surprise you. Is there anything that has?
I have had one really disappointing surprise. Spending time with students in the wake of the Prospect hate crime, I think the most humbling and sobering and disappointing thing has been learning the degree to which that type of negative experience with discrimination is not a rarity for so many of our students. I hate to say surprise, because that sounds naïve, but it has been really sobering in a lot of ways.
Is there anything in particular that you are going to work on within your office, and that you and the administration are thinking about going forward?
In each one of the areas I work, we’ve got a significant amount of strategic planning. That happens in a number of different ways, sometimes informally, sometimes in work groups, after I see a need and ask to pull people together. For example, we’ve had some great meetings about students that work in local schools. We have an amazing group working on a community engagement enterprise, really working hard to establish guiding principles for making ourselves more focused and efficient in finding out everything that is going on in the community. There is a residential sector planning group that I am chairing that is taking a look at all of our residential facilities and planning for upperclass residential life, moving that forward. We are going to be hiring an architectural consultant to help us think about ourselves and our spaces, not as a designer, but as a planner. And of course, we are creating a bias incident response protocol that we are pulling together now.
If you think about every other area – think about what we did with the Office of Student Life right off the bat. Every place is looking at itself, saying, here are the things we do wonderfully well, here are the things we’re challenged on, asking, do we keep doing what we are doing, or do we take a different approach?
One of the things I have really learned this year is how much Health Services and Psych Services accomplish given how under-resourced they are and the extent to which they have outgrown their facilities. The work they do is amazing to me, and that whole enterprise needs our attention.
At the baseline of it all, the thing we can’t forget is that all of this has a huge resource base. This is somewhere around 825 people, tens of millions of dollars in budgets. You have a significant amount of work to do to assist all these directors and the heads of these large organizations with their budgets and human and physical resources.
The problem is that there is a lot of pent up demand. We are going to have to figure out how to do more with what we have. And that’s where Aaron Gordon [deputy to the vice president for campus life] and I are focusing a lot of our time.