Listening. Connecting. Expanding. Michigan Tech's new Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Wallace Southerland III will build on 30 years of experience and the positive relationships he inherited.
Southerland arrived on campus July 1 from Salisbury University in Maryland, where he served as the associate vice president of student affairs. In this Q&A, Southerland shares what brought him to Michigan Tech and his preliminary strategies for working together across campus to connect with all students and help them achieve their goals.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background.
WS: This year will be my 30th anniversary in the student affairs business. And while I’ve been looking forward to that anniversary and it’s very exciting, it’s also caused me to reflect on my professional life. As an undergraduate student, I was an active, engaged student leader — I was vice president of student government, managing editor of the student newspaper, president of the Black Student Alliance, etc. — and I enjoyed opportunities to make a contribution to whatever organization I was part of.
My first job after earning my undergraduate degree was as an assistant to a university president. It sparked my passion and I knew I wanted to have more of that higher education administration life. And that university president is still my mentor today. I’ve spent almost all of those 30 years in higher education specifically as an administrator. And those few years where I wasn’t an administrator, I served as an executive search consultant for colleges and universities.
"Service is part of my blood. My purpose in life is to be in service to others to help improve quality of life."
Q: Why Michigan Tech?
WS: Professional and personal factors brought me to Michigan Tech. Professionally, becoming a vice president was the next step in my career, and I was ready. When I learned of the opportunity at Michigan Tech, I was drawn both to the institution’s values and the values of Student Affairs as a division. I’m drawn to the University’s mission to seek solutions to some of society’s greatest challenges through technology. I’m drawn to the idea of increasing access to STEM fields, particularly for women and for underrepresented minorities. I’m drawn to Student Affairs’ commitment to leadership, accountability, engaging with students and creating a more scholarly environment.
Additionally, this position offers opportunities that I didn’t have previously. I’m excited to have the opportunity to work closely with International Programs and Services, with fraternity and sorority organizations and with the Office of Academic and Community Conduct. I’m also looking forward to collaborating with the University Senate on mutually beneficial opportunities.
On the personal side, I was attracted to Michigan Tech’s location. I have family in Illinois that I’m much closer to now.
So, those are the professional and personal reasons I’m drawn to the University, and I want to stress that I’m coming in with eyes wide open. I know the student body is not as diverse as the University wants it to be or as I want it to be. It’s a challenge for me to figure out how I can use my 30 years of experience in many different aspects of student affairs to help the University move forward in becoming a more inclusive and diverse institution.
Q: How will you develop your vision and priorities for the Dean of Students Office and Student Affairs?
WS: I think it would be presumptuous and maybe even irresponsible to rush into a new job and have a “vision” before I even know where the bathrooms are. I’ve made a commitment to use these initial days to listen, to learn about institutional and community culture, collect data about the organization and then put that all together. Once I fully understand what’s working and what needs improvement, I can determine the direction this Office will go in and then work to build support for that direction.
That said, over the past 15 years I’ve developed a professional compass that includes an anchoring set of priorities I can take with me to any institution. While I’m gathering data, listening and learning, my broad set of universal priorities are:
- Invest in staff excellence: I want staff to have what they need to be successful. I want them to have the resources to be their very best. And if staff are at their best, that leads to the second priority.
- Invest in student excellence: I want to make sure students are making the best, most positive, healthy decisions about their academic lives, their personal lives, their careers and so forth. Student success is so much more than getting a high GPA. It’s about learning how to navigate difficult situations.
- Create a culture of planning and assessment so that we can make data-informed decisions based on evidence. This helps us get where we want to go, know how we’re going to get there and understand whether what we’re doing is working.
- Create a culture of internal and external engagement: I value collaboration and partnership and I strongly believe in making connections and finding allies to help us get to where we want to go as a department. That means partnerships with other departments on campus and partnerships within Student Affairs and it also means partnerships with the local community and the local schools, for example.
- Create an environment where we are committed to development and getting the resources we need to support all the priorities I just listed.
This broad framework helps me wherever I go. I want to link whatever I’m doing to one of these priorities. I’ve already discussed this framework with my team and in the coming days we’re going to have conversations about what it means so that it’s not just a theory or a concept.
Q: What are your initial thoughts on how you’ll connect with students at Michigan Tech? What’s your approach?
WS: To a certain extent, the pandemic stole from us a sense of community spirit, but I think this year is going to be incredible. I’m looking forward to working with the folks in Student Affairs, President Koubek, faculty and students to reclaim our community spirit and our sense of connectedness.
I met with Undergraduate Student Government and Graduate Student Government and will continue to meet with each on a monthly basis to build on the positive relationships I inherited. I want to make sure the institution understands what the student needs and priorities are, that we’re listening and that we’re being honest in what we can and cannot do.
I want to make sure I’m a good citizen on campus and will continue to increase my visibility across the campus at student and faculty events, senate meetings. I will be looking for ways to become more engaged, both on campus and in the community.
I’m looking forward to participating in shared governance and figuring out how we can advance student-centered institutional policies that show we understand the needs of parenting students, veteran students, nontraditional students, commuter students, online students, international students, etc. These are the populations that tend to be accidentally overlooked because student affairs professionals have a tendency to focus on what we know — and what we know is the traditional undergraduate experience.
"Undergraduate students are important, and we need to be focused on their experience, but theirs is not the only experience."
I want to stress that the Dean of Students Office serves graduate students, and we intend to be accessible to and attentive to their needs. The Dean of Students Office is for every student and it’s part of my job as an organizational leader to help my Student Affairs colleagues to tell their stories and get their messages out. It starts with me as a leader setting the tone and then it’s on us as the Student Affairs division to reinforce that message in every interaction with students and their families.
When I was interviewing for the job, it was exciting to hear President Koubek say that the Vice President of Student Affairs is the point person for student retention. I welcome that challenge. I’m eager to get the entire campus excited about retention — faculty, deans, campus police, facilities, etc. I want to talk about what every member of our community can do to make sure that every student has a positive Tech experience.
Q: What do you anticipate to be some of the other challenges of your job?
WS: The elephant in the room is that I’m one of very few Black people on campus. I’m also one of the few Black men in the Houghton community and I will be reminded of that visually everywhere I go. It will be a challenge for me to get used to an environment where not a lot of people look like I do.
It’s also always a challenge to build relationships and trust with a whole new team. Building relationships with faculty members who historically may not fully understand what we do in Student Affairs and getting them to trust us and becoming authentic partners with them.
It might also be a challenge to do some things that the Student Affairs division might not be accustomed to doing. For example, we are definitely student centered, but we should also be assessment centered and data informed. It can be a challenge to get comfortable with collecting, analyzing and sharing data, and making policy and operational decisions from that data on a regular basis. This is not unique to MTU. It’s a challenge for the student affairs profession to embrace assessment.
I believe in going out and fishing for what we need — in other words, getting money. It’s going to be a challenge to find my place in the fundraising lane that doesn’t interfere with other institutional funding priorities. Also, finding a way to be a partner with enrollment management to further diversify the student population will be a challenge. But these are all positive, honest challenges that I’m looking forward to pursuing. I’m not at all discouraged by these challenges.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like the community to know?
WS: Like I said, I’m coming to this position with eyes wide open, so I’m learning all I can about hockey. [laughs] I want the community to know that my goal is for Student Affairs to be perceived by students, faculty, staff, parents and alumni as an industry leader in helping students achieve their goals. I want students to leave the University, experience life, look back and say, “Because of my experiences at Tech and because of my experience with Student Affairs, I am prepared — I’m prepared for that job, I’m prepared for life’s challenges, I’m prepared for life’s problems.” That’s what I want.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.