As the most recent milestone in his 22-year-long career as a university administrator, Joseph Greenwall began serving as the inaugural vice president of student affairs in the Office of University Life this August.
In the position, Greenwell will supervise the student life team as well as the student conduct and community standards office, which aim to tackle some of the weighty concerns regarding the quality of student life and focus on respect, integrity, and accountability in the Columbia community. He will also oversee the Office of Religious Life and Community Impact, both of which have transitioned from under the Office of the Provost.
Greenwell joins an office with a significant history at Columbia and a contentious relationship with the student body. Created in 2015 to facilitate connections across 16 undergraduate and graduate schools through task forces and cross-campus events, the Office of University Life has been described by student leaders, faculty members, and administrators as unreceptive to external input and slow to affect meaningful change.
Additionally, despite the growth in administrative oversight, there are currently no plans for expansion beyond the hiring of an administrative assistant, Greenwell said.
According to EVP of University Life Suzanne Goldberg, Greenwell will be instrumental in expanding the office’s outreach to students, staff, and faculty to allow for partnerships across a wide range of student concerns. In an interview with Spectator, Greenwell proposed a unified onboarding process for staff, spoke to meetings with deans of students across all schools, and emphasized the need to hear a broader range of perspectives to address historic concerns with the office.
The following are excerpts from an interview with Spectator on October 1, slightly edited for content and clarity.
Spectator: Tell us about yourself.
Greenwell: I grew up in rural Kentucky, so that really informed everything I’ve done in my entire life. [In Kentucky] you have to work in collaborative teams, or otherwise people’s lives are in your hands; their family members’ lives are in your hands. And the other thing in reflection of that is that farmwork isn’t a nine-to-five job. And much like higher education, students’ lives don’t end at five. It’s really thinking about how the life cycle of whoever you’re working with—the student life cycle is ongoing. A student can have one experience on one day and one thing can change the entire experience they have.
I’m [also] a survivor of a suicide attempt—I attempted suicide in my freshman year of high school, and honestly, I just started recently sharing that with students and it’s a vulnerable thing to share. [Mental health] is a complex issue. I think everyone manages mental health at some point, and it’s a spectrum regarding how people manage that. So, one, you need to know that you’re not alone, that you’re not the only person. Two, the stigma is real—it took me 30 years almost to be able to fully disclose and talk about it in that kind of public domain. So it really needs to be destigmatized and we need to help students who need help to feel like they can reach out for it without anyone putting any kind of blame or stigma on them or referencing them in a sort of negative way. That’s why I wanted to share my story and what I found is that the amount of people that have had similar stories is extraordinary.
Fast-forward, I went to Vanderbilt and [my] first year was awful. Just the transition, the impostor syndrome I was feeling and feeling that I didn’t belong there; was this the right fit? Did I make a mistake? [At Vanderbilt], my music advisor told me that I didn’t have what it took to be a Vanderbilt person, and not to come back after my first year. That was devastating to me. But I came back [and] fun fact, I not only have one degree from Vanderbilt, I have three degrees. It was after that [incident] I realized I didn’t want any other student in their first year to have that experience. I told students to make sure to educate [them]selves when people are trying to hold [them] back. Don’t let anyone take your power away from you.
Spectator: So, why Columbia?
Greenwell: It’s a great institution—I’ve always admired Columbia from afar. And this is such a unique opportunity. I’ve been recruited for vice president jobs and a lot of [them] are in much larger divisions that have been in place for decades. But what’s intriguing and amazing about this job is that it’s not outright—so I have the opportunity to partner [with organizations] across campus and continue to build upon some great work. And [with this job] I’ll ask, what is the future? What are the current needs of the future? How do we continue to move towards that? So that to me is such a unique opportunity that excites me. I’ve always thought sometimes higher education institutions get stuck in the way things are done and their vision of student affairs. Some institutions have been great within that context of still meeting the needs of Generation Z and not some generations of years ago. But some institutions are not. So this is a unique opportunity to think, what are the true needs to create something very special that meets the needs of Gen. Z and future generations?
Spectator: Can you tell us a little bit of what your day-to-day here might look like?
Greenwell: With any kind of administrator, there will be a lot of meetings. That’s just the day-to-day. But in those spaces, they meet with other partners across campus. Columbia is unique and not unique in the context of having each of the different schools, but it is unique in [it’s] infrastructure. And so being thoughtful and bringing teams together is important. I’ll be working with all the teams of students across all of the campuses. [Something to think about] is how are we working about this as a team? What are the resources that need to be put in place in addition to the resources that are already here? A lot of it’s going to be working in collaboration with other schools and with other central offices and resources and continuing to have a pulse on the situation in Columbia. Also looking nationally as much as we can: What are the trends of learning? I hope to engage with students as much as possible. I’ve been trying to do that as much as I can. I got to know a lot of students at Berkeley and they’ve got to know me, but now I’m starting from ground nothing, so I’m trying to build that up. But I want to understand what is the student experience. So attending events, activities, and programs but also formal settings is appropriate in understanding the structure. Also, just being mindful of each of the schools and their structures.
I’ll tell you it’s not easy to navigate Columbia. And I’m figuring it out as I go. But as a new person working with students: Where are the gaps? Where do they need help in that transition, where you as students want that person to be as successful as possible in their job, because they’re supporting you as students. So some of that work has already been done and colleagues have been called in session. How can we look at that structure and still build on it? Hearing input and bringing people together to create it, but how do we expand that as needed? Where are we not providing support to the staff from an institutional standpoint?
One idea that may or may not work is that I looked [onboarding] call of professionals at Berkeley. We created an onboarding core. HR onboarding is about benefits, etc. It’s really important for professionals coming into a work environment—Columbia is different than a Berkeley. To get a pulse on what is the student community, what are the current issues impacting that particular group, what is impacting Columbia? And then also how does this all work? Because you’re a professional doing this here and there might be 15 others of you across the campus and other schools but you may not interact with each other. So trying to make the connections, and I think the other thing—student affairs does a great job of ensuring the student experience, but we often forget about the staff experience.
It’s also really important for professionals coming into a work environment—Columbia is different in that way than Berkeley. [I need] to get a pulse on what is the student community, what are the current issues impacting that particular group, what is impacting Columbia? And then also how does this all work? Because you’re a professional doing this here, and there might be 15 others of you across the campus and other schools. You may not interact with each other. So trying to make the connections, and I think the other thing—student affairs does a great job of ensuring the student experience, but we often forget about the staff experience. So I’ll be building on much of what’s already been done and the office is our stretch, everyone [pitches] too. You’ve got Ixchel [Rosal], her focus is on equity, inclusion, belonging, but it’s also doing a lot of student life stuff. It’s intersectionality and that, but where can I come and alleviate some of that and expand on the work that they’re doing around equity and inclusion? How can we continue to increase our reach in relation to students? I don’t even know what that means yet. There will be new initiatives, but I’m still learning.
Spectator: You brought up a great point of gauging with the deans, meeting with groups of staff, students, and seeing where University Life can continue to expand. I think students would like to know, where do you see these issues lie from your sense of Columbia so far and what are some of the most pressing issues you hope to fix?
Greenwell: Top of line for me is student well-being. Getting admin to help, and thinking, how are we supporting students not only in response to but prevention as well. I know this is a huge issue for students and everyone—not just the students—are managing their own mental health, but sometimes mental health creates community issues. [In this situation], I’m not saying that I’m the student voice, but I can be another voice for students in saying this is what we’re hearing, and serving as an advocate in that space as well. [I would also] look at what are the mechanisms for people reaching out to us, and having a voice around that.
Spectator: We know that during your time as dean, Berkeley was called a battleground for free speech because of all of the conversations that were happening during that time. We know that you, in particular, have placed an emphasis in preserving [students’] right of free speech while at the same disseminating the different resources that are available to students of marginalized communities, such as mental health and safety, but I think for our context and understanding the ways in which students are able to interface with infrastructures of safety, how do you think that we can have that balance and make sure that all students are able to preserve their well-being while inviting speakers on campus, and how do you evaluate that risk, and weigh the cost of being able to have that discourse on campus?
Greenwell: I think free speech is imperative. If you look at the history of free speech, whenever people have restricted speech, the communities impacted were certainly marginalized communities. And so, I believe in free speech. I also believe that you have to address as much as you can, [especially if] the impact that happens is broad [and] at an individual level. [You need] to talk with a person and hear out what that experience was. That has been my approach as the deans of students [where I] would be working on an individual level. At Berkeley, I would sit with that student and I would hear what that experience is, and I would make sure that student—if they needed—gets in touch with our peace management team or counseling.
Everything I do is because I care a lot about the student experience, and I believe in free speech. I think free speech is imperative to create change and spaces to address abhorrent behavior, and to counter that. Every student is going to be impacted in different ways and there are different needs and different abilities. I think there are some things that an institution can look at and provide, and some things an institution may not be able to. My hope is that no matter what the situation is, it’s an opportunity when students come to say [that] this is what they were concerned about with this speech. There are oftentimes other underlying things going on beyond the speech. Is there something else going on here, are we as an institution not showing our values in this space, are there other things that we could be doing as an institution on this particular topic to kind of help the student experience? What can we learn from this? I think oftentimes we go really quickly to the next thing, but can we pause, learn from this about what that student experience is? In 2017, I learned a lot. Did [the faculty at Berkeley and I] fix everything, did we solve everything? No. But we were open, we were vulnerable, we listened. And we tried as we went along to address and have at least some impact on students. It’s not about protecting, it’s about how to support and educate and listen, and not just say, oh it’s free speech. Rather, tell me what your experience was, let me understand there might be other things that the institution might be doing differently aside from the free speech.
Staff writer Vidhima Shetty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.