Three candidates for vice president of student affairs and academic support visited campus on July 7, 11 and 14 to participate in campus forums and presentations as they competed for what is one of the university’s top administration positions.
During their visit, Darryl B. Holloman, Brandi Hephner LaBanc and J. Rex Tolliver spoke with directors and student leaders about their experience and goals for the position.
The vice president of student affairs and academic support (VPSA) oversees several student-focused divisions across campus, including student life and housing as well as the Title IX office and student health services. The role is currently held by Dennis Pruitt who has held the position for almost 40 years.
During a one-day visit to USC, each candidate participated in a public presentation and a Q&A in addition to private meetings. Individuals were asked to prepare a presentation with three problems or topics they would prioritize if they received the position. Holloman was the first to attend on July 7.
Holloman received his Ph.D. in Educational Policy Studies from Georgia State University. He began his higher education career as a student assistant and said he worked his way up to the position he holds today as the VPSA at Spelman College, a top-rated historically black women’s college.
That first job was where Holloman "caught the bug" for student affairs and combined with his involvement on campus as a student, made him realize his calling for fostering positive experiences. After a meeting with USC students, Holloman said he saw creating a sense of belonging and community as priorities for student experience and success.
"If they don't find a sense of belonging, you can forget about your retention. And the retention might not be as noticeable because it might be smaller numbers, because USC is such a big school. But if you lose one or two students, then you've lost a great mind that can contribute to the community that is the University of South Carolina," Holloman said.
Holloman also said it is important to take note of national trends like college affordability, mental wellness, post-pandemic recovery and social justice and their effects on students. He sees pre-existing trauma as a significant factor.
"There's a level of trauma that our students are coming to college with, that we have to speak towards, and most importantly, our students of color," Holloman said. "These mass shootings that we're seeing, the killing of African American men, that it's just exhausting, vulnerable, because they're carrying this burden and they don't know exactly how to share it, particularly if you're a freshman student."
With issues such as rising housing costs and controversial building names, Holloman said he plans to move forward with a promise to "being equitable and being fair."
LaBanc followed Holloman with a visit to campus on July 11. She currently serves as the vice chancellor of student affairs and campus life at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. There, she initiated multiple programs including Journey UMass, a program that focuses on providing students with support throughout their time at the university. She received her Ed.D. from Northern Illinois University.
In her presentation, LaBanc said mental health was a priority for her, but that she'd like to see a more holistic approach to the subject that incorporates aspects of her Journey UMass program to develop students' skills and general wellbeing throughout their time at USC.
"Not just the first year experience or a second year experience, but a four years scaffolded process," LaBanc said. "Imagine students getting admitted, and immediately they hear from us and we're saying you know, 'you are going to be on this journey for the next four years with us. And we're going to make sure that you have opportunities to develop your identity, to develop your well-being and to develop your leadership skills.'"
LaBanc said she also wants to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion and plans to revise the workplace setting to be more flexible and manageable for faculty and students.
"Higher ed is bureaucratic and clunky and we've got to change that," LaBanc said. "Our students don't show up and they're not going to tolerate the shuffle anymore, right? We owe them a different experience. And so I think that again, we've created this system, well maybe we haven't but people like us, right? It's built by us, it can be re-visioned and reconstructed by us as well."
The final candidate, Tolliver, visited campus on July 14. Tolliver is a former colleague of President Amiridis’ at the University of Illinois Chicago where he serves as the vice chancellor of student affairs. He received his juris doctor from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
Tolliver focused on three main priorities — creating a caring community, engaging students in co-curricular activities and tackling difficulties for student affairs faculty.
Under the topic of "creating a caring community" Tolliver said USC had a need for mental health support and diverse, equitable and inclusive practices. Tolliver suggested implementing a central source for wellness care and ensuring demographics are better represented within the student and staff population.
"Institutions have done great work in orthodoxy. We say the right things, we present the right things, but then our orthopraxy is failing. Students not only want to hear you say that you are committed to creating equitable and diverse environments, they want to see it and that is a challenge that we in student affairs has to work through," Tolliver said.
After heading a program at UIC that sponsored paid internships, Tolliver said he thinks that USC should promise all students a paid internship experience.
"If we're serious about making sure that South Carolina graduates are some of the preeminent in the country, then what are we doing to do?" Tolliver said. "This is something that we can do, we can partner with organizations, we can also then look at all of the jobs that we have at the institution and craft them into these types of experiences."
The VPSA leads one of the largest and most diverse departments within the university, overseeing over 36,000 students each year. The vice president also provides important input to the president of the university on student matters and on best practices during times of crisis.
When President Amiridis started his tenure on July 1, he said he would focus on finding leadership that is diverse, experienced and most importantly, honest and outspoken.
"We can sell tickets for our meetings because there's a lot of debate, and that's what I want. I want the vice presidents to tell me their opinions and to help me in order to making decisions, right," Amiridis said. "I don't have to be on the right side of the decision at the beginning of the meeting. I have to be on the right side of the decision at the end of the meeting and the cabinet helps with this."
Before taking office, the VSPA candidate must be approved by the board of trustees.