The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

New UI vice president for Student Life talks success, diversity, safety

The Daily Iowan; Photos by Ben S
The new UI Vice President for Student Life, Melissa Shivers, poses for a portrait inside her office in the IMU on Friday, Aug. 25. 2017. Shivers moved from her previous job at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville where she filled the role of Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Life and Dean of Students. She has been employed within public higher education for 20 years. (Ben Smith/The Daily Iowan)

DI: What do you think of Iowa City and the campus community so far? What are some goals you hope to achieve coming into the job?

Shivers: Certainly, as a person who was born and raised in the South, coming to the Midwest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I tell you it has been incredibly welcoming. People have been so kind and helpful. So many people have asked me, “What do you need?” and I said, “I don’t even know what I need yet. Get back to me in, like, two months.” Then I feel confident I’ll have a better sense of what I might need, and so that’s been really good for me to have felt so welcomed and already a part of the community. The one thing that I’m really looking forward to is getting out into some of the restaurants. I’ve heard that there are a lot of really good restaurants in Iowa City, and I think the one that I know best is Basta. Whenever someone says, “You want to go to lunch at Basta?” I’m like, “Yes,” because I know exactly how to get there. I haven’t quite figured it out for other places yet, but certainly Basta I have down pat.

I have to tell you a little about what I’ve been doing in order to learn about the University of Iowa, I think, before I could successfully articulate what my goals are. I started in the office on July 24, but I actually came in a little bit early and attended Orientation. I attended the parent sessions of Orientation on July 17 and 18 because I thought that would be a really good way for me to understand what our new first-year and transfer students were hearing about the University of Iowa. I thought it would help me to learn a little bit more about the culture and what we do here that makes us so special. So I learned a lot. I listened to a lot of the parent questions and concerns, which are all things that I would need to be able to be responsive to in terms of how do you best support your student, what are issues around safety, and what are things that we as a university pride ourselves in knowing and doing and being so that as a vice president for Student Life, I can be more responsive to student needs. Since Orientation, I also then have visited with all of the departments within the Division of Student Life, so I’ve asked all the directors to just share with me a little bit about what they do, because that would be important to know, and then what barriers can I remove.

So to answer your question, one of the things that I’m really committed to is learning about the barriers to student success. What are those things that make it really difficult to navigate through your first year, your second year, your third year, your fourth year, and then how can I make sure that I’m carrying that message to my colleagues in administration, to the staff that I have an opportunity to work with, working in partnership with UISG and GPSG and other shared governance groups to make sure that we’re not creating issues that make success more difficult. And so whether those are issues are around safety, around involvement, around lots of different issues that I know are of import to students, I want to do a really good job of being a good listener and then also understanding the issue and then moving toward action. I talked about that during my interview on campus, that my mantra is “Listen, understand, act.” And so that’s what I’ve been trying to do over the past — yesterday was 30 days that I’ve been working at the University of Iowa. On day 31, when you ask me what are my goals, is to remove barriers. And that takes a lot of different forms in terms of removing barriers, but I’m going to rely on all of you and other students to help me figure out what those things are. I know some of them — I read about them in the paper most recently. I’ve been reading The Daily Iowan every day, because that also may dictate my life and then also tell me what’s happening in the student community, and so I know what some of them are, but I also want to make sure that I’m being a good listener and responsive to things that may not be on my radar yet.


DI: The UI recently announced that high-risk drinking on campus is at a 25-year low. What is your strategy in place to continue to address high-risk drinking?

Shivers: I would love to say that that’s all my good work, but it’s not. That’s the good work of committed students who have said, “We want to change the culture of our campus,” and supportive and educated, and very talented staff across the campus who have made a true commitment to changing the culture. My hope is that we can continue to remind people about why that’s a good thing to decrease the amount of drinking on our campus, but to also empower all of you to be responsible and accountable for the type of experience that you have. My hope is to be able to continue to work with the various task forcing groups who have really examined the alcohol culture at Iowa and for me to able to understand what’s still left to do. We know that that’s a great accomplishment, but we also know that that’s not quite good enough, and we want to continue to do our part, but again, it goes back to listening to all of you to tell us, “Doing this doesn’t really work. Doing this helps us, but this approach is not really effective for us.” I believe in open, candid, and honest conversations, and I typically get that from students when I ask for feedback, so continuing to do more of those things and leveraging the task force and the work that they’ve done, then to figure out what else we need to do.


DI: We met with Anita Cory last week and she told us that you were kind of the next step with the task force — just meeting with students and establishing that criteria. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Shivers: One of the things that was really impressive to me was after I read Dr. Rocklin’s memo and sort of charge to the IFC and Panhellenic president about really taking this idea of alcohol and managing it, establishing perhaps a different culture that’s part of the fraternity and sorority community, it was really inspiring to me to see how serious they’ve taken that charge by saying to the campus, “We’re no longer going to allow out-of-town formals.” We, administration, didn’t have to do that. That was students being accountable for their experience. I’m looking forward to sitting down with Zach and Anna who are the two co-chairs of the committee. What also excited me is knowing that students were chairing this. Sometimes it’s really easy for us to be in charge and decide what we want to do, but what I’ve come to learn in my 20-year experience is that it really only works when students take hold of it. So during my conversations with Anna and Zach, what I hope to hear from them is to be able to read the report, to talk through a little about what does substantial progress mean, because that seems to be the term that’s in the charge that people are still trying to get their hands around, and I think I am the person who will define substantial progress, but I don’t know that I’m quite prepared to do that yet until I hear from them about what happened in these meetings. What did you learn? What was great? What was challenging? What are still things that you think are barriers to you all being successful and really tackling this issue of alcohol? And then what is the time frame? I don’t know what that is yet, because I haven’t had an opportunity yet to sit down with them directly. I’ll be candid — I’ve heard from a lot of other people about what they believe we should do. But I haven’t had a chance to sit down and talk to the students, and that’s really important to me before making any additional changes or telling you, “This is what we’re going to do. This is how it’s going to be done, and this is when it will be done by.” I really want to hear from the students who have been really involved in this work to sort of get a better sense.


DI: The Charlottesville protest has been dominating the discussion in the political sphere lately. President Harreld and other community leaders made statements about it. How do you view your role in encouraging conversation about ensuring respect for everyone in every community?

Shivers: One of the things that you all will come to learn about me is that I’m a pretty passionate person. I’m very passionate about our students and their safety, but also individuals’ abilities to be exactly who they are. Sometimes that means that we have different points of view and perspective and what makes us a great institution is when we’re able to hear those points of view — and we may not always agree, but we can at least create space to hear them. Where I think I’ll probably draw the line is when we start talking about inciting hate and violence and making anyone feel as though they’re unsafe or they’re not welcomed on the campus. I think what we saw in Charlottesville was an unfortunate turn of the freedom of speech becoming something much larger that ended up where people no longer could hear each other because it became quite violent. And you can’t when you have that sort of environment — no one learns and grows through that. The only thing that I think we’ve done or figured out as a country is that we have people who have lots of different feelings and ideas. What I think we can do at the University of Iowa is to make sure that we honor those ideas and perspectives and also continue to acknowledge and support the values that we have articulated. I think that President Harreld did a dynamic job in his message to the campus to say a little bit about, “This is who we are at the University of Iowa, and those sorts of behaviors are not really welcomed here. We invite people to share different points of view and perspective, but what we won’t do is allow people to be hurtful to one another in ways that, unfortunately, in terms of what happened at Charlottesville, how do we make sure that we’re preventing that from occurring. So I’m looking forward to continue engaging in dialogue with students; with other faculty, staff, and administrators, to talk about what is the culture like at Iowa. Again, I don’t know, I’ve been here 31 days, but what I do know is that we are a place who strives to be better than what we may have seen represented in various parts of the country, and I believe that a part of my job is to help both live out those values very publicly — you won’t find me hiding behind the sort of sense of, I’m afraid to sort of share what I feel or what I think, or be very protective of our students, or even creating space for students to say things that I might not completely agree with, because that’s what a college environment is like. But we are also responsible to the parents and the families who have said, “I’m sending my child, my son or daughter, my person to this institution in order for them to grow and to learn and to feel safe. So it’ll be an interesting dance, but I hope that we can all partner together to make sure that we’re creating a kind of community that we want.


DI: Last year, there were discussions with campus leadership at the cultural centers. I recognize there is ongoing dialogue about those spaces and with the groups they serve. What kind of progress and areas for improvement are you seeing, with the cultural houses and with those communities?

Shivers: I had an opportunity to tour all four cultural centers when I arrived on campus. It was one of the first things that I asked to do, because I heard about them during my interview, but it was raining and really cold when I interviewed, so they didn’t let me get out of the car very much, so I got to see them pointing them out, but I didn’t get to really visit with them. Then during my conversation with President Harreld, he shared with me some of what they learned during the listening sessions with the cultural centers, but then also some of the investment that he had already made into sprucing up the houses so that they’re places where students want to go, but that are also representative of the various identity groups on our campus. So when I had the opportunity to visit, one of the things that I immediately wanted to try to attend to is recognizing that we have four distinct cultural houses, but we had an opportunity to also have staff members who have been trained in student affairs working with various identity groups who can come in and really help to elevate the presence and the purpose of those cultural houses, but really also importantly to also have other people on campus who may not identify with those cultural groups to find benefit and be able to learn by showing up and being a part of those communities. So one of the things that I did probably just about two weeks ago was I empowered the staff to go ahead and hire two additional coordinators so that we will now have four coordinators — one in each cultural house. I also infused additional resources in terms of programming dollars so that in those houses, the coordinators will be able to plan events and programs that are representative of what happens in those houses. That’s just the beginning. We still have some good work to do there, but I think that is a very good move and certainly in the right direction of where we need to go as it relates to the cultural houses. Tab Wiggins was named assistant director — that was prior to my arrival; I can’t take credit for Tab. Boy, I sure am lucky that she has agreed to sign on and to help to lead the programming and the support in those houses, but I think there’s still a bit more to do, and there’s still a little bit more sprucing up. There’s still a little bit more sprucing up that needs to be done — students have told me that. I had lunch over there with graduate students earlier this week where I wanted to hear from them, “What do you think we need to do in the houses, and what ways can I better support you as graduate students who are in the Division of Student Life to empower you to work with our greek students, to work with our underrepresented populations in ways that are beneficial to them. And that luncheon was very helpful too in just helping me think a little bit more about ways to support those departments. I look forward once we are able to hire the fourth coordinator to meeting with all of them at once just to get their first impressions of where we are, and then to also bring in Tab with them to say, “What do we think the five-year plan is for the cultural houses, and how do we start getting to work on moving on some of those goals?” I’m excited about the cultural houses. I’ve never worked on a campus that actually had four houses, which is a demonstrated commitment, in my mind, from the campus around cultural and identity groups.


DI: The UI has placed a lot of emphasis on first-generation students in the Board of Regents’ tuition task force meetings and in the UI’s strategic plan. What kind of support mechanisms would you like to provide for the students on campus who are first-generation?

Shivers: I am a first-generation student, and so while lots of communities of students really connect with me and are important, that’s one that I can completely understand, because I self-identify, and I’m looking forward to continuing learning about the things we’re currently doing to support first-gen students. … It’s a community of students that really does feel good about coming to the University of Iowa. Now what are the things that we need to do to ensure that they are successful? Financial barriers, academic, they just maybe don’t know, I didn’t know what a credit hour was when I was a first gen student and they told me I had to take 15 credit hours and I said “I have to be in class 15 hours a day?” and my advisor said, “No,” and I said, “Oh,” but as a first gen, no one talked about what a credit hour was, so I didn’t know, so making sure that the messaging that we’re communicating to first generation students is really plain speak, that we don’t assume everyone knows, that we start from a place of “Let me tell you how this whole college thing works,” and then you tell us what you still need in order to be successful. So my hope is to continue to work closely with Brent Gage in enrollment management as they continue to flesh out their scholarship model and recruitment plans for first generation students, but also for me to understand what are the current systems in place to support a first gen student. I attended dinner with Iowa Edge students when they arrived on campus and what I said to them was “You are supposed to be here, and you can do this. If you don’t know the answer, ask someone. No one thinks that you asking a question is an indication of whether or not you can be successful, what it actually says is you want to be successful and you want to utilize the resources around you in order to be able to do so. So for me, that’s a group that I’m really quite interested in learning more about. Previously at another institution, I worked with a first generation mentoring program and had a mentee assigned to me from the moment she came to campus until she graduated just this past spring. So I was able to walk with her for four years literally through a college experience and I think the best day of my life was the day she walked across the stage with a 3.8 GPA in chemistry, as a first gen student. I could not help her with any of her homework, let’s be clear. That was not our mentor-mentee relationship. But it was to say “if you’re having trouble with your homework you have to talk to your professor. They won’t think that you’re not smart, they’ll think you’re pretty smart.” It was those sorts of conversations that just made all the difference. So I hope I can find ways to leverage my story to inspire and encourage other students and serve as a mentor or be just a person of access to them so I can help support in whatever ways I can.


DI: There’s been some data circulating Twitter obtained by U for Us regarding the number of reported incidents of sexual assault on campus. Are you aware of these numbers? Why isn’t the campus community aware that there are this many incidents taking place? What are your plans to address the issue of sexual assault?

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