Fourth VP for Student Life candidate Brian Lai talks need to retain underrepresented staff

At the final forum in the VP for Student Life search, political-science Associate Professor Brian Lai discussed the need to better retain underrepresented staff.


Mason Childs

Brian Lai, Associate Professor and Department Executive Officer in the Department of Political Science, speaks at the open forum for the president for Student Life search Tuesday in 166 IMU.

Alexandra Skores, News Editor

At the fourth and final public forum in the search to fill the position of University of Iowa vice president for Student Life, political-science Associate Professor Brian Lai, the department executive officer, spoke to faculty, staff, and students about opportunities in leadership and methods of increasing proactivity.

Lai began in the UI Political Science Department in 2001 as an assistant professor. In 2019, he was named the department’s executive officer. He said in the 166 IMU on Tuesday that he believes the Division of Student Life is essential and fundamental to the academic success of students.

“My interest is in how we can best serve our students,” Lai said. “Part of this comes from the ongoing national debate within higher education — my view on all of this is that universities are for our students.”

Lai said the division is well-equipped to address the challenges it faces. Lai noted diversity, equity, and inclusion as a challenge the division faces, notably in addressing topics such as the #DoesUIowaLoveMe movement that students started in spring 2019. The movement addressed concerns surrounding diversity at the UI and the university’s support for underrepresented students.

“The movement was difficult to read because it highlighted the struggles that students face,” Lai said in response to questions from the search committee on #DoesUIowaLoveMe. “My reaction was one of sadness and empathy for the students.”

In addition to educating the student body, Lai said he believes faculty need to be educated in different areas of diversity and open communication within Student Life efforts that affect their interactions with students. He said there has been staff turnover, particularly among employees from underrepresented communities, and he said there is a need for change.

“We need to have a consistent and happy staff,” Lai said. “… We need to listen to the staff about what concerns them.”

Lai said the division’s success lies within its ability to listen to the students and make changes accordingly.

“Students love the university,” Lai said. “Students who are 60 years old love the university. Students who are 75 years old love talking about it … they remember drinking beer at the Airliner. They remember what they loved talking about.”

Lai said he regularly has conversations with alums about what they recall from their times at the university.

RELATED: Third UI VP for Student Life candidate highlights student success, diversity initiatives

“[Alums] want to ask about the Airliner; Joe’s Place. They want to ask about Burge,” Lai said.

Violence Prevention Specialist at the Women’s Resource and Action Center Cody Howell asked Lai about his approach to addressing the UI Speak Out survey results and overall sexual misconduct on campus.

Lai answered that prevention is fundamentally important and the need to educate the community on resources for support is a key response.

The committee also asked Lai about conversation about the alcohol harm-reduction plan and fraternity/sorority life.

Lai said he believes the greek community understands the risks surrounding alcohol and its events, and just requires some guidance with the alcohol harm-reduction plan. The organizations need to be encouraged and supported, he said, and trust restored between the UI and greek life.

“The more that they take responsibilities for their organizations, the more they will return to their core values,” Lai said.

UI Student Government Director of Justice and Equity Isabela Flores, a student lead in the Latino Native American Cultural Center, asked Lai how he would address a predominantly white cabinet that she said many students don’t trust.

Lai said there needs to be more advocacy for minorities on campus and a more active effort to support marginalized communities.

“I don’t have the answers to all the problems,” Lai said. “And I don’t think the vice president for Student Life will have the answers to all these problems, [that is] because the vice president for Student Life is not living these problems. These are the problems that our students are facing — we need to hear from them …”

With the conclusion of the finalists’ public forums, Assistant Vice President for External Relations Jeneane Beck said in an email to The Daily Iowan that the selection will be announced this spring.