The 24700 blog team had a chance to interview Travis Greene, the new Dean of Student Affairs at CalArts earlier this semester. He most recently served as Dean of Students at Grinnell College in Iowa. We chatted with Greene about his time at Grinnell and his plans for Student Affairs at CalArts.
24700: Can you share success stories and challenges you faced at Grinnell and your approaches to tackling those issues?
Travis Greene: Grinnell is a small private residential liberal arts college, nationally ranked, and very diverse. It has students from all 50 states and 50 different countries. When you think of rural Iowa, you don’t always think of the rich diversity that comes at a place like Grinnell College. I, along with the Vice President for Student Affairs, started our time at Grinnell within months of each other (I was hired six months after he started). There was already a solid foundation within Student Affairs at Grinnell, but we were charged with bringing the division to the next level.
Rather than being viewed as just a compilation of student services, we moved the Student Affairs division towards being a more student-centered and student-learner model. In essence, we were trying to be more proactive rather than just dealing with reactionary issues. That was a cultural shift—and one that was embraced. The more proactive and intentional that we, as student affairs educators, can be—while still dealing with the 3 am crises—the more we can better deal with and address issues before they escalate. That was a big challenge that took time and hard work but that was needed.
There are some parallels with that example and what I’ve been asked to do here at CalArts. We have dedicated and loyal staff, amazingly talented students, and a terrific faculty. But how can we (in Student Affairs) still do what we’re really known for— that is, putting out small fires and dealing with crises—while also trying to provide more education and awareness so that we don’t have to deal with everything in a reactionary way.
At Grinnell, we also worked hard to increase transparency in our processes, knowing that often times “trust” is really what’s being asked for when asking for “transparency.” So as much as we ethically and legally could, we communicated why we did the things that we did, the rationale behind the decision, and avenues to express thoughts, opinions, or concerns about various decisions made. This approach takes time and energy. It also requires building meaningful and productive relationships—something which we at small institutions do on a daily basis.
24700: What was the buzz on CalArts from an outsider’s perspective? And what made you make the jump to Valencia?
TG: I moved to California for the sole purpose of working with the students, faculty and staff at CalArts. I certainly knew of CalArts from my time when I worked at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I am familiar with other AICAD institutions and I was aware of CalArts’s well-earned reputation of experimentation and mentoring. When the Dean of Student Affairs position at CalArts opened up, I immediately knew that I wanted to apply. Professionally, this was a step in the right direction as it was the senior-most level position and it would challenge me. Personally, it was re-affirming to work at a place that shares many of my values. I was also excited to, once again, be working with artists, performers, creative thinkers and writers. I did that for four years in Chicago and I missed working so closely with creative students that have the passion and ability to change the culture around us. Additionally, I was ready for a change. I was at Grinnell for six years and I was ready to grow professionally. When I came to CalArts last Spring to interview, everyone was so welcoming, inviting and they genuinely seemed interested in finding someone who would be a strong advocate for students and their experience. I hope I will be able to live up to these expectations and am eager to do my very best in attempting to do so.
24700: Can you break down—in percentages—your job as Dean of Student Affairs? (a.k.a. the ‘What would you say you do here’ question from Office Space.)
TG: That’s a really good question and difficult to put in terms of percentages as they may vary based on the issue(s) at hand. First and foremost, I see myself—or anyone working in Student Affairs for that matter—as being advocates for students, and that would comprise the majority of my time. We advocate for students so that they can have the best possible experience and grow and learn as a result—all while balancing the needs of the entire community. So, not only do we need to advocate for students and their successes, but we also need to be able to communicate clearly and effectively as to why a particular decision was made.
The Dean of Student Affairs role is unique mix of being an institutional leader and advisor (i.e., thinking strategically) while simultaneously serving as a genuine, warm and accessible dean. I love this juxtaposition and the challenges and opportunities it provides. Whenever students feel vulnerable, either emotionally or physically, or when they have an interest in getting involved and engaged with the community—that is where we in Student Affairs come in. Should students have concerns or ideas to improve student or campus life, I want Student Affairs to be viewed as the place to go.
In short, I want Student Affairs to be known for more than just free popcorn on Wednesdays or free bagels on Thursday mornings. If students, faculty, and staff know that Student Affairs is a place that can help challenge and support students to grow and develop as individuals and as artists then I think we are doing something right.
24700: Since you’re new to the area, what are you looking forward to exploring the most in Los Angeles? In California?
TG: Even though I am most recently coming from rural Iowa, I have spent most of my adult life in urban settings. I lived and worked in Downtown Chicago. I lived and studied in the Washington, D.C., area. I am excited to be back in a major metropolitan area and taking full advantage of it— be it through the visual and performing arts but also through food and recreation.
Being a Midwesterner with many friends and family in Minnesota and Chicago, come winter time, I suspect that I will be busy playing host and showing them the lay of the land.
For more information on Student Affairs, please visit the CalArts website.