‘Helping campus continue to come back alive’: Student Affairs VP Hurte talks managing COVID, mental health, free speech in Q&A
By: Caitlyn Freeman, Editor in Chief
As the campus enters the homestretch of the fall 2022 semester, The Towerlight sat down with Vice President for Student Affairs Vernon Hurte to discuss his leadership, current initiatives and the campus overall.
Below are the transcribed questions and answers:
The Towerlight: going into this semester, what were your top three goals from a student life perspective?
Hurte: So, I think really helping campus continue to come back alive. This has felt really the most vibrant since we’ve come back after [COVID-19]. So, really having students feel that sense of connection, a sense of vibrancy on campus, has been really important. But also, we recognize the impact of COVID, which has looked different for different students.
And so wanting to ensure that from a student support standpoint, that we’re responsive in the types of services, the types of supports that students have articulated, that are really, really important to them. So I think we found a really good balance of that vibrancy and students feeling welcome on campus and, you know, full campus life experience. But also feeling as though, you know, TU recognizes some of the unique impact that students have experienced over the last couple of years, and it’s new and expanded resources to kind of speak to some of those things.
The Towerlight: the data is showing that Towson is going to become a majority minority campus within the next couple of years. How has your leadership had to shift in order to support the changing student population?
Hurte: I would say, you know, not a whole lot when I think about my career. So I’ve been in high education for about 20 years. My work really started in [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] Spaces. So I started in was what was then Multicultural Affairs […] evolved into the Center for Student Diversity. So I really started my career with a lens of diversity, inclusion and equity. Students having that sense of belonging. So that’s a critical part of my leadership.
So really looking at the services that we provide, looking at our traditions, and really asking the question, do these things connect to all of our students? Are we aware of the variety of different needs? So, I mean, probably it provides more of an opportunity to really add to the vibrancy, but also to really be more intentional about where TU students are today versus 10 years ago, and you know, make sure that as leaders, we remain challenged and intentional to constantly be responsive to the current students.
And the reality in higher education is that, in many ways, every year shifts every year changes. Every time we welcome new students and have, you know, students graduating, there’s a new flavor, a new shift that comes on campus, and so I really encourage my team to be mindful of that and to make sure that we’re listening to student voices that we’re trying to be relevant in terms of their programming services.
The Towerlight: recently, there’s been a lot of conversations on campus about the First Amendment and student organizations and specifically with Turning Point and the messages that got released to campus. What is your office thinking about when addressing student concerns that are concerns about hate speech and bigotry existing on campus but are protected by First Amendment rights?
Hurte: Making sure we’re doing education for students to really understand our role as a public, higher education institution and the role of free expression. But how do you utilize that? So how do we empower and encourage students to be able to utilize their voices then, when you hear messages that don’t align with your personal values or don’t feel as though aligns fully with the values of institutions? How do you use your voice to infuse a different type of message and so really working with student leadership to help empower students to be aware of, you know, our responsibilities around free expression, but how that also applies to students who are concerned by the messages and don’t feel as though those things represent who we are as TU. How you leverage your voice to be able to affirm who we are as an institution?
The Towerlight: the campus is undergoing a lot of changes both physically and structurally, what project are you most excited about?
Hurte: The [University Union]. I’m really excited about it. We are near completion of the renovation project, I’d say early spring semester will be fully there with the opening of the new PAWS, which is going to be amazing. But being able to see the vision of the expanded Union really come to life and to see students benefiting from. You know, so much of what they advocated for in terms of that space.
And, you know, I will kind of want to tout TU a little bit. I think we really did a great job of not doing the project that leadership wanted but really creating the space that students desired and that students wanted. And we see that in how students utilize this space that it reflects what, you know, so many students desired in terms of the Union. And so […] I’m excited. [The Union is] gonna be my home in just a couple of days.
So to be able to just, you know, come out to the hallway or come downstairs and be able to hang out with students. I think I’ve been here long enough now where it doesn’t weird out students to sit down at a table and have a meal. That was, you know, was a little bit off for students at first. But that’s, you know, I’m very relational as a leader, and I think it’s hard to be effective, particularly as vice president of Student Affairs and not have that ongoing engagement with students. And so we’ve got a lot of great things going on in terms of capital projects on campus, but The Union is, by far, my favorite.
The Towerlight: What is one issue on campus that is really important to you and why?
Hurte: continuing to focus on mental health. That’s really important. So student success is our number one priority. And what we know is what impacts students’ ability to be successful isn’t just what happens in classrooms. But life doesn’t stop when students are on campus. And so we know whether it’s COVID, whether it’s just other, you know, other challenges that students are experiencing. Having appropriate support from a mental health standpoint is really critical. And so, prior to my arrival, the University had started some significant investments in staffing at the Counseling Center. We’ve been able to continue that.
Working with Steve Eigenbrot, our athletic director, we’ve just been able to collaborate on a mental health professional specific for our student-athletes. That’ll be part of the Counseling Center team but working very directly with our student-athletes. A lot has been in the news recently, the last few days, in terms of student-athletes […] the University of Virginia in particular. So we’ve been really trying to be forward-thinking in terms of the unique experiences those students have had.
But beyond, kind of some of the traditional ways, we’ve invested in kind of web-based supports. So everything from Togetherall, which is an online platform that allows students to be able to have peer-to-peer support. But there’s professional mental health support that’s been a new investment within the last year or so. The Counseling Center moved to a same-day appointment model, which is a really significant shift.
And the biggest, I think positive in many ways, you know, I want to give credit to students. We’ve really seen that students have played an important role in supporting peers, helping peers become more aware of the resources, even referring peers or referring themselves. That tells me we’re really moving in the right direction in terms of past stigma around utilizing mental health resources; when you see students leading in the way that our students are leading, I think it says a lot. So we definitely have more to do, but that’s, you know, that’s a topic that is always front of mind.