The Highlander sat down this week with Interim Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs (VCSA) and current Dean of the Graduate School of Education (GSOE) Tom Smith to discuss his vision and plans for UCR. Smith highlighted the VCSA office’s commitment to working with student groups, securing funding for student programs and expanding existing infrastructure to serve student needs.
Appointed as interim in the wake of former VCSA Jim Sandoval retiring in early January, Smith has served four years at UCR as dean and professor in the GSOE. “I came to UCR to help the GSOE get the national recognition it deserved,” said Smith. “We have a new undergraduate major … several new masters programs and we have expanded the faculty by 50 percent.”
Smith emphasized that his position is temporary, as he will serve as VCSA while a national search for Sandoval’s replacement commences. The search is expected to be completed by the end of the spring quarter.
“The way I’m seeing my role as the interim is to be very supportive of staff and student affairs. I’m trying to clarify what the vision would be for student affairs 20 years down the road,” said Smith. He emphasized, however, that this includes keeping an eye on student needs now to better predict how these needs would evolve as UCR expands.
Smith indicated his office’s focus on personnel changes, including the filling of other administrative positions. According to Smith, a search is underway for a new permanent Dean of Students, a position currently occupied by interim Dean Joe Virata. Virata occupied the interim VCSA position for a short time immediately following Sandoval’s leave of absence in November. Smith expressed hope that this search will be concluded “by the time a new vice chancellor (of student affairs) comes online.”
Discussing his financial goals, Smith emphasized a continuing commitment to the expansion of campus facilities and student support services. One of the key components of this plan is a new medical facility located on University Avenue next to the UCR Extension Center. According to Smith, the center “will be a major inpatient and critical care center for UC Care, which is run out of the medical school.” Of particular concern, Smith noted, is “how that building will serve the undergraduate population through Student Health and Counseling and Medical Services. There is an interest in maintaining what students expected in Student Health Services, but if … there is a need to refer students to a specialist it would be right there, in a modern medical facility.”
An additional area of interest to Smith is the wide array of gender and ethnic programs located in Costo Hall. These programs, which are largely funded by the Highlander Empowerment Student Services Referendum (HESSR), fall under the VCSA’s office. The referendum, which is up for renewal in this year’s ASUCR elections, is the product of cooperation between ASUCR and the VCSA since 2015, said Smith. Smith emphasized the importance of securing funding for the continued existence of these programs.
“This is an important referendum for Costo Hall. We have this balance between the administration advocating to students to keep funding these programs, and (the need) for students who make use of those services (to know about) the range of services available in Costo Hall,” said Smith. In line with this commitment, Smith expressed interest in working further with student leadership to promote diversity through endeavors such as the Students of Color Conference (SoCC), a UC-wide event centered on issues faced by minority students annually since 1988. This year’s SoCC was hosted by UCR from Jan. 26-28. Smith emphasized, “Part of the supports that are available include financial support but also other kinds of support. If students want to reach out to the administration, we’re there.”
Smith also plans to establish a new “student success center,” a building which would include classrooms and student activity space to supplement the spaces currently offered by the Highlander Union Building (HUB). “This facility would mainly be a combination of multi-use student space, additional study space, hangout space and classrooms. We’re reaching out to the regents … the funding should be there, and we’ll know by the summer whether we can proceed with planning.” The new facility would most likely be located on the lawn between the Student Services Building and the Interdisciplinary South (INTS) building.
Smith admitted that these plans are not without their challenges, with a primary obstacle being the limited space for expansion in the area surrounding campus. One area of possible expansion, according to Smith, is the area known as “west campus,” which runs along Canyon Crest Dr. and University Ave. “Right now, all of the discussions and designs about the north (campus) districts would put more than 6,000 dorm beds and apartments (for students).” Smith added, “while nobody wants to eliminate housing, we think that with the growing number of students … providing more housing options at a range of different price ranges is really important. We recognize that the cost of housing is one of the biggest challenges students have.”
Smith concluded by acknowledging student ideas and concerns as integral to improving the student experience at UCR. “If students want to work through ASUCR or student groups they can,” he said, “but in general we have student offices with leadership that is very open to meeting with students, listening to concerns, listening to ideas … having that kind of open working relationship with students is very important to us.”