Cissy Petty’s new role as vice president of student affairs and dean of students will enhance student voices in officials’ decision-making, administrators and experts said.
Officials announced last month that Petty, who was hired as the inaugural dean of the student experience in May 2018, will now report directly to University President Thomas LeBlanc and manage more responsibilities, like the CARE Network and New Student Orientation. Student affairs experts said the move will improve collaboration between student services offices and signals that officials want to prioritize the student experience in University-wide decisions.
University spokeswoman Crystal Nosal said LeBlanc made the decision after evaluating GW’s organizational structure and decided that the position was the best option for him to support students while allowing him to “be even closer to the student experience.”
“Cissy has demonstrated exceptional dedication to our students and will be an even stronger advocate for them in her expanded role,” LeBlanc said in an email. “This realignment will ensure student voices are central to decision-making at the highest levels of the University.”
Nosal said Petty’s new role includes overseeing the first-year experience and New Student Orientation, the Lerner Health and Wellness Center and recreation, operations on the Mount Vernon Campus and the Marvin Center for student activities.
She added that Petty will continue to be in charge of the Office of Student Affairs, campus living and residential education, student rights and responsibilities and the Colonial Health Center.
Student affairs experts said Petty’s expanded role will bring students’ voices to the forefront of officials’ priorities.
Penny Rue, the vice president for campus life at Wake Forest University, said the change will allow student perspectives to be considered directly when top administrators make any cabinet-level decision that affects the entire University.
“I think you should be really excited about it,” Rue said. “I think it’s a vote of confidence in Dr. Petty, and I think it is underscoring the student experience for GW.”
Rue added that bringing student support services, like the CHC and the CARE Network – which supports students facing issues ranging from academics to mental health – under the same administrator’s purview will allow for “better collaboration” and streamlined evaluation between the services. Officials launched a search for a permanent CHC leader this summer following a nearly two-year-long vacancy in the office’s top spot.
While Petty now holds multiple titles, Rue said it is not unusual to have one official holding multiple positions, particularly at private universities.
“It speaks to the bridging role between students and administrators,” she said in an email. “It is important that there are sufficient staff members reporting to the vice president and dean to handle all of the responsibilities embedded in these roles.”
Katherine Cornetta, the assistant to the dean of students at Boston University, said every institution has different priorities for its dean of students, but the holder of the position should be “visible,” attend student events and spend unstructured time on campus to understand “casual campus interactions.”
“A dean of students, like ours at Boston University, is always seeking out the pulse of the campus,” Cornetta said. “Our dean likes to say, ‘What’s moving the needle?’ They need to stay on top of what is concerning students and what the student experience is like.”
Nosal, the University spokeswoman, said Petty receives “informal feedback” during daily events, from walks around campus and from observing social media. She added that Petty plans to schedule informal discussions with students but did not elaborate on when.
Petty completed weeklong stays in residence halls last year to learn about on-campus living and worked with student leaders to reduce laundry and printing costs last semester. She said in May that she plans to add more affordable dining options to campus, and five dining vendors announced discounted meal prices for students over the summer.
Cornetta said organizational changes to bring a dean directly under a university president may be largely ceremonial, because even if a dean of students did not officially report directly to the president, they likely still provided direct input.
“Personally, I have worked at two institutions with similar reporting lines for their dean of students, and neither reported directly to the president, but each dean had meetings with the president with the same regularity they would had they reported directly,” she said in an email.
She added that Petty’s previous experience will minimize the “learning curve” for her new roles.
“Though it might not be immediately apparent to students, a dean of students with experience leading professionals at a high level will hit the ground running knowing how to best evaluate existing staff and programs and create a clear idea of their vision for their department and the student experience,” Cornetta said.
Kimberly Moore, the associate vice president for student life and dean of students at Miami University, said one way for the dean of students to stay connected to students is by opening a dean’s student advisory council that fields representatives from various blocs of students like Greek life and student-athletes.
“The dean of students should be the primary point of care, support and advocacy for students on a college campus,” Moore said in an email. “They cannot do that effectively if they don’t have connections and relationships with students, student groups and elected student representation.”