The following is a Q&A with the new acting Dean of Students Mark Blackburn. The administration appointed Blackburn on August 1. The interview took place Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018.
How’s the transition from Assistant Dean/Director of Diversity & Inclusion to Dean of Students going?
“Fortunately, I was under Jim [Bies] for a while, and I was fortunate to be learning—so it hasn’t really changed that much. However, Jim did shield some things from us that were appropriate, and now I have the brunt of that—so that’s a little bit different in terms of the busyness. I was used to having a set time on my calendar when I could work on things, and now I can’t. Just learning those different roles and different skill sets in terms of where we are and how we’re doing around the campus, I’ll be fine. It’s a small transition, but it’s learning to block the time to do what I need to do.”
What are some of the roles that Jim Bies, former Dean of Students, did that you’re now in charge of?
“ The whole operation of student affairs. We have to make sure that budgets are taken care of and in the right light, that our staff is set in the right direction, where we need to go in promoting student affairs and doing the good work. Little student concerns, things that happen between academics and retention—that full advocacy for the student.”
“The president has charged every one of us to look at our horizon goals and look at what our department goals can flow into our horizon goals for strategic planning. Strategic planning is on my plate now and it’s heavy because we want to look towards the future and how we’re going to make AU bigger and better.”
“Jim’s portfolio was huge, so Rick took half and I took half. It’s a very interesting dynamic, but I’m looking forward to the opportunities and the challenges to do what we can to promote AU.”
Do you have any big plans or direction for your new role on campus?
“I don’t want to change it too much, I just want to set a different direction. We’re efficient, we’re accountable—we’re telling our story better. I want to develop certain leadership opportunities for students to be in student affairs. If a student feels that student affairs is their calling, let’s create some internships, some opportunities for those students to work with us, to be with us. We really want to put [student affairs] on the map. I want to advance student affairs to have all things covered in terms of bandwidth and capacity.”
How would you describe the dean of student position to the average student? What is the relationship that they should have?
“My relationship is an open, transparent advocate, mentor, teacher. Somebody who is able to be there, give corrective guidance if needed, but also to be a friend. I have an open door policy, and I’m always willing to work with students in advancing their learning outcomes with student affairs. We’re going to give you several opportunities to become an adult. We’re going to guide you. My promise as dean of students is that whatever decision you make, I want to guide and help you.”
Do you have plans to stay in this position long-term, or is it more of an interim appointment?
“It’s too early to tell right now. We’ll have to see how the year goes. [Monday] was my sixth week in the role. Some might say ‘wow, that’s a long time,’ but it’s not. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Time will tell, but I’m looking forward to the challenges and cultivating relationships across the board—faculty, staff and students.”
“Whenever you have individuals who have been in there positions for several years—ten plus, maybe even 20, you always get a change in dynamic, a change in perspective, new innovative ways of thinking and understanding. As we move forward, it’s different. We don’t do things like we used to in the early 90s and early 2000s. Things are changing. I think it’s good for us to get a fresh coat of paint and to understand where we can go—not saying that we’re going to dismiss those individuals that led us to where we are this far, because without them, there’s no us. But the opportunity’s there, and we have to strike now. We have to be creative, innovative, and reach and be willing to take risks for the betterment of our institution and our students.”
With the new strategic plan for 2030 being proposed, is there anything that you hope to see included?
“Before we get to the 2030 plan, we have to finish up Horizons 2019. I think that’s at the top of the priority list. Are we cultivating relationships? Are we stewarding resources for our students? We have to make sure that we scratch those goals off the list—-reaching  students, renovating our residence halls, and making sure that we have capacity for those bigger classes.”