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Student Affairs and Academic Support

  • J. Rex Tolliver

Q&A with J. Rex Tolliver

Prior to joining President Amiridis’ executive leadership team, Rex Tolliver served five years as vice chancellor for student affairs at University of Illinois Chicago under then-Chancellor Amiridis. Previously, Tolliver served as executive director of student unions at the University of Arizona, executive director of auxiliary services at Louisiana State University and fiscal officer at Idaho State University. Early in his career, he also served as executive director of a nonprofit urban housing development corporation. Tolliver has a bachelor’s degree in finance and Master of Public Administration from LSU and a Juris Doctor from Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

How did your own undergraduate career prepare you for your current role as vice president of student affairs and academic support?

I went off to college as a first-generation college student at LSU, where I did my undergrad in finance. I had hopes of being a politician of sorts and majored in political science — until I became a resident advisor. I was in R.A. training and the hall director at the time said he had graduated in political science. I went immediately after that training to see my counselor. I said, ‘Look, I can't go all the way through college, graduate and be a hall director, if that's all you can do — I'm first-generation! I need something where I can make some money.’ She said, ‘You need to be in I.T. or engineering or business.’ I said, ‘Well, I like money!’ I graduated in finance, and then went to work at the university two days after I graduated as the chief business officer for the Division of Student Affairs. That's how this university journey began. 

Was there a specific ‘aha’ moment where it clicked and you're like, ‘This is where I belong?’

Yeah, three years into working at the nonprofit! I missed the impact that you could have with students. I missed being able to connect with students around the same things that benefitted me as a first-generation college student. That's really what drew me back. There's something about the work that we do, knowing that you can help young people be their best — not help them be the best version of you or what you want them to do, but help them explore and discover who they want to be and then provide the resources to help them get there.

Your accomplishments are wide-ranging. There’s the program to support students pursuing unpaid internships. There’s the program you set up to fund student-focused research. There’s the public private partnership you spearheaded at UIC where you combined classrooms and residence halls to address rapidly growing enrollment. Which are the most meaningful to you? 

Well, let me pull back a little. I don't like to say anything is ‘most meaningful’ because all things are meaningful in different ways to different constituencies. However, there’s one thing is common to all of them, and that's improving the student experience. When I go to bed at night, I’m never like, ‘Oh, I'm very proud of this thing.’ I'm proud of all of these because they all improve the student experience.

You often talk about “a student-first agenda.” Elaborate on that. 

As the chief student advocate on the campus, I must lead with a student-first agenda. Research is wonderful. We need it. We need quality academic instruction. We need outstanding facilities. But all of that has to center around students because if we don't have students at the center of what we do, the university will never be as great as it could be. That means that we center our discussion around what can we do to improve the lives of students, whether I'm having conversations with the president, with the provost, with the CFO or the vice president for research— or with someone in the community. 

In your candidate presentation you mentioned three priorities. One is addressing some of the challenges that employees in higher education student affairs face. 

It’s my responsibility to try to ensure that the staff, number one, are compensated fairly for the work that they do. And in my advocacy role, I have to inform individuals who think they know what student affairs professionals do about what we actually do and how often we do it. In my first week, I spent three nights at student university-related events, and I had one on the weekend the Sunday prior. Student affairs professional don't have the luxury of going home and putting their phones on silent or “do not disturb” because something is always happening. And yet they still have to deal with the various pressures and realities of their own lives. 

Pay equity was one thing you emphasized.

We're going to look at where our people are in relation to their peers. We're never going to make what people in health care make and those kinds of careers, but we can look at where they are in relation to their peers in the SEC and our peer aspirant institutions. We’re going to have to figure out ways internally, within our own budgets, to address this. Our staff have to feel that we value the work that they do.

And it’s not just the full-time staff. I am just as committed to ensuring this for our student staff. Students are having to leave campus employment and work off campus to pay for college. We have a responsibility here. So we'll look at that compensation, too, and we will begin to make adjustments where we can. We can’t do everything overnight, but I will give the staff some idea of what we can do and when we can get there. 

You also stress professional development.

In my previous two roles — and I think it's true everywhere — there was not enough money to send everybody to a professional development conference. But I can come up with enough money to bring a professional development conference to my people. Prior to the pandemic, I hosted a professional development conference for every level of my organization — even our building service workers need to be developed. They had the name badge, they had the giveaways — it was just like going to a NASPA conference or a NACUBO conference but right on campus. We did it over two days and had a rotating schedule so that every attendee could get all the sessions they wanted, and we could still have the offices covered. I want to do that here. 

You worked with President Amiridis at UIC. How do you hope to build on that relationship here?

President Amiridis and I have similar personalities. Because we were both first generation in college, we know the value and importance of higher education for students like ourselves. And he has a genuine passion about the student experience. That's what we connected on. We also have something else in common: We like to do things in an ‘almost yesterday’ fashion. I tell people we like to move with all deliberate speed.  

So it's been fun. He has a wonderful personality, and his level of excitement about university life is infectious — he makes you want to do it. We’ve been great partners over the last seven years, and I look forward to this work. I'm also hopeful that the provost and others who have joined the team will generate that same type of excitement. This is a great core that's passionate about students, about improving the enterprise that is the University of South Carolina and what it means not only here in Columbia and the Midlands, but throughout the entire state, nationally and internationally.

This interview was originally conducted by University of South Carolina TIMES, a print publication for faculty and staff.

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