An outdoor headshot of J. Rex Tolliver wearing a bowtie and suit.

New vice president for student affairs to focus on student experience

J. Rex Tolliver talks next steps as he follows 40-year veteran in top student post

J. Rex Tolliver has some big shoes to fill. As the university’s new vice president for Student Affairs and Academic Support, he is taking the reins this fall from a man who has held the position since 1983. And the man retiring, Dennis Pruitt, didn’t just occupy that office for the past four decades — he built it into what it is today, a nationally recognized student programming powerhouse that has spanned six administrations.

In other words, Pruitt is a legend. 

Tolliver knows that. But Tolliver also knows himself. He is as confident and excited as he is respectful of the man who held the job before him. 

After all, this isn’t his first pair of big shoes. Five years ago, he became vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of Illinois Chicago following the retirement of the institution’s longest-serving vice chancellor, Barbara Henley. 

Then, like now, he knew he could leverage his predecessor’s institutional knowledge while still forging his own path. “What I’ve discovered over my life,” he says, “is it’s always best to let people have their own shoes. And I’m going to walk in mine.”

Over the course of his 20-year career in higher ed, he’s learned to ask questions — and seek solutions — in student affairs. 

How do we meet students’ housing needs in a way that will make campus living easier? Partner with a private developer to build a $100 million living-learning community. 

How can we provide students with job experience if they can’t afford to take unpaid internships? Establish a program to give them stipends. 

If we don't have students at the center of what we do, the university will never be as great as it could be.

J. Rex Tolliver, vice president for Student Affairs and Academic Support

What can we do to help them make the most of their time here? Fund faculty research that explores how student services can be better delivered.

The big question? How can we improve the student experience? 

“There’s something about the work that we do and knowing that you can help young people be their best and explore and discover who they want to be, then provide resources to help them get there,” he says.

At UIC, his efforts had the enthusiastic support of Michael Amiridis, who served as UIC’s chancellor for seven years before becoming the University of South Carolina’s 30th president in July. Their shared work ethic was one of the factors that inspired Tolliver to follow Amiridis south. 

“We like to do things on behalf of students in an ‘almost yesterday’ type fashion,” he says. “It’s not a rush. I tell people we like to move with all deliberate speed.”

Like Amiridis, Tolliver was a first-generation college student. It’s why he values higher education as much as he does. It’s why, for example, he wants to make study abroad opportunities more affordable. After missing out on the experience as an undergrad at LSU, he took advantage of study abroad opportunities all three years of law school. Seeing the world had such a profound impact on him that he allocated funds to allow first-generation and underrepresented students at UIC do the same. 

“Many students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and people of color don't take advantage of these opportunities because they can't,” he says. “I think we have to look intentionally at the opportunities that we have, the resources that we have, and then start making the connection.”

That means providing quality academic instruction. That means developing outstanding facilities. And all of that must focus on the students.

“If we don't have students at the center of what we do, the university will never be as great as it could be,” he says. “Whether I'm having conversations with the president or provost or the CFO, I'm going to be talking about leading with the students-first agenda. And that means centering those discussions around what can we do to improve students’ lives.”

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