Finding the way to a VPSA

The season started long ago, the stakes as high as ever. The month of March embraced the nationwide competition and whittled the field of more than 64 down to the Final Four. Now we wait to crown a winner.

While the search for the University’s next vice president for student affairs lacks the sky-high television ratings, intractable school pride and betting pools as high as G.D.P.s of small countries surrounding Monday’s game between Kansas and Kentucky and tonight’s matchup between Baylor and Notre Dame, UT students have plenty of reasons to pay attention.

The Daily Texan obtained a list of the finalists for the position last month, and the search committee, composed of faculty, administrators and students, released the list to the public last week. The finalists, selected from a pool of 77 applicants, will all hold individual open forums. The first forum will take place today from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in Main 212 and will feature Christopher Miller from Marquette University.

The other finalists are Ajay Nair from the University of Pennsylvania, Francisco Hernandez from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Gage Paine from UT-San Antonio.

The tentacles of the vice president for student affairs reach dozens of entities across campus ranging from Student Government to Gregory Gym and from Kinsolving Dining to, yes, even The Daily Texan. The position opened up after Juan Gonzalez, the current vice president, announced that he will return to teaching in July. His move, despite valiant efforts by the University’s public relations staff, was hardly interpreted as a promotion in what has been a less-than-lustrous tenure for Gonzalez.

Part of Gonzalez’s legacy will be tarnished by how he handled the near-closing of the iconic Cactus Cafe. Though not his decision, Gonzalez’s part in controlling the fallout contributed to the damage spiraling out of control, perhaps exemplified by an embarrassing interview with the Austin Chronicle titled, “Juan Gonzalez answers to no one.”

There are also lingering questions after Gary Borders, former director of Texas Student Media (TSM), said that Gonzalez forced him to resign in February. Kevin Hegarty, executive vice president and chief financial officer who was put in charge of managing the controversy, said there was a “flat-out failure in communication” between the TSM Board of Trustees and the Office of Student Affairs, according to The Daily Texan.

But Gonzalez’s tenure also included the construction of the Student Activity Center and the Almetris Duren Residence Hall. His prioritization of health and wellness programs in the face of University-wide budget cuts in early 2010 proved to be vital when mental health came into the spotlight after a student died by suicide in the PCL later that year.

Ultimately, the new vice president for student affairs will have his or her efforts guided by the Division of Student Affairs’ Strategic Plan 2011-2014, which was released in August. The top two strategic goals outlined in the plan are to enhance the first-year transition and to improve student progress from enrollment to graduation.

The push for increasing four-year graduation rates will be a defining feature of the next few years at the University. Administrators know very well that increasing graduation rates goes far beyond a simple academic problem. It encompasses social, cultural and financial realms as well. The vice president of student affairs position will be charged with overseeing the non-classroom components to make the target a reality. It’s no wonder that the position’s Final Four all spoke explicitly about supporting and enhancing the academic mission of the University in their interviews with The Daily Texan.

Students have an opportunity to influence the University’s hiring process, as the finalists will hold their open forums throughout this month. Getting a return on a March Madness bracket investment is somewhat out of our control, but students have a much more active role to play in the vice president for student affairs selection process.