Saturday, October 1, 2022

‘We’re always arriving’: UNCW’s new chancellor talks diversity, growth and student connection

Chancellor Aswani Volety succeeds former chancellor, Jose Sartarelli and will be the university’s seventh chancellor.(Courtesy UNCW OUR)

WILMINGTON — This school year marks the 75th anniversary of UNCW, which began as Wilmington College in 1947. Some may say the institution is due for a rebirth. 

The university is emerging from two years of modified learning and Covid-19 testing and protocols. In 2018, students endured a month-long interruption of classes due to Hurricane Florence. 

This year is being referred to as the first “normal year” — no social distancing, no major weather events, at least so far. Leading the school into a new era is freshly appointed Chancellor Aswani Volety. 

No stranger to UNCW, Volety was the former dean of UNCW’s College of Arts and Sciences and executive director of the university’s Center for Marine Science. He previously held the position as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Elon University. 

Volety succeeds former chancellor, Jose Sartarelli and will be the university’s seventh chancellor. Sartarelli announced in September 2021 he would not return to the campus in fall 2022, prompting a UNC System search for months-long search for his replacement.

Makinghis homecoming in July, Volety talked with Port City Daily this week about his first semester on the clock and some of UNCW’s biggest issues — many being addressed right as the university prepares its plan for the next decade of growth. 

The following interview has been edited for clarity. 

Port City Daily (PCD): How is the school year going so far? 

Aswani Volety (AV): The school year is going great. As you know, I’ve been here before, so I have a feel for the university, and this space is like no other. The move-in day is so special. 

The faculty and staff have been prepping for it now for the past six, eight months. We’re coming out of a challenging time over the past two-and-a-half years, so [we are] making sure we provide these students the support they need as they transition from what was predominantly remote instruction to more of a normal campus life. So far, I’m pleased. 

PCD: I’ve been in touch with a lot of students and they’ve given me some feedback on what their main concerns are. One is campus growth. So I wanted to see what your philosophy is: Do you want to continue UNCW’s trend of increasing each incoming freshman class?

AV: It really makes me smile. Because when you talk to the individuals who’ve been here, let’s say 15 years ago, that was a perfect size. When you talk to individuals 10 years ago, that was the perfect size. 

For me, it’s not the absolute number that matters as much as the student experience. We pride ourselves on having the experiences and opportunities to engage learning and have that result in a career that is fulfilling. 

There’s nothing magical about the number. 

It’s also a balance between pragmatism and what is possible — looking at the funding, how much money is coming and how we offer the support to students. So, first and foremost, as long as we are able to provide meaningful education experiences for students, and provide them with the wraparound services they need, then I’m OK. If that is suffering, then we really need to take a pause and see how we do. 

But we also have to remember that money comes through growth of students, right? When you look at the past six years, we really didn’t have any increase in tuition for students, which is good in terms of access and affordability. But, when you factor in the inflation, all those things for the past six years, now you’re down a lot. So you’re trying to do more with less and you’re being more efficient. 

At the same time, you don’t want these dollars influencing the student experience — that’s not what I want. As long as there is need, as long as there is demand and the resources that come with it, then I’m OK to grow a little bit. 

I want to make sure the growth is more managed and thoughtful. For example, this region is growing at double the rate compared to the rest of the state. Even in this area, certain segments are growing, like tech, life sciences, film. So [we] want to make sure we are creating programs that meet the region’s common needs. 

UNCW is an anchor institution in this community and it’s placed in this region for a reason. We have to educate students, create informed citizens and send them into the real world, but we also want to meet the region’s economic needs and contribute to the cultural vitality of this region. 

PCD: Part of that growth is another big student concern, which I’m sure you’ve heard 10,000 times already this year: parking. Do you have any particular measures to address parking needs? 

AV: Parking is one thing that unites the whole campus and it’s not limited to students. Compared to other institutions, here it’s a beautiful campus to walk around. Even if you walk from one end to the other, it’s 10 minutes, 15 minutes tops. 

But that doesn’t mean that we will make light of the parking situation. Actually, that is part of the master planning process that is ongoing right now. Even when I was here, eight years ago, there were conversations about certain times that parts of the campus are very crowded. 

That’s the reason why we also created parking decks. And that way you’re not like circling around trying to find a parking spot. It shows how many parking spots are there and how many of them are available, what parts are available. So I think we’re doing most of those things. I’m sure we’ll continue to look at options such as that.

PCD: I think people really appreciate the parking decks. What they don’t appreciate so much is the price of a parking pass in the parking decks. YThe deck is the most expensive pass, so how would you address somebody’s concerns surrounding paying for a parking pass that could be hundreds of dollars? 

AV: I mean, honestly, this is really not that different from your household income and my household income — you have certain dollars and you’re trying to spend it in meaningful ways. And, as you rightly pointed out, parking passes are very expensive. 

We can put surface lots that are cheaper, but then they’ll be full, then you would be sacrificing some green spaces that you really want. These are all difficult choices. If it was that obvious, people would have solved it by now. 

PCD: Another major area of concern is improving UNCW’s equity, inclusion and diversity. I think the first part starts with empowering the people of color that are already attending UNCW and fostering their sense of ownership and belonging in the community. So what are some tangible measures you would take to  accomplish that in the next few years? 

AV: ​​As you know, I’m a first-generation student from a low-income, from a third-world country — I get it. 

Education changed my life and that’s the reason I am where I am. And that’s the reason why my children have the opportunities they have. I’ve always said, that’s what I hope to do for every student that comes through UNCW. I want to provide them with experiences that made a difference in my life so that they’re successful. 

But what I tell people is, I don’t want you to be successful like me — I want you to be more successful than I am. The way to do it is through education. And you use the word “belonging” — that is the key. 

Fortunately for us, we do some things well and we could do some things better. 

For example, we have the College Advising Corps, for underrepresented groups, first-generation students that provides them with wraparound support so they can be successful. We make sure to recruit and retain faculty, staff and students. I think we do a pretty good job with faculty and staff; I think we could be doing a better job with students. 

We want to make sure that individuals are aware of the opportunities that this institution presents. For example, advertising in the right venues, reaching out to the right people. Also, making sure we visit schools in areas where the percentage of underrepresented populations is higher and talking to them. 

Sometimes, it’s not because we didn’t go there, we didn’t try. They had other opportunities,other institutions that might be a better fit, institutions that had more resources. Having said that, I like to use one of our trustees, Jimmy Tate’s words; he says “no excuses, only opportunities.” 

We don’t want to make any excuses as to why we can’t do better. 

You’re right to use the word “belong” — that’s a very powerful word. Recruiting is one thing, but if they don’t feel like they belong here, they’re not going to stay here. And it’s easier to keep people you have than to go out and get new people.

So it doesn’t matter whether it happens to be an underrepresented minority or not, we have to make sure that people who come here feel like they belong here. We need to make sure every voice is heard, every perspective is considered, make sure we provide the right space, the right role modeling, right experiences for those individuals. As you know, we’ve provided funding to the tune of $500,000 for scholarships and we also endowed a $1 million scholarship fund to support underrepresented minorities.

It goes back to making sure we align the need with the expertise we have on campus, and at the same time, learn from the community, making sure that we interact with the community — this is their school. We are here to support them by making sure we have those collaborations and bring in multiple people, multiple perspectives. 

And diversity is more than the color of your skin. It’s more about the diversity of thought or perspectives, influenced by people’s experiences. That’s what makes a powerful decision when these people come together, put their brains together, and come up with a decision that is going to be a lot more powerful. 

For me, it is a journey, not a destination. There is no magic number. There is no magic percentage. No, we’re always arriving. This region is changing and the types of students coming on campus are very different today, compared to five or 10 years ago. Diverse perspectives enable you to make an informed decision that results in better outcomes. I can’t think of a better investment than education. 

PCD: I looked at the annual crime report and on campus domestic violence, dating violence and stalking have increased over the last few years.* There were multiple on-campus sexual assaults last year, with students notified by email. How should the university address this increase? What should UNCW be doing to improve its response to reports?

AV: Absolutely. 

I’m a father of two daughters, my one daughter going to college. So I get it, I’m very aware of it. One is one too many. 

We have to be transparent and say if something’s happening. We have to address it. Again, we are not alone in addressing the sexual sexual assaults on campus. Every campus has it, but it doesn’t make it right. 

We are making sure that we make every effort to capture every report for every individual who went through a traumatic experience. If we know about it, we fix it, along with emphasizing education, community awareness and prevention policies. 

Part of it is also people being more aware of what is happening and having the opportunity to report through to electronic means. I don’t think it’s necessarily an increase in number, as much as it is an increase in awareness and reporting. But it doesn’t make it right. 

We have to support the work of current officers, whether it happens to be CARE [a campus violence and prevention resource] whether it happens to be Title IX office, whether it happens to be the police department, the Student Affairs Counseling Center, Student Health Center so if if something happens, you can say something, and also make sure that their students are aware of the support services they have. 

The key is to make sure that we prevent it from happening on the front end and then try to support them on the back end. When some unfortunate instance happens, we want to make sure that the student is protected and feels supported. 

Of course, we have the tools for prevention, like the LiveSafe app, we have self-defense classes that are offered by the police department. And, as you know, it’s a very caring community, and that’s what drew me to this place the first time and the second time. It’s a very familiar place, people look after each other. 

*The latest annual security report includes data from 2018, 2019 and 2020. 

PCD: Are there any particular safety initiatives you think UNCW should take in the next few years?

AV: I don’t know about the next few years right now; I’m trying to keep my nose above water!

What I’ve been trying to do is getting to know various units and what they are doing — some of the challenges and opportunities, as well as having great communication between units. A lot of times, we try [to] optimize whatever is in our sphere of influence. In order to see the patterns, in order to connect the dots, you really need to optimize the whole system. So that’s what I’m trying to do. 

PCD: When we met previously, you talked a little about your plan for receiving feedback from students. You mentioned the Student Advisory Council. Can you expand on that and how you plan to receive feedback from students, as well as faculty and staff?

AV: My number one guiding principle is: It’s all about students. That’s the one and only reason why any of us are here and I stick to it. Whenever I make a decision, that is the first thing I think of: How is it going to help the students? The next thing is how to help faculty and staff. And next, is it good for the university? 

I try to connect with every campus constituent as much as possible, including going to the cafeteria to eat my lunch every day to meet students. I talk to the student, government president and vice president on a regular basis; I meet with the staff senate president and faculty senate president on a regular basis. Sometimes three or all four of us meet together. I work with the vice president in putting together a student advisory council that is representative of all colleges, programs, undergrad programs, minority centers. And I have a monthly lunch scheduled with students. 

I’ll probably do fireside chats [to]really listen to the students. 

Of course, faculty and staff, as well as the broader community, ask how do we influence what happens on campus? And how do we see this campus evolving and serving all their needs? Feedback is critical. But that’s also the key ingredient for us to create a strategic plan. 

I want to make sure the participation is broad and communications are transparent. We have public dashboards; that’s where it’s going to hold me accountable. If I say, these are the things I want to do for the institution, or we want to do as an institution, people should know that we’re making progress on these initiatives.

We’re going to hold a lot of town hall meetings for faculty, staff and students where their feedback is considered. 

More importantly, I talked to the chamber of commerce, I talked to city council, county commissioners, business leaders,saying how do you see yourself playing a role in this region? And consider their feedback. 

For example, if this area is going to grow in these areas, in these fields, are we creating the right programs? Are we giving the students the right experiences and skill sets to move into those things? 

PCD: Are there any ways you think UNCW could be more involved with the community?

AV: This is my personal motto: Pleased, not satisfied. That’s how you grow to be a better person. That’s how we grow to be a better institution. We do a great job. 

And what else can we do to make it even better? For example, if jobs are having difficulty finding the right students, how do we make sure that their needs are connected to the skills and the needs of the student? Our academic advising, for example. More importantly, looking at post graduation, how do we help students have a rewarding career? And so we had to work with the business leaders and the community members and give the students the skill sets and the vocabulary to communicate well.

PCD: Are there any other initiatives or plans that you think are particularly important?

AV: Well, the strategic plan is going to be huge. I hope this 10-year strategic plan will solidify UNCW’s identity as an institution and hone what areas we are going to focus on and be good at. 

This has a lot of tentacles because it informs where you’re going to invest resources, that informs what buildings, what infrastructure you need to have, what academic programs we need to have. How do you work with the legislators? How do you work with donors and philanthropy and supporting students? So the strategic plan is going to be huge. 


Reach out to Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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