A Q & A with Felicia E. McGinty, vice chancellor for student affairs

Felicia McGinty, vice chancellor for student affairs
Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

When Felicia McGinty, the daughter and granddaughter of sharecroppers who migrated to Arizona to pick cotton, arrived as a freshman at Northern Arizona University, she concedes she was lost and didn’t immediately know where to turn. Luckily, she found her way to the dean of students, who provided needed support and guidance. “He made a huge difference in my college experience,” she says. “He was never too busy to make time for me.  He is the reason I graduated from college and pursued a career in higher education.”

That experience has shaped McGinty’s approach at Rutgers, where for the last three-and-a-half years she has overseen one of the largest student affairs programs in the nation, which includes more than 2,000 employees and is responsible for providing services to over 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students on Rutgers University’s New Brunswick Campus.

Earlier this year, Rutgers-New Brunswick was named among the 2017 Most Promising Places to Work in Student Affairs based on a national survey.

Rutgers Today spoke with McGinty about her philosophy and vision for Student Affairs at Rutgers.  

How do you create a positive culture for employees?
We created a tagline for the division: “There’s a U in Rutgers.” This serves as a reminder that the work we do makes a difference, and that we are here to make Rutgers a great place for students to thrive and reach their full potential. There is also a big emphasis on team building, professional development and accessibility to senior staff. We have an open-door policy and hold open office hours for staff members every Thursday from 4 p.m.- 5 p.m. It is imperative that we have a healthy work environment because we need to do our best work in order for students to thrive.

One of President Barchi’s strategic priorities is enhancing the student experience. Can you tell us how you and your staff go about achieving that goal?
“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” This is one of my favorite quotes from Maya Angelou, and it’s the approach that we take toward the student experience. We work and lead from a student-centered perspective. That means making time to listen and engage with students and working in earnest to improve their experience. Every Friday morning, I hold open student office hours from 10 a.m. to noon to do just that. With more than 50,000 students at Rutgers, we know it’s important to cultivate a sense of belonging and connection to the university. This pays off in several ways.  Nationally, the data bares out the notion that joiners are stayers.  Students who are involved on campus are more satisfied, perform better academically and are more likely to graduate. So, providing co-curricular experiences and leadership development is crucial.  I also have an advisory council that includes leaders from key organizations on campus who keep me abreast of student issues and concerns. I use that group to vet key decisions and proposed policy changes. It empowers students and helps the university.

Tell us a little about your work around sexual violence prevention and education.
This is an area where Rutgers has been very much on the forefront. For years we have done outstanding work in violence prevention and providing comprehensive support to survivors.  In 2014, we were asked by the White House to pilot their campus climate survey to better understand students’ attitudes, experiences and perceptions around issues of sexual violence.  After analyzing the survey findings we created a comprehensive action plan: entitled “The Revolution Starts Here - End Sexual Violence Now.” We are  in year two of this campaign and it continues to  raise awareness about sexual violence and educate students about violence prevention, while helping students understand consent and the dynamics of healthy relationships.

How do you work with both on campus and off campus students?
Student Affairs supports and advocates for all students – undergraduates, graduate students, residents, commuters and off-campus students. We house more than 16,000 residential students on campus and they receive lots of support from their RA’s and residential life staff. Two years ago, with support from Chancellor Richard Edwards strategic initiative funding, we created the Office of Off-Campus Living and Community Partnerships to better support students transitioning to living off campus. Students now receive support managing landlord-tenant or code enforcement issues, as well as assistance locating safe affordable housing off campus. We work closely with the the city of New Brunswick to address safety concerns and improve the quality of life for the campus and community.  We’ve hired two teams of students who live and work with us in the local community: one group functions in an RA type role by assist in disseminating information to off-campus students and the other group are Give Where You Live interns who focus on community service with the city.

How does your division foster meaningful communication among different student communities while encouraging students of all races and ethnicities to strengthen bonds and work together?
What’s beautiful about Rutgers is our ethnic and cultural diversity.  We work to help every Rutgers student understand that there are more bonds that tie you together and unite you than there are that divide and separate you. In the fall, we held an inclusion training program, “Building Inclusive Communities.” We brought 1,000 student leaders together and conducted a full-day workshop on the topic.

We have four cultural centers on campus – The Paul Robeson Cultural Center, the Center for Latino Arts and Culture, the Center for Social Justice Education & LGBT Communities, and the Asian American Cultural Center. We’ve formed the Cultural Center Collaborative to come together and work on joint programming.  Our goal is to educate the entire community so everybody feels welcome, respected and part of the Rutgers community.

You have worked in student services at other universities. What makes working with your colleagues at Rutgers unique?
There’s no shortage of talent here. We employ the best and the brightest, and when we have an opportunity to do recruiting we draw people who are nationally recognized leaders and experts in their field.  We are truly committed to students and unite around them. When there is a crisis, people come together. Effective crisis management is a hallmark of a high functioning student affairs organization. We want to cultivate engaged students who remain engaged alumni. I’ve had the chance to work with three student body presidents. Even when they leave, they want to know what’s going on and stay engaged with us after they graduate.  

Carla Cantor