Come this July, the class of 2020 won’t be the only fresh faces on Grand Valley State University’s campus. Eileen Sullivan is set to take over Bart Merkel’s position as Dean of Students this summer. In preparation for her arrival, Sullivan talked with the Lanthorn about her past experiences and goals for her new position.
HL: Tell me a bit about your background. Where were you before coming to GVSU? What were your responsibilities?
ES:I’ve been fortunate to have had some varied experiences working at both large public universities and smaller private colleges. I started my career in student affairs working at my undergraduate alma mater, Eastern Illinois University, where my parents were on the faculty. As for my previous large university work, I was lucky enough to work at my other alma mater, Bowling Green State University, where after receiving my Ph.D. I was hired to serve in a chief of staff role to the president of BGSU. Additionally, I served as the assistant vice president for student life at Northern Illinois University. My private college experience includes having served as the vice president for student development at Loras College and the dean of students at Elmhurst College, a position I’ve held since 2007. Both roles are similar to the dean of students role at GVSU in that they too are the senior student affairs officer position, heading up their respective student affairs divisions.
HL: What made you decide to come to GVSU?
ES: GVSU has such a great reputation for providing large university opportunities to students in an environment that promotes a smaller, more intimate college atmosphere, where students can work closely with faculty and staff. GVSU’s great history of both innovation and collaboration between academic and students is also something that resonated with me and my values and experiences. Coming to GVSU presented an opportunity to draw on what I really appreciated in my previous professional roles and what I value as a leader.
HL: You are coming to GVSU from a private institution with a much smaller undergraduate count. How do you plan to integrate yourself within a larger student body?
ES: Since over half of my higher education experience has included work in senior level roles at large universities, I don’t believe this will be a big transition. What I hope is to continue to engage with students in ways I have at all of my past institutions. That means being present at student events, but also engaging with key student organizations as they work with the administration on issues of concern, and working with staff and faculty as we attempt to assist students in achieving their ultimate goal–graduation. I look forward to working on behalf of, and alongside students in this regard.
HL: What specific experiences and skills do you hope to bring to GVSU?
ES:My collaborative work with academic affairs is one thing. Specifically, my experience with retention initiatives geared toward increasing student persistence among all students is something I hope to draw upon in my work at GVSU. I also hope I’m able to draw upon my experience with civic learning and democratic engagement initiatives, as well as values initiatives. I think in higher education we have a moral responsibility to help students develop their critical thinking about values skills so they are prepared to negotiate the ethical dilemmas that will face them professionally and personally. Colleges and universities at their core should be focused on turning out principled citizens.
HL: Dean Merkle has been at GVSU for over 32 years and has worked on several projects across campus. How do you plan to expand on his efforts and continue his service?
ES:Dean Merkle is a very strong student affairs leader who has given so much to shape the experience of thousands and thousands of GVSU students. His historical knowledge of GVSU, given his long tenure is also something to celebrate and appreciate. No two leaders are the same, but I think my values and varied experiences will serve to benefit students and help the university build on prior success and contribute to even greater heights of achievement.
HL: What new plans do you have in mind? What would you like to be your focus at GVSU, especially in the beginning?
ES:My initial plan is to be a ‘quick study,’ learning all I can about the university. I look forward to partnering with other GVSU leaders and our Student Services team on determining ways we can increase retention and graduation rates. A strong and comprehensive first-year experience that reaches all first-year students is important, as is meeting the needs of transfer students, and I have some experience to share in serving both populations. While GVSU’s retention rate is strong, there’s always room for improvement, and I hope I can help in that regard. I consider improving retention and graduation rates a moral responsibility to students and their families. Finally, I think meeting the needs of graduate students, whose needs are quite different than traditional undergraduates, is critical.
HL:GVSU is very involved with the Grand Rapids area. How do you feel about Grand Rapids?
ES: I think Grand Rapids is a great area, and certainly it’s an asset to the university. My experience at Elmhurst College, eight miles west of Chicago, gives me a great window into all of the opportunities that come with being so close to a major city. Whether that’s taking advantage of the cultural life, service opportunities, or internships and shadowing experiences for students, the Grand Rapids area has so much to offer the educational experience of our students. I look forward to learning more about the Grand Rapids area and how we can continue to partner with the broader community in ways that will positively impact the student experience, all the while giving back to the community that supports us.
HL: When do you officially start work?
ES:July 5, and I can’t wait!
HL: How do you plan to involve yourself with the student body (including organizations such as student senate and student media)?
ES: I imagine engaging with students in the same way I have in the past. Even at a senior level, I’ve served as an adviser to student government at multiple institutions, and I’ve worked with graduate student associations as well. My work with student media has included work with student newspapers and radio stations to both support their efforts as journalistic laboratories and also their work as a news arm of the student body. What we know about student persistence is that involvement matters and student organizations, as one kind of enhanced learning experience, play a critical role in helping universities increase retention rates and help students achieve their goal of graduation. I’m grateful to student organizations for their efforts to create communities of inclusion, which create a sense of belonging among students.
HL: Can you give me a ‘fun fact’ about yourself? Something we don’t know from a simple Google search?
ES: Hmm. There’s the fact that I’m a Cubs fan (and finally, it might be our year!), and I also am a football fan who believes in the beauty of a good spread offense. The main fun fact about me would be that my family nickname since birth, has withstood the test of time. Friends and colleagues (even some university presidents), and yes, many students have adopted it over the years. It’s Bean J.
HL: What do you think is the most important part of a college campus?
ES: I think it’s the environment that is created for and with students. Students come in with certain input variables. They may be academic variables, they may be demographic variables and they may be values that others have given them. But in between the inputs and the outcome (graduation) is the environment, and it’s created both in and out of the classroom by so many people working with and for students. That’s why the learning environment —the curricular and the co-curricular, is the most important part of the college campus, and I look forward to working with both colleagues and students to make it the best learning environment it can be.