A Q&A with Stephen Sutton, Berkeley’s new head of student affairs

Stephen Sutton is UC Berkeley’s new vice chancellor for student affairs, tasked with overseeing the student experience of Berkeley’s 30,000 undergraduate students and 11,000 graduate students. Chancellor Carol Christ and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Paul Alivisatos announced his appointment on Wednesday. Sutton, who has been serving as interim vice chancellor since January 2017, will be a key figure in realizing many of the chancellor’s goals related to enhancing the student experience, developing a greater sense of shared community at Berkeley and improving the campus climate for underrepresented students.

We sat down with Vice Chancellor Sutton to hear about how he started working in student affairs, learn about his central priorities and get a sense for how he ensures the student voice is included in administrative decision-making.

You received your undergraduate degree in microbiology, then quickly turned to working in higher education and student affairs. What interested you in the field?

I’m a first-generation college student, like many of our students at Berkeley. I was the oldest of three kids, my parents didn’t go to college and my extended family didn’t go to college. Without that grounding and knowledge of what college was like, when I got to Ohio State I was making choices on my own, always hoping to find folks out there to give me some guidance.

I went to college thinking I was going to be a doctor, but when the money from my family ran out and I needed to figure out how to pay for tuition, I became an RA — a resident adviser in a student dorm. I could get free room and board and a tiny stipend each month. But it became much more than that: Helping others was something that really resonated with me, and I had some great mentors myself in that role. I was an RA for two and a half years, and that set me on an entirely different career path.

Steve Sutton

Steve Sutton

In recent years you’ve served Berkeley in a variety of senior roles in student development, at the helm of Residential and Student Service Programs and as interim vice chancellor for student affairs. But you also started your career here as a residential life coordinator back in 1987. What are your impressions of what it’s like to be a student here? Has that changed in 30 years?

There are certain things about the college experience that don’t change, whether it’s 1987 or 2018: You have a group of students trying to manage emotions during a period of great transition, to develop their own independence, to figure out who they are and to discover what they want to do in life. But the things that facilitate that self-exploration — events on campus or in the larger world, opportunities available to them, even tools they use like cell phones or Facebook — are, of course, always changing.

Berkeley is an amazing place to go to school, but I think a central issue has always been how we can make this big place seem smaller, more navigable, more manageable.

You’ve been serving as interim VCSA for over a year. What are you most proud of accomplishing in that time?

This is not a campus of just the traditional 18- to 22-year-old four-year undergraduates, and one of the things that’s most important to me is considering how we can serve all students in the services and programs we offer. In the last year and a half, for example, we’ve made some great strides in better supporting graduate students, but also being mindful about how we can partner with Equity & Inclusion or Athletics to address the emerging needs of other student populations. We’ve gotten better at helping student veterans, and we’ve been investing in supporting students-in-recovery – those who have suffered setbacks related to alcohol or drug use. I’m not sure we have the resources as an institution to provide the depth of service that each individual population might desire, but it’s essential that we be mindful of these different populations and their needs, and to try to support them from a common perspective.

What’s foremost on your agenda now?

Housing is one thing that’s both crucial and very near and dear to my heart. My focus in this role is going to be working with Residential and Student Service Programs, the real estate division and the chancellor’s office to make sure we’re being dogged about expanding student housing. As has been discussed many times, we’re going to be building a lot of housing in the near future, and we’ve just begun the process of selecting a master housing developer. In about a month we’ll have the results from a survey that asked faculty, staff, undergraduates and graduate students what type of housing they want, which configurations of housing, how much of it, how much they can pay in rent and so on, so that we can ensure we’re addressing this in the right way. The chancellor refers to this issue as a crisis, and I think that’s very apropos.

Student affairs is obviously an area concerned with the student experience. How do you ensure student voices are part of your decision-making processes?

At Berkeley I think it’s easier than it is at a lot of places — we tend to have students who want to make sure their voices are heard [laughs]. But it’s also on the administration to form strong and trusting relationships. Those in student affairs need to know the student leaders well, understand what the student concerns are at any time and be aware of what students want to see us focus on.

There are other simple things we can do, like ensure that all of the important committees and senior job searches in our division include one or more students on them. And in many cases, it’s not just the undergraduate student voice that should be there, it’s the graduate student voice as well.

The chancellor has laid out a goal of enhancing the student experience, but the campus is also facing a budget crunch. How do you think the campus can accomplish that goal when resources are scarce?

One of the things we’ve tried to do within student affairs, as we’ve had to cut our budget, is to do everything we can to avoid impacting the direct services we provide to students. By reconfiguring jobs and structures, we’ve tried to be diligent about ensuring we’re funding these direct services.

We can also improve the student experience in ways that don’t incur major costs, say by improving technology — like the Student Information Systems team is doing. Finally, we also talk with students realistically about our situation, and try to get them to guide us. If we have to make a choice between two options, we ask students which one is more important to them. When it comes to student services, students themselves are our best guides.