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Student Affairs Sets Sail For Familiar, Uncharted Seas

January 22, 2003

David Leiva

It was a momentary lapse for Denise Taylor. When she stopped outside of the Bruff Commons mailroom, she walked straight to her office. Her former office. "I went far enough that I thought it would look silly if I stopped and went the other way," she said.

That's because for all but five months of an 18-year span, Taylor worked in the central department of housing and residence life, rising to the rank of assistant vice president of student affairs. But today she has a new position--and office--spearheading Tulane's $50 million project to build and renovate student housing. And residence life has a new leader in Dan Nadler, assistant vice president for student affairs, who was formerly head of student programs.

The moves were among a number of changes that were enacted when Taylor left for a semester-at-sea last January to travel the world on a cruise liner as part of the University of Pittsburgh's study-abroad experience. Her absence set off a chain reaction within the student affairs organization, an interim measure to accommodate Taylor's temporary departure.

"We responded to a situation," said Martha Sullivan, vice president of student affairs. "We were dealing with people's strengths."

There were new faces. New titles. New offices. And as the seas calmed, with Taylor's return, Sullivan appointed Taylor to be the go-to person on the five-year plan and made all the temporary position changes including Nadler'spermanent. Though the changes were dictated by circumstance, Sullivan sees them as a natural progression for her division.

"It was intentional to allow (Nadler and Taylor) to expand their experiences. It was an evolution," Sullivan said. The other reason for the assignment shuffle is that Sullivan will step down from her office in May. Having Nadler and Taylor in their posts will ease the transition to a new student affairs vice president. "I will leave things in very strong hands," Sullivan said.

When Sullivan selected Nadler, she picked someone with experience and versatility. "Dan was interested in the job," Sullivan said. "And he will undoubtedly head a student affairs division one day."

Now, he's in the midst of any number of details of students' lives outside the classroom. From lending vacuum cleaners and videos, to encouraging diversity and leadership, to policing alcohol violators, to handling roommate disputes, housing and residence life handles it all.

"It's a big operation in terms of impact and importance," Nadler said. "We're dealing with students 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We're always on call."

And that call can be urgent when disaster strikes. Like last year when two students died from meningitis and an overwhelming number of students and parents needed comforting. Or, this fall, when the anxiety level skyrocketed as the national media pegged New Orleans to be in Hurricane Lili's danger zone. There still is a twin-size mattress in Nadler's office, a memento of the nights spent on campus during the storms.

Residence-life staff members, with indispensable help from hundreds of student workers, play a crucial role in the daily grind of managing what Sullivan calls the "long-term hotels" in which more than 3,500 students reside. That day-to-day routine is something Taylor admits she doesn't miss. She now gets to focus on the futurean ambitious housing master plan to construct two new residence halls and renovate the six current facilities.

"It's a great opportunity to continue doing what we do well, but also stretch," Taylor said. Taylor and Nadler will work together to implement a decade-long study that is expected to result in a residence-life program at Tulane that is similar to programs at Harvard, Yale, Rice and Princeton. Sooner or later, predicted Sullivan, Tulane will establish a residential college system in which faculty members will reside in the halls. It will be a true community of scholars. And that should prove to be a true sea change.

David Leiva can be reached at dleiva@tulane.edu.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 website@tulane.edu