Washington People: Lori White

Advocating for greater access, free speech and student activism

Lori White, vice chancellor for student affairs at Washington University in St. Louis, is recognized as a national leader in higher education. During her long career, White has helped to enrich the college experience for thousands of students at some of the nation’s finest public and private universities.

Still, White experienced a moment of “Who, me?” when she was selected to serve as board chair of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, or NASPA.

“I don’t see myself as a role model,” said White, who arrived at Washington University a year ago. “I see myself as a 22-year-old starting my first job in higher ed, not as a 58-year-old closer to retirement. But when younger professionals tell me, ‘What you said made me think differently about my work,’ I know I have an obligation to serve to the next generation of student affairs professionals.”

At the 98th annual NASPA convention in Indianapolis, White shared her vision for the role. 

What are your priorities as NASPA board chair?

Access to higher education must be our top priority. When we talk about access, we talk primarily about admissions. And identifying and recruiting students from underrepresented backgrounds is very important. But it is also important that low-income and first-generation students A) graduate and B) have the same college experience as their peers. That’s where student affairs plays a key role.

In your NASPA remarks, you commented on the difficult line student affairs professionals must walk being both an advocate for students and . . .

. . . The man. I feel that WashU is a place that supports student activism, listens to the voices of students and tries to be as honest as we can about what we can and are willing to do and what we can’t do. But if you look at what’s happening in the country, that has not been the case at every institution. That puts the folks in my role in a really precarious position because you are supposed to be the advocate for students and their right to protest. At the same time, you are representing the university. There may be times when those two roles are in conflict.

08-20-2015 - Vice Chancellor for Students Lori White speaks during Convocation. James Byard/WUSTL Photos
White addresses the Class of 2019  during Convocation. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

You also mentioned in your remarks that civil discourse is under attack on college campuses.

I am so frustrated by that. We need to do a few things. We need to do a better job of educating people about free speech, what it means and why it is fundamental to educational discourse. At the same time, we want to create environments where everyone feels welcome. Those sides are rubbing up against each other. If David Duke of the KKK comes to speak at WashU, you can imagine how African-American students would feel. However, I believe there are ways a university can negotiate that by providing a counter-message. The answer is more speech, not less.

What about other seemingly intractable issues like alcohol abuse and sexual assault?

I feel like we are going to make progress with the sexual assault issues. When I was in college and a woman got assaulted by someone she knew, the interpretation was: ‘You put yourself in that situation. You either drank too much or led the person on. We don’t need to feel bad for you.’ Today, survivors are saying, as should have always been the case: ‘I am not ashamed. This is not my fault.’ We are doing a better job of educating people about issues of consent and holding perpetrators responsible. We will move the needle. On the other hand, I don’t know if I can say the same about drug and alcohol issues, because there is so much in our society that works against our ability to deal with that issue.

Lori White and Anthony Tillman on campus
White and her husband, Anthony Tillman, on campus. (Photo: Bonner Williams)

Your husband, incoming associate provost Anthony Tillman, arrives this summer. What will it be like having him on campus?

The work that we do is different, but it complements. He is focused on student access, student success and making sure first-generation students are fully supported. Our work tends to be 24-7. If I was partnered with someone who doesn’t work in higher ed, he’s going to wonder why I’m never home. But because I am partnered with someone in higher ed, we can go to Mr. Wash U and Thurtene together and the great cultural shows like Black Anthology and Carnaval.

You are the child of a college professor and an acclaimed one at that. (White’s father, University of California, Irvine, professor emeritus Joseph White, is known as the “godfather” of black psychology.) Your husband was a first-generation college student. How does his experience impact your perspective?

He was the son of teenage parents. The first time he ever got on a plane was when he was recruited by Purdue. His experience reminds me that the journey for a first-generation student is really different than what my journey was. I would hope I would never forget that, but because it was his journey, it really helps me to understand.

You are heading into your second year at Washington University. What are your immediate goals?

The graduate-student experience is a huge priority for me, and I am eager to work with Dean Bill Tate (dean of The Graduate School and vice provost for graduate education) and his colleagues on graduate-student issues.  Fifty percent of our campus is graduate students, and 99 percent of the attention has been on undergraduates. Our graduate students should have a robust student life also. One thing we are working on is an all-graduate-school orientation focused on health and wellness. We also are looking at graduate-student housing.

What else?

How can we use space to better connect students, faculty members and staff? For instance, a student recently  asked if we could set up some public pianos. I loved the idea, and we’re going to see if we can make it work. That’s the sort of stuff I want to explore — different and innovative ways to get our diverse student populations to connect with another.

After almost 35 years with students, how does this profession continue to feed you?

I always thought I would have children, and I don’t. Perhaps that’s part of it — that I see all of these students as the kids that I don’t have.

The lowest is when you have to tell a parent their child has died. I remember meeting a mother after a drug- and alcohol-related death. She grabbed my hands and said, ‘Do not let this happen to another mother’s baby.’ So when students are upset with me about drinking policies I say, ‘Understand that if something happens to you, I’m the one who has to call your mother. And I don’t want to do that.’

But, really, I feel so much joy in this work. I love helping students grow and develop. Every year, you get renewed because every year, you get to meet a new group of kids.

8.20.2012--Move In Day on the South 40 of the Danforth Campus of WUSTL. Photo by Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos
Lori White smiles for a selfie with Provost Holden Thorp at 2015 Move-in Day. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)
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