With all that’s changing in higher ed, Gage Paine is on a quest to make sure that the experience outside the classroom doesn’t get lost.
The place to see Gage Paine, PhD ’96, Life Member, in her element is during the quasi-office hours the vice president for student affairs periodically hosts around campus. There she sits in the Student Activity Center or the Union, accessible as can be, listening to students vent about whatever gripes they have. Paine has a sympathetic air about her, like that favorite aunt you call when you don’t want to talk with your parents. She listens. She hears you.
On a campus long dominated by male administrators, Paine, who oversees a sprawling empire that includes RecSports, Housing and Food, the Dean of Students’ office, University Health Services, and Texas Student Media, represents a new day. If she’s not the highest-ranking female administrator on the campus, she’s close. She’s also savvy with social media, which students find refreshing. The Daily Texan listed her among the Top 10 UT-related Twitter accounts to follow. (It also ranked her the fifth-most powerful person on campus, after the University’s president, athletics director, chief financial officer, and head football coach.)
One year into the job, Paine has done more listening than talking, but now she’s speaking up. Higher education, she says, is changing—fast. But not always in good ways. She’s concerned that with all the emphasis being placed on online classes, there’s some danger that administrators and policy makers can lose sight of a deep truth about the college experience: sometimes the most important learning happens outside of the classroom. Alcalde’s editor-in-chief, Tim Taliaferro, sat down with Paine to talk about her unique style and plans for the future.
For people who don’t know or maybe think they know but don’t really, what does the vice president for student affairs actually do?
Well there’s two parts to it. One is, there’s the administrative part. The other way I like to explain it to students is I’m the only vice president that has ‘student’ in my title, and so I am there to try to understand their experience and represent it to the rest of the University.
So, how important is life outside the classroom for students?
Before I came here I was vice president at University of Texas-San Antonio, and one of the fundamental differences between the two institutions is the age. UT-Austin has this rich tradition of student engagement, student involvement, and student energy for decades. UT-San Antonio didn’t have that. And so as a result, one of the things that can happen at a place like UT-Austin is we take it for granted a little bit because we think it’s always been there, and we don’t necessarily realize it took some time to grow that.
For a college student, why do activities other than studying for their tests matter?
They make your brain work better. Walking away from your studies for a little bit, getting a mental break—a physical break—and coming back to it makes it better for you in your studying. So there’s just a really practical level there.
Your office surveyed 13,120 undergraduate students and found that students involved both inside and outside the classroom have higher GPAs and are more likely to graduate in four years. What did you make of that?
Well, it is good validation of what we do, isn’t it? It’s one thing to go to a class and hear the information. It’s one thing to read a book. A next level is to engage and ask questions of your professor, to be in a study group, but if you really are in the lab and you have to test out the experiment and you’re doing real research, not a rote lab assignment—that’s a completely different learning experience.
You are a social media force of nature. Why have you embraced it to such a level?
I wanted to figure out a way to get connected to the campus as quickly as possible, so I said, ‘Let’s see what social media will do for us.’ We would say to students, ‘I will be at this location at this time for about half an hour. Come tell me what’s on your mind.’ We always had students show up. And sometimes they came with a particular agenda, sometimes they came to see if I was really going to be there, and sometimes they came to just hang out and chat. And as a result I really had an opportunity to sit down and just have a conversation with students in a way that I would never have otherwise.
What’s your plan for year two?
Helping people understand why student engagement supports the four-year graduation rate is really important. Helping student affairs staff understand why we need to be engaged in the conversation about the four-year graduation rate is important. And helping people—there’s a nuance to that message—it’s important that students think about four years as a graduation rate and not feel like failures if something intervenes and they don’t quite make that, and so I think we help with that nuance.
Top, Gage Paine in UT’s Student Activity Center. Photo by Joshua Cook.
Bottom, Paine meets with students at the Texas Union. Courtesy UT’s Division of Student Affairs.