The Life of Jim Vick

Jim Vick in 2005.

A true Longhorn for life, Jim Vick’s affinity for The University of Texas at Austin ran deep. He was a mentor and a friend. A scholar and a visionary leader. An avid Longhorn athletics fan, a poet and a novelist. The Forty Acres was his workplace and classroom, but also his second home.

The legendary former vice president for student affairs and mathematics professor passed away on Nov. 8, 2023. Alumni, former colleagues, university leaders, family and friends are paying tribute to his many accomplishments and collaborations that benefit Longhorns today: the Gregory Gymnasium renovation, the Student Services Building, the creation of the University’s core values, to name a few. His many accolades reflect his number one priority—putting students first.

“Even though I was a student, he treated me as a peer,” says Howard Nirken, BA ’93, JD, MPAff ’97, Life Member, and 1992–93 Student Government president. “The lessons I learned then make me the person I am today. He created an environment where UT students who had a desire to do great things for the University could be successful because he took the time to listen to their agenda and guide them through complex processes. His patience was unmatched.”

From left, Howard Nirken, BA ’93, JD, MPAff ’97, Life Member; Kim Uhr Clark, BA ’93, Life Member; Sean Petrie, BA ’93; Steven Farr, BA ’93; and Vick in 1992.

Nirken was one of the many student leaders Vick listened to and partnered with during his 16-year tenure as vice president for student affairs. The Gregory Gymnasium renovation was Nirken’s main initiative as Student Government president. The project transformed the iconic facility into the modern bustling center of student life it is today. As he reflects on Vick’s impact on his own life, he adds: “He was truly a special person who cared so much about the University, our community, and the welfare of generations of students.”

The Vice President for Student Affairs office team in 1996: S. Shannon Janes; Paul Pedersen; Vick; Carolyn Saathoff; and Donna Bellinghausen, BS ’71 (back row). Lara Harlan, BJ ’91; Lynn Davis, BBA ’83; Ellen Jockusch; and Cathy Kinsey (front row).

Vick joined UT Austin in 1970 as a mathematics professor. From 1978 to 1989, he led the College of Natural Sciences’ Office of Academic and Student Affairs as associate dean—the first one in the college dedicated fully to student support services.

As vice president from 1989 to 2005, Vick led the Division of Student Affairs, with its purpose to support every Longhorn student through dedicated programs, spaces and resources. His portfolio included the offices of admissions, financial aid, and the registrar; on-campus residence halls, apartments, and dining facilities; recreational sports; physical health and mental health services; new student orientation; student conduct; student organizations, including sororities, fraternities, and Student Government; the Texas Parent’s Association; the Texas Union; and Texas Student Media. Vick retired from the University in 2012 and continued teaching as a professor emeritus in Natural Sciences until 2018.

During his more than four decades on campus, he had a profound impact on countless students, through his classroom lectures and life lessons. Annie Holand Miller, BA ’99, JD ’04, Life Member, and 1998–99 Student Government president, reflected on his influence on her life.

“I came to UT from McAllen, Texas; there were not a lot of kids from the Valley there. It was a very big place, and it was a little scary for me,” Holand Miller says. “Once I found my niche, it was about getting involved, and it transformed my UT experience. And it was largely because of Dr. Vick.”

In 1999, Vick collaborated with Holand Miller to reopen the UT Tower’s observation deck, following its closure in 1975 after several deaths by suicide—nearly 10 years after the Tower shooting in 1966. She says Vick taught her how to have “uncomfortable conversations” and build relationships with campus administrators, which was invaluable to help her make progress in improving the student experience. But his biggest impact was making her feel at home on the Forty Acres.

Vick (far left, back row) with generations of student leaders and staff at the Vice President for Student Affairs reunion, 2014.

Many of the former student leaders who worked closely with Vick over the years attended his annual Vice President for Student Affairs reunion. They reminisced and celebrated their efforts on major campus projects such as constructing the Recreational Sports Center; creating the honors residence halls and building San Jacinto Residence Hall; installing the Martin Luther King, Jr. statue; establishing the Freshman Interest Group (FIGs) and Reading Round-Up programs and campus traditions that create a sense of community, such as Forty Acres Fest and Texas Revue, the campus-wide talent show.

Vick served under five UT Austin presidents and helped develop the University’s core values. He is one of seven vice presidents for student affairs in current University history.

“He was a man of integrity and always believed in doing the right thing; modest and appreciative when receiving numerous awards. He always made time for conversations with staff, students and alumni, and could make you laugh, and you could do the same for him,” says Sharon Justice, former associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students from 1985 to 2001. “He was a gift and a treasure to the University that will be sorely missed.”

As with any leader’s tenure, there are high points and also difficult moments. Vick was vice president during 9/11 and the years that followed. After Justice retired in August 2001, he asked Tom Dison, then-director of Recreational Sports, to step in as interim dean of students, just before 9/11 occurred.

“Things that could have been a big issue were avoided because JV always found a way to work with students,” says Dison, who retired after 48 years of service and is currently senior advisor to the University’s senior vice president and chief operating officer.

When Vick stepped down from his role as vice president in 2005, he said: “I am proud of the work we have done to make the lives of our students more successful and fulfilling. It has been my good fortune to have colleagues with great talent and devotion, and to work for presidents who have the vision and values essential to leading a great university. We are particularly proud of the improvements we have made in services to students.”

Vick with students at Pancakes for Parkinson’s, 2017.

Even students who did not have Vick as a professor or remember him as vice president found ways to honor his legacy. After Vick was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, his family worked with a group of students to start a fundraiser for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. From 2011 to 2019, students cooked and served pancakes on Gregory Gym plaza at an annual event in Vick’s honor called Pancakes for Parkinson’s.

“Through his roles as vice president for student affairs and an esteemed math professor, Jim helped pioneer support for students as we know it today,” says UT President Jay Hartzell, PhD ’98, Life Member. “The programs he developed helped build a strong community and support system, enhance academic skills, and acclimate students to college life. Jim’s legacy will live on for generations through the students he empowered to change the world.”

In 2008, Vick received the prestigious Arno Nowotny Medal—the University’s highest honor for a Division of Student Affairs staff member who went above and beyond to serve students. Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly also remembers his impact: “He was a person of vision and action. JV, as we affectionately called him, laid the foundation for the work we do today—remembering the student at the core and the ways they learn, build community, and define their success.”

In 2013, the School of Undergraduate Studies’ Center for Strategic Advising was renamed and dedicated in his honor as the James W. Vick Center for Strategic Advising and Career Counseling. The center, now known as the Vick Advising Excellence Center, serves students who are exploring majors and careers, and provides academic advisors with training, tools and resources.

“He’s one of those people who played an influential role in most aspects of the University, from teaching to athletics to governance, but I think his biggest love was working with students, student organizations and student leadership, all things student affairs really,” says Lara Harlan, BJ ’91, director of communications for the Undergraduate College and various administrative positions in the Vice President for Student Affairs office from 1993 to 2006.

Even while holding down major administrative posts, Vick continued to teach undergraduates as a prolific professor: Plan II math classes, Calculus classes, and freshman seminars. Many alumni have acknowledged his impact on them, including former Secretary of State and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, BS ’75, Life Member. During a lecture to undergraduate business students, he said Vick encouraged him through his struggles with calculus: “Dr. Vick spent so much time with me when I would go see him. He was just committed that he was not going to let me fail.”

In addition to his accomplishments in university leadership, Vick received many accolades and teaching prizes. In 1992, he was appointed as an Ashbel Smith Professor. He is a member of the UT Austin Academy of Distinguished Teachers, UT System Academy of Distinguished Teachers, and a recipient of the UT System Board of Regents Award for undergraduate teaching. In 2017, Recreational Sports inducted him into its Hall of Honor. Other awards include the Minnie Stevens Piper Teaching Award, the William Blunk Professorship, the Margaret C. Berry Award for Outstanding Contribution to Student Life, and the Friar Centennial Teaching Fellowship, one of the highest prizes for teaching on campus.

“Jim Vick was both a trailblazer and a role model to countless fellow faculty,” says David Vanden Bout, PhD ’95, dean of the College of Natural Sciences. “A simple walk across campus with him would reinforce his deep connections to the people around him. He would stop and acknowledge so many students and staff members by name that he helped make our large campus feel like a true, cohesive community.”

Vick (far right) with the Psychalones-Student Affairs Softball League Champions, 2005.

Vick grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and attended Louisiana State University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1964. After earning master’s and doctoral degrees in mathematics at the University of Virginia, he taught for two years at Princeton University before joining UT Austin. He was the University’s faculty athletic representative to the NCAA and the Southwest Conference until 1996. His love of athletics is on display on the Intramural Wall of Fame in the basement of Gregory Gym.

Vick is survived by his wife, Niki, MA ’93, PhD ’96; his daughter, Stuart Vick Smith, BBA ’91, Life Member; his son, Todd Vick; and five grandchildren. The family has created the Dr. James W. Vick Endowed Scholarship for Student Leaders to honor his life’s work supporting students and his passion for teaching. This endowment joins three others that honor his legacy.

Smith was an undergraduate business student while her dad was vice president. She reiterates his well-known passions for teaching, student life, and Longhorn sports. Vick was an avid Longhorns fan, and Smith recalls attending many sporting events with her father, even during his retirement, and “seeing everyone love him.” She notes that he always stayed until the very end of the game to sing the “Eyes of Texas” in support of the student-athletes and the University.

“He embodied the soul of UT because he had such a love for the University and for making the student experience better,” Smith says. “He didn’t care about recognition—everything he did had the lens of creating something to provide a community, home, and special place for students. It wasn’t just about getting a degree; he wanted students to feel a deep connection to their school.”

A memorial service will be held on Jan. 13 at 3 p.m. at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center.


1 Comment

Post a Comment