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September 22, 2016

Vice chancellor candidate Michael R. Laliberte makes his case

Michael R. Laliberte of Boise State University made the case for becoming the University of Massachusetts’ next vice chancellor of student affairs in two open sessions with students and faculty yesterday.

Following fellow finalists Jean Kim and Margaret A. Jablonski, Laliberte was the third of the four candidates for the position to hold his open forum, with Kevin E. Charles of University of New Hampshire set to speak today at 4:15 p.m. in the Campus Center basement.

Laliberte has served as vice president for student affairs at Boise State University in Idaho since 2006, but has a long history both in the UMass system and in the Pioneer Valley. From 1999 to 2006, Laliberte served as coordinator for student judicial affairs, associate dean of students and associate vice chancellor for student affairs at UMass Dartmouth. Before that, he worked as assistant dean of students and director of judicial affairs at Springfield College for three years, and logged two years as a residence life coordinator at Penn State.

Growing up in South Hadley, Laliberte said that working at UMass Amherst would be a “dream job,” and that he feels strongly about promoting the school’s image.

“I love this area,” said Laliberte. “There was an image of ‘ZooMass’ in the 80s, and then all of this growth happened here. The piece that is missing is national recognition for those recent achievements, and I feel like I can help lead in this. You need to actively promote a school’s image.”

“What happens in a [communication] void,” said Laliberte, “is that people absorb only what they hear in the news,” which he suggested ultimately can generate negative views.

“We need to get out the message of all the dynamic things occurring here,” he said.

Laliberte acknowledged that the wealth of higher education options in Massachusetts causes some to take UMass for granted, but noted that “from an Idaho perspective” and in the minds of out-of-state students, the school offers incredible opportunities.

Laliberte also suggested that he would push to connect student affairs and academic affairs, since they share similar goals.

“Some people would like to isolate the learning environment to the classroom, but learning takes place everywhere … even at the bus stop,” he said. “It’s always occurring, and I’d like it to be a purposeful learning experience.”

When one member of the audience asked what his priorities would be if getting the job, Laliberte mentioned a recent article by Massachusetts Daily Collegian columnist Nick Milano, which pushed for a more “unified experience” for students at UMass, and admitted that there is work to be done in increasing “trust and advocacy for the students” at his position.

In addressing how he will respond to the tasks of assessment and interacting with students, Laliberte asserted that he adheres to the principal that administrators “must act less like an oak, and more like a willow.”

“Administrators often need to be less inflexible, and more able to move a little,” he said. “I like risks – not ‘walk along the side of the building’ risks – but I’ll look out the window.”

Laliberte claimed that during his time at UMass Dartmouth and elsewhere, he has shown he can work with fellow administrators while still remaining creative in working with faculty and creating new programs.

He also noted as an example of flexibility his role in creating an Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Boise State, which he viewed as an important step for the school.

Laliberte recounted an incident from his time in Boise when the school’s library was tagged with graffiti reading “whites only,” and lamented the inadequate response of his fellow administrators to the hate crime.

When the dean that called to inform him of the incident wondered aloud why the police would need to be called, Laliberte said he realized how large of a “disconnect” he was facing at the institution regarding their approach to hate crimes, and how challenging it can be to create an environment where all students can feel safe.

“I was wondering ‘My god, is this 1950 in the south again?’” he said. “I felt like I’d moved back in time.”

Laliberte also spoke of another experience from his time at Boise State, this time shedding some light the approach he would take handling controversial speakers brought to campus by student groups – an issue which rears its head often at UMass, including last year when the Republican Club hosted the contentious speech of Don Feder.

The day before a conservative group was to host an anti-immigration speaker at Boise State, according to Laliberte, he caught wind of the group promoting the event with a fence that students had to physically crawl through to get into the speech. Laliberte acknowledged the insensitivity of such a tactic, and noted that he had the fence removed on the grounds of it being a crowd hazard and gave protestors of the speech equal access to the event.

 In general, Laliberte claimed that he would respect any invited speaker’s First Amendment right to voice their opinion, but also would support students’ right to protest speakers they disagree with. He also suggested that his first-hand experiences at Boise State and elsewhere have given him an understanding of such delicate campus situations.

 “I haven’t just read about these types of things in the paper; I’ve seen it,” he said. “I got that gut-wrenching feeling [of experiencing it directly].”

 Nick Bush can be reached at nbush@student.umass.edu.

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