Students choose the University of Rochester with the expectation that, after graduation, they will be ready to take on the challenges ahead and pursue their aspirations. However, Rochester doesn’t just prepare students to face the world, it gives them the skills and competencies to help them shape and lead it. The University has enjoyed a long history of success doing this because it continually strives to be better.
Driven by its Meliora values, the University continually examines it programs, student experiences, and campus culture—and Rochester’s 2030 strategic plan, Boundless Possibility, has focused the view. With clarity provided by the plan’s objectives, the University has taken significant steps toward reimagining undergraduate and graduate education.
Built for success
Through a process that gathered feedback from the University community and prioritized meeting Boundless Possibility goals, the University has reorganized Arts, Sciences & Engineering (AS&E) and the Office of the Provost.
First, acknowledging the elephant in the lecture hall—by nature, organizational restructuring isn’t the kind of progress one would think to celebrate with party horns and fireworks. But this is a big deal. Years from now, this shift will have been the catalyst that helped create the strengths and efficiencies to enhance student life, elevate academics, and streamline operations and decision making.
With its reorganization, the administrative unit formerly known as AS&E will be stronger and more efficient because it will be easier for people in student life and education to work together. A big piece of this is John Blackshear in the new role of vice president for student life. Blackshear’s wealth of expertise serves as the ideal complement to the work of Jeffrey Runner, vice provost and the University dean for undergraduate education and dean of the College.
Moving forward, work that primarily relates to undergraduate education will be broadly facilitated by Runner. On the other side, Blackshear will help connect offices that pertain to undergraduate student life—and many that pertain to graduate student life, such as housing, dining, and wellness. Effectively, Runner and Blackshear are now captains of a very big team.
“I’m excited to work with Jeff and John on this because we were already providing an excellent undergraduate experience,” says David Figlio, provost and Gordon Fyfe Professor of Economics and Education. “Now we’re not just working to improve the student experience; we’re working to be a national model for it.”
While there is still much to be sorted, most staff are already on the same page about what this isn’t: a division of powers. Anne-Marie Algier, the interim dean of students, says, “The last thing anybody wants is for things to be siloed. There’s just too much to do to not be working together.”
That teamwork mentality began taking root in March 2023, when Rochester assembled the Student Experience Team. On January 1, 2024, they added Blackshear to their roster, which given his considerable experience—and past success—is like adding a perennial all-star.
“We now have another team member who can provide a perspective on the overall student experience at an institutional level,” Runner says. “If you look at the kinds of things we’ll be focusing on, John and I show up as a team quite often. That’s intentional.”
Runner adds that Blackshear is going to be a key contributor to efforts around student success, particularly retention, institutional-speak for ensuring students want to stay at Rochester and, more importantly, feel like they belong.
It’s hard to imagine a person more qualified for the task than Blackshear.
Meliora is belonging
When Blackshear was still in high school, he had the opportunity to perform with a theatre group at Duke University. He was awed by his surroundings, which he expressed to his chaperone, saying, “I think I’d like to go to college here.” His chaperone, who knew nothing about him other than he was a young Black man, was quick to explain it wasn’t a place for him. Fifteen years later, Blackshear was working there.
“I wasn’t sure I belonged,” says Blackshear, reflecting on the memory and his time as a Duke employee. “I began to think about how if I was feeling that, as someone paid to be there, what must the students be feeling?”
Understanding the value of creating an environment where students feel like the institution is invested in their future and well-being is undoubtedly what made Blackshear’s 22 years at Duke so successful. (Not to mention a favorite among students.) Cultivating a sense of belonging at Rochester will be essential to Blackshear’s work as the new champion for student life.
“It’s easier to trust the institution when you feel like you belong,” Blackshear says. “If a student doesn’t feel like the University is a place inclusive of them and a place they can trust, then it makes their whole experience feel tentative and as though they are an insignificant attendee.”
Blackshear is building an office from the ground up, and he plans on being deliberate in his approach—becoming knowledgeable about the University landscape and assembling his team are first in order. Collaboration will also figure heavily into his actions. “For me, there are no separations at the University,” he says. “There are necessary synergies between student life, academic support, the academic curriculum, and all academic interests. All of these things need to know about each other and what the other is doing.”
Boundless Possibility identified the hiring a vice president for student life and developing the associated structure as an immediate measure to expand student success initiatives. So, Blackshear’s arrival is a giant step forward in the creation of exceptional and inclusive learning experiences and culture in and out of the classroom. And it’s important to remember he’s just getting started. Students, especially, have a lot to be optimistic about.
“They’re getting someone who, every day, is going to be thinking about how this institution is planning for, caring for, and executing its mission on their behalf,” he says. “You’re also getting an extraordinary DJ who loves working events on campus.”