Meet the Experts: Chris Miller
Dr. Chris Miller is in his second year as associate vice president within the Division of Student Affairs. Miller serves as Clemson’s dean of students and oversees several arms of the division: Advocacy and Success, Career and Professional Development, Community and Ethical Standards, Fraternity and Sorority Life, Graduate and Global Engagement, and Student Transitions and Family Programs.
Miller came to Clemson with a distinguished background in higher education. From 2008 to 2015, he served as vice president for Student Affairs at Marquette University, a private institution in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Miller earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and history from the University of North Carolina, master’s and doctorate degrees from Arizona State University and a juris doctorate from Campbell University.
We recently caught up with Miller to gauge the student affairs profession, how his background prepared him for his role at Clemson, as well as his thoughts on the future of the industry.
Q: What has the Clemson Experience meant to you professionally?
Miller: I couldn’t ask for a better professional experience. Almeda (Jacks) has a philosophical approach to student development that’s absolutely consistent with mine. It makes the work not seem like work. It’s an unyielding commitment to student success, and doing it in a respectful and encouraging manner. She believes in personal, professional and spiritual development. I work with a group of associate vice presidents who are extremely bright. I have a command for student development theory and practice, and a heightened sense of professionalism. We’re an interesting group. We bring different pieces to the table, and Almeda is able to serve as the conductor of this orchestra. When you’re in a role where you trust your colleagues, that’s golden. I trust them implicitly.
Q: How much did your previous stops prepare you for this role at Clemson?
Miller: I had the good fortune of working with some extremely gifted vice presidents and presidents within student affairs. Those folks provided me with an incredible opportunity to learn. Each and every influence allowed me to build upon my experiences. I’ve had great leadership that has allowed employees to do their jobs. As I said earlier, Almeda hires you to do the work and doesn’t believe in direct management of your work. That piece is particularly important, in terms of the work that we do. People don’t mind being led, but they don’t want to be managed for the most part. They are hungry for leadership. I think the philosophical approach to our work here is that we lead, not micro-manage. Almeda gives us great latitude in that regard.
Q: What aspects of Clemson’s division make it stand out among other institutions?
Miller: There is a real commitment to professional development on every level. It doesn’t stop when you finish your academic background. We not only promote, but we encourage opportunities for professional development within our staff. Philosophically, Almeda believes that should permeate throughout the division. It’s a part of our DNA. I think there’s an element of uniqueness in that. It not only creates financial opportunities, but also an environment where you’re not penalized for wanting something new or different. If you’re interested in a workshop or seminar beyond your line of work, philosophically we are compelled to make those things happen for the employees within this division.
Q: What are you most proud of in a long-standing career in higher education?
Miller: We get to be active participants in watching students move from point A to point B. We get a real-time picture of their professional, personal, spiritual and academic growth from day one. I always say this: if we could quantify and measure their growth as a citizen and member of this type of community, it would be pretty spectacular. That’s probably one of the most rewarding things of what we do here. This division has an incredible amount of empathy, and you see it in our daily work. It just doesn’t end there. You see the vice president reaching out to families, or engaging young people when they come here. Those touchpoints make us very, very different — from a guy that’s been in this business a long time.
Q: What was it that inspired you to want to work with young people?
Miller: I was a doctoral student at Arizona State University. Dr. Art Carter was the Dean of Students. One of the staff members in Judicial Affairs left for another job. He knew I was a lawyer. He told me, ‘Chris, I have a position that’s going to come open and I want to know if you’d be interested in it.’ That was in 1996. I told him I wanted to finish my doctorate and be a great professor in law and social inquiry. That was my goal. He told me it was a six- to eight-month interim appointment. I agreed to it. I was going to be dealing with a lot of conduct issues. But he allowed me to continue to teach. And that’s how my career started … and I loved it. I loved adjudication that was educationally based and not punitive in nature. It’s our goal to be educational in all aspects of our work. We know students have lapses in judgment and they must have accountability and responsibility. But the manner with which we go about that is rooted in education. It’s not a courtroom, even though we are pushed that way as it relates to adjudication. Our ultimate objective is to be educational. That hooked me initially. Delving into the literature in that way and continuing to expand upon it never left me.
Q: How did your legal background influence you?
Miller: It was very helpful. We live in a litigious society. Legal pieces jump at us at all times. Having an understanding of and appreciation for those things that pop up that could have some legal connection is important. When you look at it, higher education has more oversight as it relates to law than practically any other industry out there. I think the knowledge base is helpful in that way.
Q: What trends have you identified in the student affairs landscape you expect to be critical in the future?
Miller: Throughout all of higher education, families want us to be better stewards with regard to finances. We are much more aware of the costs associated with education. We have to be more entrepreneurial and more focused in assessment. We can’t expect additional resources to come in by way of the state. So that emphasizes more of an eye toward stewardship of the resources. Another thing is to constantly be aware of the largest impediment to student success today — at least, in my view — alcohol and substance abuse. We have to be mindful of that. The concept of civility in our society. We’re asked to re-work the current structure as it relates to civility. What are the things that bring us together, as opposed to the things that separate us? The pursuit of commonality is not easy. Most people go to what’s comfortable and what you know, not necessarily to what you don’t know. This is less comfortable in that pursuit, but absolutely critical as we talk about a global society and what that looks like. We’ll continue to have hard conversations like universities have done throughout the course of human history. We welcome and promote those things. It’s a part of the Clemson Experience. Those are just some of the things I see on the horizon.