Meet the Experts: Kathy Bush Hobgood
Kathy Bush Hobgood is in her third year as assistant vice president for Student Affairs and executive director of University Housing & Dining. She first joined the Student Affairs team in 2006 as the director of residential life, a position she held until the division’s reorganization in 2015.
In her current role, Hobgood manages a staff of over 450 full-time employees, including eight directors. Hobgood’s team is responsible for overseeing all residential and dining areas at Clemson, which will see a school-record 7,599 students living on campus in the fall.
We recently caught up with Hobgood to discuss her professional affinity for housing, the transition to the executive director’s position, as well as some of the challenges and excitement surrounding the current housing and dining landscape at Clemson.
Q: What drew you to the student affairs profession?
Hobgood: I like to tell people I became a student affairs professional my first day of college. I was a first-generation college student and didn’t know what to expect. My mom and cousin dropped me off at the University of Iowa and didn’t know what to do with themselves, with the chaos of school. So, they were gone by 9:30 in the morning, and I was wandering the halls looking for someone to talk to. By 10:15, I was downstairs in the lobby of my residence hall chatting with people helping with move-in. By 11:00, I was wearing a move-in t-shirt and serving sodas to volunteers. I must have had a sign on my head that said, “Involve me.” I don’t think I ever looked back from that point. I always had some type of involvement, from hall council to residence hall association. Then I became a resident assistant. So, I always had ties to student affairs.
I originally thought I wanted to be a therapist. My undergraduate degree is in psychology and master’s degree is in counseling therapy from Western Illinois University. My first full-time job was spent with half of my time in the counseling center and the other half of it in housing at Albion College. I walked a parallel line in service of individuals. I became a counselor because I was fascinated by people. I don’t think I stopped using those counseling skills, rather I just focused them differently in housing.
Q: Your roots are in the Midwest. What led you to the Southeast?
Hobgood: My first job right out of graduate school was at Albion College. It’s a small, private liberal arts college in Michigan with about 1,600 students. It was a really eclectic student affairs department. All the entry level staff spent half of their time in housing and the other half in another area of student affairs. Populating the staff that way allowed them to have a really broad base to serve students, but with the staffing numbers that many small schools have to work with.
I left Albion after two years for the University of Florida in Gainesville. I thought that I would move to the South for a couple of years and then back to the Midwest where I belonged. Now, I’m not sure I could live there again and deal with the snow! I worked three different positions over 11 years at Florida. I was an entry-level resident director, and then a larger area coordinator before becoming an assistant director with responsibility for over half of campus. I also had department-wide residential learning responsibilities as well.
In 2006, Verna Howell recruited me to come to Clemson. She had a vision to transition Clemson from a service model to a student development model in terms of its residential component. They weren’t doing true living-learning communities or the type of residential engagement we’ve moved towards. The RA requirements were different at that time. She wanted someone to come in and make the structural changes that would allow us to build a scaffold to move toward a true educational program within our residence halls. It was a great vision, and I was honored to come in and lead that effort.
Q: How much did you grow over the next nine years in that position?
Hobgood: I saw a tremendous amount of growth. Verna, and then later also Doug Hallenbeck, were my supervisors, but also mentors. They (mentors) have the ability to see things in you that you often don’t. The gift of her mentorship through that set me up with the staff and parameters I needed to succeed. Verna always said, “In God we trust, but show me the data.” We didn’t do anything that wasn’t based in research. We studied best practices and looked for ways to show that our residential communities really were making a difference. One of the things we did that was integral in living-learning communities was participate in a national study in 2007–08. We were selected as one of four schools nationwide to participate; a group came and did a three-day site visit and met with our learning partners. That was the genesis of jumping off to a true residential curriculum. Our staffing structure used to be two associate directors, one for the east side and one for the west side of campus. We segued over time to two associate directors, one overseeing operations and residential life and the other overseeing academic initiatives and residential learning. Our “why” is that we believe an intentional residential experience is transformative for students. In reminding ourselves of all the things we could do in the residential environment, it helped us create better environments for students to thrive in.
Q: To those who aren’t familiar with the term, what is a living-learning community?
Hobgood: You need three components. One, it needs to have an academic connection. Either to a faculty member or a specific program. Second, it needs a certain amount of space, whether it’s 10 beds at the end of a hall or all of Byrnes and Lever like we have for the Residents in Science and Engineering (RISE) program. Finally, you need dedicated resources for that program in terms of staff or dollars. There’s a spectrum across all types of living-learning communities. Some are theme-based, where students enjoy doing something together, such as service. Then, you see some with students in the same major. Some students take shared coursework. They live together and go to class together. Residential colleges, such as our partnership with the Calhoun Honors College, are examples of the most extensive type of living-learning where we have the classrooms, faculty in residence and services on site. Finding the right niche for that is important for a student when it comes to their choice of living. As we continue to grow the academic initiatives on campus, it’s also important we’re offering a myriad of choices.
Q: You were promoted to your current position after Student Affairs went through a reorganization in 2015. What was that process like?
Hobgood: It was an extraordinary transition. I grew up in housing. There was a period in my life when I thought I’d branch off to be a Dean of Students or maybe work in campus activities. But, I had a moment when I realized I’d always be a housing professional. That’s where I feel I have the broadest amount to offer in creating residential environments that impact student success. From education to facilities to custodial staff — all of the pieces that connect to a student’s day to day life in a residence hall — that’s where I feel impactful.
When Almeda (Jacks) and Doug (Hallenbeck) said they were promoting me to this position, I was flabbergasted. To have the faith placed in me by people I respect so deeply, was a tremendous gift. To continue working with the pieces I’d been involved with all along has been an amazing opportunity. Dining was the steepest part of my learning curve. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know about food. It’s not easy at all. Another part of my position is overseeing the bookstore, and we underestimate the logistics and time spent managing that operation. I have a picture on my phone from a few years ago of rows and rows of boxes ready for the start of school in the storage room of the bookstore. Each of them has a tag with a student’s name on it. The things it takes to make a university run that most people never see is amazing.
Q: How comforting was it to transition into your current role under Doug Hallenbeck?
Hobgood: Doug and I both worked at the University of Florida in 1995–96. But, we remained friends throughout the years. In 2007, when Verna Howell was promoted to become an associate vice president and was no longer going to be the senior housing officer any longer, we set out on a search. I was so excited it was my colleague and longtime friend, Doug Hallenbeck. One, we had an existing relationship. Two, I had full faith in the work we could accomplish together. For the eight years I worked under him as director of residential life, it was amazing. Moving into my current position, it’s been great to have him as a resource and support.
Q: What are some of the challenges to managing such a large enterprise?
Hobgood: There are a few things. We have more than 1,000 people in University Housing & Dining, including our full-time staff, 10-month employees and staff. I always want to make sure I’m a person, as opposed to just a name at the top of an organizational chart. You want to be relatable. Your vision for what you’re all about as a department translates through all those individuals. The eight individuals I work with who direct our various areas are tremendous professionals. They make our mission relatable on a day-to-day level. But it’s certainly a challenge, and a big ship to steer.
Another challenge is doing our part to make college affordable. It’s a big reality that cost of attendance is a challenge for students. How we can help control costs and continue to offer many options is paramount. We’re excited to offer the most technologically-advanced facilities. But at the same time, we also offer four-person apartments in some of our oldest communities. We want to make sure there’s something available for everyone who wants to stay on campus.
The third biggest challenge is that everyone forms an opinion. Issues are very complex. Our ability to use marketing and communication skills, and to help students understand why we do things the way we do them, is important.
Q: What’s the excitement level in your department with the recent addition of Core Campus and with Douthit Hills adding to the inventory this fall?
Hobgood: I’m thrilled. Every step of both projects has seen its share of challenges and successes. I don’t know how I got to be so lucky to see two mega-projects come to fruition. Douthit is really the scope of three projects: apartments, traditional-style residence halls and the hub building. Core included two housing styles, the partnership with the Calhoun Honors College, and a major dining and retail venue. We had the opportunity to be involved with both projects from the ground up in the 12 years I’ve been here.
My first week, in 2006, I went to a meeting with university neighbors about Douthit Hills. We had just closed off the family housing that previously occupied the space. And they wanted to know what the university planned to build in its place. In a literal way, it’s been with me this entire time. We have been able to partner with capital projects to make some important, big-picture decisions — but also to guide the details. One example, we couldn’t find bedroom furniture we really liked for the apartments. So we sponsored a design competition and had companies compete to build furniture for those rooms. It’s custom furniture at the price we needed it to be. And the students love it! They were able to participate in the process. And those little things add up to the bigger picture.
Then, you experience the grand moments. Recently, the construction fencing came down at Douthit. I get goosebumps thinking about it, because you live in the project for so long before it’s public to campus. Student response has been incredible. The apartments that we set out for signup were all selected VERY quickly.
Q: When you were hired at Clemson, did you ever envision nearly 7,600 students living on campus?
Hobgood: Definitely not. At the time, the university vision was to grow without growing. We didn’t envision the freshman class growing as it has. We also didn’t know we’d be demolishing the Clemson House. We were talking about renovations before the major study of the space. Once the university prepared to expand, the right decision was to repurpose resources instead of renovating. Johnstone Hall is going to be demolished as well. This will be the last group of students to live there, the “Johnstone Gentlemen” as they’re known. I have a picture in my office of the high rises being built. The scaffolding is up, but not the walls. And you can see through Lever and Byrnes. I keep it on my wall to remind myself that as wonderful as these new buildings are, we have aging infrastructure with needs. Fifty years from now, the person sitting in my chair will look back to Core Campus and wonder why something was done a certain way. You don’t know everything about a building until you live in it. Johnstone was state-of-the-art and featured in Architectural Review. But over time, buildings age differently. There’s a constancy to being in housing and dining. We’ve fed students and housed people on campus as long as we’ve been Clemson.
Q: What are the most rewarding aspects of your position?
Hobgood: We get to touch students’ lives every single day. We eat with them and create living environments that translate to success. If you have a leaking roof and the air conditioning doesn’t work, that’s not an environment where students can study. So on top of that, we build on the educational component and proper nutrition. When you put together all of the needs that are served through housing and dining, we create an environment every day that enables Clemson students to be more successful. As higher education professionals, we cannot underestimate that as different as students are from one another, they’re all looking to improve what comes next for them.
Q: What types of activities do you enjoy when you’re not at work?
Hobgood: My husband and I have a 7-year-old daughter, Katie. I was 42 when she was born, so right about the time I didn’t think it was going to happen. A lot of my life outside of work is centered around the gift of having Katie in our lives. She’s into Girl Scouts and gymnastics. We’re also a big Disney World family. We love some Mickey Mouse. We’re big sports fans. We’ve been here for 12 years now, but believe it or not, we still have season football tickets for the Florida Gators. When the job came open, my husband said he was willing to come to South Carolina, but he wanted to keep season tickets. He’s from Satellite Beach, Florida. We’re in Gainesville five or six times a year, we keep up with old friends and enjoy Gators sports. It’s fun to really have two “home” teams.