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Meet Ajay Nair, new dean of Campus Life

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Aug. 28, 2012

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Ajay Nair, Emory's new senior vice president and dean of Campus Life, greets students at orientation. Emory Photo/Video.

As Emory University's new senior vice president and dean of Campus Life, Ajay Nair oversees a vast network of responsibilities, from residential life, Greek affairs and student health services to leadership, diversity and identity programs, and intercollegiate athletics.

And so far, he's delighted by the possibilities.

Before joining Emory, Nair (his name is pronounced uh-jay Ny-er) was senior associate vice provost for student affairs at the University of Pennsylvania. Though only weeks into his new job, we sat down with him to visit about his role as chief advocate for students:

What attracted you to a position overseeing the broad scope of Campus Life at Emory University?

I came to Emory to be the leading difference-maker in the lives of students, to be their strongest advocate. Emory is in an interesting position in that the possibilities are endless. We have incredible leadership, incredible students. Campus Life has a strong voice and is positioned very well. That's because our president and the rest of the University really prioritize the needs of students. That's the single-most important reason that I came to Emory, besides the fact that Atlanta's just a fantastic city — so much to do, so family-oriented. We've been having a blast.

What's your vision for growing Campus Life here?

The most important thing I can do right now is listen very carefully to stakeholders. I want to learn about Emory culture before I jump in and make plans. I do believe it's important that our students have a sense of belonging. Connecting our classroom to the community is also a priority — to make student's academic experiences come alive is the business we're in. I also think a lot about how we build a truly intercultural and inclusive environment, what I call a polycultural community. The idea that our cultures are fluid entities, that they aren't static, is a powerful message, because it brings us together and helps us relate to one another in important ways. Our students have multiple identities. We need to acknowledge that and build programs and services around it.

You've always kept one foot in the classroom, teaching Asian American studies and education courses, for example. How will you engage your academic interests here at Emory?

I'm going to take a year or two and focus on my administrative duties, to make sure Campus Life is healthy and strong. But to truly understand the student experience and be a strong student advocate, it's important to be in the classroom. That's such a significant part of campus life. That's part of the reason I've always done it at every institution I've been affiliated with. I also do it because I love teaching — pursuing my own scholarly research interests and sharing that, engaging in dialogue with students about it, generating new ideas.

At the University of Pennsylvania, you and your family lived among the student body. What was that experience like?

I was a Faculty Fellow in Rodin College House — you have faculty members living in residence among 800 students. I advised a leadership floor, but lived on the music floor. My children would go into the study lounge and jam with the students. It was just beautiful to see. Again, it made me a strong advocate for students. I'll do that in different ways here. I'll support them at programs and events. I'll be visible. And I look forward to that experience.

With your move to Atlanta, how has the transition gone? What's been the biggest surprise?

How welcoming everyone has been at Emory. It's just been overwhelming how kind and generous colleagues have been with their time and advice and support. People are going out of their way to make us feel at home.