‘Service and Transformation’

Tierney Bates seeks to elevate the student experience as the new vice chancellor of Student Affairs

By Kesha Boyce Williams

Tierney Bates is the new vice chancellor of Student Affairs at USC Upstate.
Six weeks before Tierney Bates began pursuing the opportunity to become vice chancellor of student affairs at USC Upstate, he received a promotional box from a Greenville-based tourism organization labeled “Move to the Upstate.”Inside were materials for sharing with students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Bates was assistant vice chancellor for special projects and executive director for university career services. Many of the items touted the exciting career opportunities available in Upstate South Carolina. And that was beginning of his chapter with USC Upstate.

Bates officially began serving as the vice chancellor for student affairs on July 1, but the day before, he attended an orientation session as an observer. As he was being introduced to the crowd, he found a new way to engage them with the call and response chant of Spartan Pride, Magnified!

Bates brings years of experience to USC Upstate, having previously served in student affairs leadership at Virginia Union University, North Carolina Central University, the University of Louisville, the University of Tennessee, Bowling Green State University and Baldwin-Wallace University.

What attracted you the opportunity to serve at USC Upstate?

I wanted to serve at a smaller university to have more of an impact in transforming the lives of students. I heard good things about Upstate from the lens of student support. I also came for the opportunity to work with the great Dr. Bennie L. Harris, a leader who I respect and who looks like me from a leadership perspective.

How does your leadership style help inform your understanding of student involvement?

In my career I’ve worked at both HBCUS (historically black colleges and universities) and PWIS (predominately white institutions). I understand the dynamics of PWIS, but I also understand some of the great things that HBCUS do. I understand serving students and the different needs of students based on their studies and their aspirations.

I’m basically taking all of my experiences serving at both PWIS and HBCUS and learning how they merge together at an institution like Upstate that is so diverse. What are the type of programs, populations policies and procedures we need to address to be able to meet the needs of students while they are with us? How do you find the common ground that gets everybody together?

How would you describe your leadership style?

Service and transformation. As a man of Phi Beta Sigma, I firmly believe in “culture for service, service for humanity.” I lead by that. I had an opportunity to meet Muhammad Ali, and he said, “Service is the rent you pay while you are on this earth.” Service to me speaks to how am I making an impact in other people’s lives? Transformation speaks to how can we transform experiences, engage individuals and take it to another level versus just being transactional?

A prime example was Family Weekend, which went from being transactional to transforming with the experiences that parents and students and everybody had over that three-day period. It was really engaging and really amazing. It was an opportunity for parents and families to come to campus and support their students and have fun, but there was real transformation when connections were made to resources and people to help shape the direction of students going forward at USC Upstate.

Bates helps serve up food and holiday cheer for students during Late Night Breakfast on the eve of finals in December.

How have you been getting to know USC Upstate?

I eat in the cafeteria every other day with the students. I have met with all the student organizations. I have met with student leaders. I engage with students on social media. I went on a tour to each college to help them understand Student Affairs – who we are and what we do – and try to put a face to the names and create a culture of care. I have also been going to OneSpartanburg events and United Way events to get to know the community. This is also a way for me to connect students to opportunities from these events as well.

What attracted to you to the field of student affairs?

I had two mentors who showed me down this path. One encouraged me to consider student affairs and gave me a pamphlet to read about the field. I read it and said “this is me” and got excited about working in the field.

The second mentor said the field needs more people who look like me to become leaders in the profession. I realized that we didn’t have enough leaders that looked like me as an African-American at these institutions. Not just being the leader who is African-American, but being the leader for all students to see that leadership comes in different colors, ethnicities, sex, and more.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in student affairs over the years?

Mental health has become really big for everyone and how we take care of ourselves. There also has to be more flexibility in the work for student affairs staff so they have time to take care of themselves and model that for students. What education do we need to give students up front, and what information do we need to give to parents to create and maintain a culture of care for these students?

Bates visits with students during the Pie a Pham fundraiser in the fall.

What kind of student were you in college?

Very active. I went to the University of Akron. I was an RA and in multiple student organizations. I was in a fraternity (Phi Beta Sigma). My freshman year I focused on academics. My sophomore year is where I really took off. I became an RA and I became involved with student organizations. Junior year I became homecoming king and I was also very involved in our student-run radio station. I was a DJ and a producer and vetted all the music that went on the air.

How would you describe USC Upstate students in five words?

Resilient. Engaged. Optimistic. Entrepreneurial. Open-minded.

You give your cell number out to parents. Why?

I do that because people can feel the need to connect to someone. When you know a person that will get things done (since that is what I’m known for), that is a way for people to relax. It is a matter of personality and caring. Parents will know that somebody really cares about their student.

What do you hope Spartan Pride, Magnified! communicates about the USC Upstate experience?

That you are really happy that you chose USC Upstate. Great school spirit creates an atmosphere of belonging. It creates an atmosphere where people feel like they thrive overall. It magnifies their experiences and their goals.

Why is belonging so important to student retention?

As December graduates gather in the waiting area at Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium, Bates waits for the ceremony to begin.

Not feeling like they belong is why students will leave. Students will tell you they left because they did not feel like they had a connection with anyone. Especially with Generation Z – they don’t want to feel left out. We have to find ways to make them feel like they belong.

What do you envision the ideal student experience at USC Upstate to be?

Every student should feel like they belong and they can be seen and engaged in the community. Every student should join an organization, whether it is through student involvement or through their college. Every student should feel like their voice is heard. Did they gain any career readiness? Did they gain any leadership experience from us? Did they learn more about diversity and inclusion from us so they’re able to go out in a world of difference and lead people?

Are you planning to teach any classes at USC Upstate?

Yes, I plan on teaching University Career and Life Design in the spring. This class is amazing. It talks about following your passion and finding your purpose. Most people take years to find their purpose. This teaches you to find your purpose coming out of the gate.

What can the alumni community do to support Student Affairs at this moment?

Three things: time, talent, treasure. Time: Give back some of your time and come work with our students around mentorship or a program perspective. Talent: We have a lot of alums that have certain skill sets and can engage with our students. Treasure: You can support our emergency fund when students have needs around books or other things they need that other funds don’t cover.