New VP of Student Success forges connections.

On April 7, MSU News announced the hiring of Chris Kearns as the new vice president for student success. Kearns will replace interim Vice President Robert Marley, who has filled the position since June 2013, following the retirement of former Vice President of Student Success, Jim Rimpau.

Kearns is leaving his post as assistant dean for student services in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. He summarizes his professional career in his curriculum vitae as “over twenty years successful experience in increasingly responsible positions with higher education administration in large, complex university settings … [demonstrating] commitment to student success in the context of outcomes-driven, publicly-supported education serving a broad and diverse student body,” complete with leadership, teamwork and interpersonal skills.

In our interview, he expressed passion about the land grant mission, detailed by the Morrill Act, embodied by Montana State University, and oft championed by President Wadad Cruzado. His professional career exhibits an upward progression of administrative responsibility. The truth of his suitability, however, is better explored when he starts to talk about comparative literature which Kearns is well versed in. He received his B.A., M.A. and PhD in comparative literature at Indiana University.

“The art of the comparatist,” he explained, “Is not to out expert the experts, but … to see opportunities between the fields of expertise.”

The same, he seemed to say, can be said for the art of being assistant president to student success. “It’s my job to bring together people who are very good at what they do and create a space [for collaboration.] … Leadership means that you’re not working from the outside and you’re not working from the top. Leadership means committing to partnerships.”

Like finding connections between books, Kearns’ job is to seek out the overlap and relationships between skills, needs and opportunities.

Each new job, place, person, or occasion, he says, “is like walking through a library and reading more and more books,” each providing him with more opportunities for future connections.

Kearns’ move to Montana is no different. “Anytime you come to a new place with a lot of smart people, the best thing you can do is learn from them,” Kearns said. [Robert Marley] has been very good at pointing out all the expertise already on staff … and providing a map [of MSU’s administration.]”

Additionally, Kearns is brainstorming the right questions to ask, questions that will help enhance the details of his map. “What do we need to know about our incoming class? What really motivates them?” he wondered. “Will they put their education to work in useful ways?”

“The most important work that higher education does is to prepare students, to engage them with a larger frame of reference that they care about … it connects to the larger sense of things,” Kearns said, echoing his own educational and professional path. “That means that it’s not just about skills or fields of knowledge; its about why that matters in the context of what students want to know, and being able to leave things better than they found them.”

“The real marker of student success is that [students] are more prepared … the best hope that we have comes out of the best education we can give our students.”