Whitesel Looks to Help Students ‘Feel like they Belong’ as Columbus State's New Dean of Students

Monday, September 25th, 2023

 Advocate. Champion. Conduit. Problem-solver. Conflict-resolver. Troubleshooter. These are ways Dr. Mark Whitesel describes his new role as Columbus State University’s associate vice president and dean of students. Whitesel began his duties on Sept. 18 after a student affairs career that spans more than two decades.

“For any role in Student Affairs — the dean of students, especially — students are at the heart of what we do. So, to me, a dean of students is a point of advocacy for student needs and interests — or someone to help students navigate a difficult time or unanticipated personal or academic situation,” Whitesel explained. “I also see the dean of students being the conduit for bringing students’ needs and concerns to senior administration.”

Why would a student seek out the dean of students? Whitesel admitted not every student will want to start that conversation face to face, which is where he said the university’s well-being programs or Create Care reports provide other opportunities to connect with the dean of students. But, for those who do want to talk with a person, Whitesel’s door is open.

“Maybe you have a personal concern, or maybe you have a friend or classmate who's struggling. Maybe you’ve got an issue with someone else on campus or you’re having a difficult time relating to a classmate or an instructor. Maybe you have a complaint, or you feel you’ve been treated unfairly,” he answered. “In that case, you can walk in my office anytime and connect with my team or me for guidance.”

In conjunction with his professional duties, as well as in part due to his own interests and values, Whitesel has been involved with organizations over the years that address community homelessness. Homelessness, and the myriad factors that contribute to this rising issue, are concerns he brings into his role as dean of students.

“More and more across the country, we're seeing students dealing with financial, housing and food insecurities,” he said. “Even on our campus, there’s work to be done helping students navigate these challenges and to provide as much support as we can. I want my office to be a place where students feel comfortable and safe enough to talk about those and other concerns that threaten their quality of life and their academic success.”

Like at most universities, Columbus State’s dean of students wears many hats. Those include helping students engage in services that ensure academic success and connect with campus activities and leadership opportunities. With less than a week on the job, he’s using those same avenues to get acquainted with the student body.

“My goal, especially during my first few months here at Columbus State, is to just be visible, supportive and accessible to our students and student organizations,” he said. “Our clubs, organizations and athletics teams are the lifeblood of how my team engages with students — and how students engage with one another. I like students to find where they belong.”

“You can't be involved with everything,” he continued, “but whether you're a commuter or a residential student, or whether you’re a first-year student or an adult learner with a family of your own, you should find at least one activity or organization to be a part of.”

The dean of students role also has responsibilities for enforcing and holding students accountable to the university’s Student Handbook — especially matters relating to student codes of conduct — while ensuring students are treated fairly and benefit from due process when disciplinary infractions occur.

“Our Student Code of Conduct, yes, at its core, is about following rules,” Whitesel said. “But our Code of Conduct is not as much about spelling out what will get you in trouble as much as it defines the expectations of others. Those ‘others’ may be your residence hall roommate, your classmate, or just another student. Whoever that might be, we feel it’s important to remind our students that there is a responsibility that comes with being part of a community like Columbus State.”

Whitesel emphasized that no one person at Columbus State — including the dean of students — is responsible for enforcing those expectations. That, he said, is shared among many, and the responsibility is largely owned by students. That includes the Student Government Association and conduct boards comprised of students, faculty and administrators.

“Addressing code of conduct concerns is a perfect example of what we at colleges and universities call ‘shared governance,’” he said. “In this case, there’s not one or two adults handing down decisions on student conduct. The process is one where students, faculty, staff and administrators all share a role and have a voice in making decisions and developing policies. Our SGA is instrumental in that, but we are always interested in including other students who want to be involved in this important work.”

Whitesel previously served for more than a decade at Georgia Southern University, where he served as associate dean of students in addition to other Division of Student Affairs roles, includinges interim terms as dean of students. Before that, his higher education tenure has included student affairs responsibilities at the University of Georgia, University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Anderson University.

“Mark has a proven professional track record of placing students at the forefront of his work,” said Dr. Gina Sheeks, vice president for student affairs. “We welcome him to our team and look forward to him applying that same students-first perspective to the benefit of our students here at Columbus State.”

Whitesel holds a bachelor’s degree in religion from Anderson University, a master’s degree in educational leadership with a specialization in executive development for public service, and a doctorate in counseling and student personnel services from the University of Georgia.