Being An Aministrator in the Halls of Academe
By Laura K. Blanton ′05
One college experience wasn’t enough for four Rhodes alumni—they’ve gone back for more. Attending graduate school for their master’s and doctoral degrees, they have now returned to the college and university setting, but this time they are on the other side of the fence. Bryan Coker ’95, Gloria Brown Melton ’69, Sherry Turner ’84 and Cam Murchison ’65 are devoting the education, skills and expertise from their own academic endeavors to the higher education administrations at four diverse colleges and universities.
Bryan Coker ’95
Dean of Students, Jacksonville University, Florida
By now, Bryan Coker has packed so much into his curriculum vitae that one would assume he has easily been in the working world for 20 years. But Coker has worked furiously in the last decade, moving his way up through higher education administration. Now 32 years old, he achieved a remarkable feat two years ago when he was named dean of students at Jacksonville University, making him one of the youngest chief student affairs officers in the nation.
Planting a Seed
During his time at Rhodes, Coker’s roles as a resident adviser and Honor Council president foreshadowed his future profession dealing with litigation and advising students. He cites Mel Richey, now executive assistant to President Troutt, as one of his mentors during college.
“There’s a point at which you start to wonder, how do people like Mel Richey get to where they are? It’s somewhat mystical for an undergrad,” he said.
To answer his question, psychology professor Dr. Marsha Walton introduced Coker to the field of college student development. With her guidance and encouragement, Coker headed to the University of South Carolina immediately after graduation to start his master of education degree.
During his two years at USC, he got great experience working part-time in student affairs, doing one graduate assistantship in judicial affairs and completing another with the dean of student life. When there was a mass exodus of Greek life staff members during his final semester, he received an unexpected appointment as Inter-Fraternity Council adviser at USC.
Coker had planned to go into student judicial affairs upon graduating. The job market, however, had another plan for him.
“The people getting the judicial jobs I wanted were attorneys with law degrees,” he confessed. Instead, his role as IFC adviser led him to the University of Tennessee at Knoxille, where he served for two years as the adviser for 25 fraternities. Some chapters had more than 100 members.
“That was one of my most rewarding jobs ever because I was not the most active [Kappa Sigma] member at Rhodes, and I really came to appreciate how fraternity life is such a good experience for a lot of students,” he said.
While at UT-Knoxville, he continued to express interest in judicial affairs, working hard to prove himself and use his skills. When the chief judicial officer suddenly left, Coker was the obvious replacement.
“They decided to give me a chance, essentially,” he said. As the first and only person to hold that position without a juris doctorate, and being only 25 at that, Coker was already making his mark. For four years, he was in charge of the student discipline system for the campus, a high-stress job that was enjoyable but eventually left him yearning to get back to a smaller private institution.
Hide the Cake
Making a huge career shift, Coker joined Jacksonville University as dean of students one week before his birthday. His wife greeted him at work with a cake.
“It said, ‘Happy 30th Birthday,’ and I wanted to hide it because I was trying to keep it quiet about how young I was,” he joked.
Although it has been a challenge to administer a staff that is older than he, Coker values the connection he has to the students because of his age.
“I think I can relate well to the students,” he said. “My experience as a college student is still fresh in my memory and I’m still somewhat in touch with the issues of this generation.”
As dean of students, Coker is able to combine his work experiences by supervising the student judicial system, student government and traditional student affairs areas such as residential life, campus activities, orientation and Greek life.
His bachelor’s degree in psychology pays off on a daily basis, as crisis intervention is a large component of his responsibilities.
“I’m the person to whom students and parents come when they don’t know where else to go,” he explained.
Living at the edge of campus on a riverside strip dubbed “The Jungle” by students, Coker is able to maximize the amount of time he spends with his wife, Sara Barnette Coker ’95, and their children Caroline (4) and William (1). Whether eating in the cafeteria, attending a Dolphins’ game or just riding bikes around campus, Coker’s family is a constant presence.
“It’s the neatest life,” he said. “My kids are probably more well-known on campus than I am.”
While Coker’s lengthy list of accomplishments suggests that he may be headed toward a college presidency position, he doesn’t want to jump ahead too soon.
“I’m starting to gain exposure to the skills that are key for a college president, and I’m more comfortable with it than I ever thought I’d be, so who knows?” he said.
“I’m a fan of letting life take you wherever it goes.”
Gloria Brown Melton ′69
Dean of Students, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, MI
When she moved to Houghton, MI, after her husband received a teaching position at Michigan Technological University, Gloria Melton assumed they would live there a short time before returning south, where she would make a career of teaching history and conducting research.
“I gave it two years,” she said.
They have lived in Michigan for more than 20.
Oh, and now Melton is the dean of students at MTU.
Because she was interested in learning about different countries and their cultures, Melton majored in history at Rhodes in 1969. With the encouragement of Drs. James Lanier and John Hemphill, she studied for her master’s in history at Northern Illinois University. Upon graduation, she married Willie Melton and joined him at Washington State University to begin her Ph.D. work in history, with a concentration in modern American history.
Still expecting to teach for a living, Melton finished her dissertation in 1982 between moving to Michigan and having two children, Alicia and Willieum Jacarl. She was asked by MTU to write a proposal on how to increase the minority enrollment, and when it was accepted, she became the coordinator for minority student services at the university.
The rest, you could say, is history.
Moving on up
After two years in minority services, Melton was promoted to assistant dean of students, then associate dean of students, then finally to dean of students in 2004. She is now responsible for oversight of Judicial Affairs, Scholastic Standards, Counseling Services, Career Services and Services for Students with Disabilities.
“I really enjoy my job, particularly when I think about how it was not something that I had intended to do,” she said. “I didn’t even know about this area of student affairs when I was planning my career.”
Although Melton didn’t prepare for a career in administration, her training facilitates her ability to understand academic problems that students may be encountering. Meanwhile, she is still able to educate students on a broad scale that promotes their personal and academic development, rather than focusing on one particular subject.
“Gloria simply works tirelessly on the behalf of students. She gives praise where deserved and helps students deal with being accountable for their actions when they make mistakes,” said MTU President Glenn Mroz. “She is the epitome of quiet competence.”
While living in Houghton affords the opportunity for many outdoor activities and a close-knit community, Melton has encountered some racial naïveté in the remote northern town.
Her children were among the first and, for a while, the only black children in the school system. In turn, Melton became very involved in the school and the town to demonstrate their family’s presence in the community and to share the mutual benefits of opening to another’s cultures and viewpoints.
“I’ve gotten interesting questions about my background,” she explained. “I’ve learned to try to answer these questions, rather than get defensive, in order to break down some of the fear and the perceived barriers between us.”
Melton has stayed involved with diversity enrichment on campus; African-American student enrollment has reached about 130 students, up from 25 when she started at MTU. Because only five students in her class at Rhodes were African-American, and there were similarly low numbers at Illinois and Washington State, Melton relates to the feeling of minority or underrepresented students at MTU who are within a large population of people with different backgrounds.
“We want our students here to be exposed to different cultures as much as we can so that they’ll have some basis and background for communicating with people from other cultures once they leave MTU,” she said.
In addition to cultural exposure, Melton also promotes the importance of being open to all areas in the academic setting. Because MTU is primarily a science and engineering school, Melton is often confronted with students who don’t see the value in their social science and humanities classes.
“Having the experience of a liberal arts education at Rhodes helps me explain to students here the importance of these classes,” she said. “I tell them that in five years, they’ll realize how the courses have helped them deal with interpersonal relationships and the world around them.”
Melton enjoys the challenge of working on problems and concerns with students, and she brings a lot to the table as their dean. As someone who planned to be a professor, she promotes the value of teaching in a university that is greatly focused on research.
She sees herself staying in administration until her retirement. Until then, she will continue to encourage tolerance, preserve academic standards and help students get the most out of their college experience.
Sherry Turner ′84
Assistant to the President and Secretary of the College, Spelman College, Atlanta
Like Gloria Melton, Sherry Turner aspired to be a professor rather than an administrator. And like Melton, a short stint working to improve the experience of minority students on campus made Turner reevaluate her professional identity. Since then, she has not left the college administrative world—and she’s happy to be there.
A native Memphian, Turner was nearing the end of her college career without a plan. As a psychology-anthropology/sociology bridge major, she worked very closely with Profs. Marsha Walton and Chris Wetzel, who suggested that she was a great candidate for graduate school.
“It was the experience of working with Marsha and Chris that really prepared me to go on to grad school and to pursue a career in higher education administration,” she said.
Turner took off to North Carolina State, where she received her master’s in developmental psychology. When her Ph.D. adviser moved to Illinois University, Turner went with her to complete her doctoral degree in developmental psychology in 1990.
Turner taught at several colleges, including Rhodes, before she made the move to administration. Beginning in 1990, she worked at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, CT, for 12 years. Although the courses she taught were primarily in the psychology department, she made an effort to teach her classes with an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating historical, political and religious perspectives. Her interest in religion eventually led her to become an ordained minister while still teaching.
“It wasn’t until after I was ordained that I realized I wanted to take some time to pursue seminary,” Turner said.
So back to school she went, graduating magna cum laude from Emory University with a master’s in theological studies in 1998. It seemed logical for Turner to return to the classroom and continue teaching interdisciplinary courses.
But a few years earlier, something happened.
She had caught the administrative bug.
Turning back time
One summer shortly after Turner began at Mt. Holyoke, the dean of faculty called to see if she was interested in the opportunity to become the associate dean of studies and dean of third world affairs, an interim position that was entirely administrative but would still allow her the time to teach.
“I hesitated, and he said, ‘Sherry, being a college administrator is honorable work,’” Turner recalled. “So I took it.”
In her position, she helped coordinate and develop institutional initiatives that were designed to improve the experiences of minority students on campus and, at the same time, help the campus advance its awareness of racial justice or multicultural issues.
“It was at that point that I fell in love with being an administrator,” she said.
Fast forward to 1999—Turner, now equipped with four degrees, was prepared to continue teaching as she had been for eight years, when the positions of assistant dean of the college and ombudsperson became open.
Keeping her experience as an interim administrator in mind, Turner accepted both positions and shifted to a full-time administrator.
“It was a difficult decision, because my professional identity was really as a professor,” she said. “So to make the decision to leave the classroom and go into something totally different was really hard for me.”
Serving in those roles for three years, Turner believes being ombudsperson prepared her most for the job she has now. The ombudsperson is responsible for conflict management within the administration, with the idea that promptly-addressed issues do not become crises.
Turner, who arrived at Spelman in 2002, now finds herself acting often as an untitled ombudsperson. She is assistant to the president and secretary of the college, positions that draw from her pool of experience with conflict management.
Her list of responsibilities is long and demanding. Besides being the liaison between the president and the board of trustees, monitoring policy decisions and functioning as the president’s chief of staff, she also is jokingly called the “chief problem-solver.”
“Being ombudsperson was a job that allowed me to see things from the perspectives of multiple stakeholders,” she said. “It really shaped me to be in the position that I am in now, because one of my challenges is that I have to balance the needs and demands of different constituents.”
Using her savvy, grace and diplomacy, Turner is able to pull people together and keep them moving forward.
“The best part is having an opportunity to shape the institution, shape policies and help move the college in a direction that suits the current vision,” she said. “Not a lot of people have an opportunity to do that.”
Cam Murchison ′65
Dean of Faculty and Executive Vice President, Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA
Cam Murchison just can’t decide.
For most of his career, which is better described as a professional seesaw, Murchison has oscillated between congregational ministry and theological education.
Originally from Alexandria, LA, Murchison transferred to Rhodes from LSU to be with his girlfriend, now wife, Joan Herbert Murchison ’64. He graduated with a degree in English but with a call to the ministry. Knowing he wanted a higher degree in the field, Murchison headed straight for Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, where he received his master of divinity.
He was then prepared for the hands-on aspect of congregational leadership, but he also wanted training for the academic side of theology, so he went on to Yale, receiving his master’s in philosophy and Ph.D. in religious studies in 1974.
Equally equipped for both sides of ministerial work, Murchison was ready for anything.
“I had thought that if there were a teaching position readily available, that I might follow that track,” he said. “What turned out to be compelling was an opportunity to enter pastoral ministry.”
Murchison began working in churches, focusing on preaching, pastoral care and congregational leadership. Three years later, the educational side of theology began tugging at his academic side, so he returned to Union Seminary.
“My first assignment was a combination of administering the continuing education program and teaching halftime in the theology program,” he explained.
Eventually Murchison shifted to a full-time teaching role, enjoying his time at Union until 1988 when once again he returned to the other side of his vocational identity.
“I decided that the congregational side was pulling me again,” he said, which left him with only one choice. “I returned to ministry.”
Pastoring at the Blacksburg Presbyterian Church in Virginia for almost nine years, Murchison seemed to be settling down.
You can guess what happened next.
Finding his niche
“Out of the blue came an opportunity to come to Columbia Seminary as a professor of ministry,” he said.
Murchison entered the halls of academe one last time, heading south to Atlanta in 1996 to teach full-time for five years. In 2001 he was asked to take on two administrative roles: dean of faculty and executive vice president.
In the latter position, Murchison assumes general institutional administrative work anytime the president is absent from the campus. However, it is his role as dean of faculty that takes up most of his time.
“My teaching has been reduced by about half since I’ve become the dean of faculty,” he said. “I try to teach two to three courses a year so that I still have some of the satisfaction of being a teacher.”
For someone whose professional identity has been largely oriented toward teaching or congregational ministry, being the dean of faculty utilizes Murchison’s talents in a vastly different way.
“I’ve found that my gifts and my interests are best-suited for cultivating the internal life of the institution,” he commented.
His primary concern as dean is to assist the faculty in organizing themselves to provide a curriculum for students. Another main task is to make sure that the insights and concerns of the faculty are well-articulated to the administration.
“One of the most satisfying features of the work is the responsibility of helping faculty think about their own development and trying to find resources that will help them grow and mature in their vocations,” he said.
Because Murchison still maintains his teaching position, he is able to approach faculty concerns from the perspective of a faculty member as well as an administrator.
“It’s great when you finally reach a result,” he said. “When you get an end product that everyone has some degree of enthusiasm about—that is the real reward.”
Murchison seems to have produced a similar end product in his career. Battling with his competing interests for years now, he has finally reached a comfortable balance between administrative work and teaching.
Perhaps Murchison is here to stay.