Prevention Profiles: Take Five - Dr. Lowell Davis (University of North Carolina Wilmington)


Lowell K. Davis Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs for UNCW

Audio file

Dr. Lowell Davis joined the University of North Carolina Wilmington as Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs in May of 2021.

Lowell Davis, Ph.D., Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, is this month's guest on Prevention Profiles: Take Five. During the interview, Dr. Davis discusses ways in which upper-level administrators in student affairs can provide leadership in preventing drug use among college students, his passion for collegiate recovery programs, advice for professionals on campus who might be struggling with getting support from the school’s upper administration for prevention efforts on campus, and more.

Rich Lucey: Hi, folks, this is Rich Lucey with the Drug Enforcement Administration in the Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section.

Welcome to this episode of Prevention Profiles Take Five.

Very excited about today's guest, Lowell Davis, the Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Let me tell you a little bit about Dr. Davis before he joins us on the podcast.

Dr. Lowell Davis joined the University of North Carolina Wilmington as Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs in May of 2021.

Prior to his tenure at UNCW, he held posts at Western Carolina University, University of Alabama, Indiana University and Hampton University.

Throughout his career Dr. Davis has shown incredible skill in student affairs administration, collegiate leadership and effectiveness in building and strengthening college cultures and community relationships.

In his current role, Dr. Davis oversees the areas of housing and residence life, student extracurricular organizations, the career center, student physical and behavioral health, parent and family programs, transition programs and other student directed services.

He operates with a 45 million dollar budget and more than one thousand staff and student employees.

In addition to his Vice-Chancellor duties, Dr. Davis is also a member of the Chancellors Cabinet, President of the North American Association of Summer Sessions Administrative Council, a member of the Commission for African-American Heritage, History and Culture, and extremely involved with national accreditation efforts through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

With that, Dr. Davis, welcome to the podcast.
Davis: Thank you so much.

I'm so happy to be here today to talk with you about issues that are affecting and impacting college age students.
Lucey: Absolutely.

I'm excited because while we're now in our fifth season of the podcast series, I think this is the first time we've had a Vice-Chancellor or a Vice-President for Student Affairs.

So you're breaking some ground.

You're setting a precedent.

And so we're thrilled, absolutely thrilled to have you because I think you're going to offer a great perspective.

So I'm going to just jump right into the first question, and I'm sort of chuckling to myself now that I'm going to ask it after reading your bio because with all that you do and all that you're responsible for as Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs, what issues cause you to lose sleep or keeps you up at night? 
Davis: Wow, I'd say right now in today's kind of climate of course the health and safety of our students but also the impact that this has on staff.

So when I think about sexual assaults that take place on campus, drug use, substance abuse, they're all things that really just cause me to stay up at night and think about what I can do to make an impact on the campus on which I work.

Understanding that these issues are not really exclusive to college campuses, that you don't have to be a college student to deal with some of these issues, that they're national and international issues, but it's the things that really cause me to lose sleep at night.

I do want to say though that a university can provide a structured environment for someone who needs support to address issues around not only sexual assault, drug use, but also mental and physical help.

Lucey: Yeah, I'm so glad also that you mentioned the impact on staff.

Obviously the primary mission is in this particular area is looking out for the health and the safety of students on campus, but we also have to remind staff sometimes to practice self-care and especially over the last couple of years.

This has taken such a toll in so many ways on so many people.

I think that reminder is necessary.
Davis: I would agree.

I believe the Chronicle of Higher Education has coined this term the great resignation that's happening in higher education.

And it's important that as a Vice-Chancellor that I encourage my staff to take care of themselves and to understand work/life balance, especially during the past two years as we've dealt with this global pandemic.

I think it's key that they understand that this, one, is a job but that, two, that they have a Vice-Chancellor and other administrators on campus that recognize the hard work and dedication they have to their jobs and to UNCW and that we also recognize that they need to participate in activities around self-care.
Lucey: Absolutely.

The next question really is centered around leadership and that's why I'm so happy to have you on this episode.

We know that strong leadership is vital to effective prevention of drug use, and we also know that leadership can come in many forms on a college campus.

The college university president or chancellor, administrators such as yourself, faculty members, students just to name a few.

What are some ways in which upper level administrators in student affairs can provide leadership in preventing drug use in the college students?
Davis: I think we all have to be educators about drug use and substance abuse.

It's our job as we work on college campuses to really be aware of current trends that take place and happen in higher education.

When I say educators and I think about when students enter higher education, you tend to think about new student orientation that takes place in the summer.

As individuals who are facilitating new student orientation that we have sessions about these issues.

We do at the University of North Carolina, University of North Carolina Wilmington provide sessions with the Dean of Students Office.

We have a joint session with New Hanover County District of Attorney.

Students receive data about legal ramifications as well as campus standards around these issues.

We have peer groups that support students regardless of what issues that may be affecting them.

And many of those groups are led by faculty members and professional staff members.

And so leadership really comes in a variety of forms.

It can be peers.

It can be faculty members.

It can be staff members.

Of course the structure in the Dean of Students Office.

It takes on many different forms when you think about the division or a division of student affairs, and we all must be leaders in educating our population on the issues of the prevention of drug use.

Lucey: Mm-hmm.

I think back to so your predecessor, the late Pat Leonard, longtime friend and colleague of mine and others in this field.

I remember pieces of advice I heard her give somebody one time.

They were kind of bemoaning the fact that they were facing some challenges in getting their president onboard and getting the support of the president to the prevention efforts on campus.

And I remember Pat saying to them, well, first thing you need to do is you need to get your VP for Student Affairs onboard.

I mean that's, kind of go through your VP, your campus Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs.

Getting that support, getting you as an ally really goes a long way.

Have you seen that in your, throughout your career?
Davis: I have.

And the person in my role on a college campus, we are really and truly the advocate for students and we oftentimes firsthand see the impact that issues in the community will have on students.

Now many of these issues may manifest themselves in the classrooms, and so I think that's why it's really key and important that the person in my role has a very close relationship with the Vice-Chancellor, Vice-President for Academic Affairs.

Just as the way universities are structured we know that behaviors may show up in the classroom.

We may witness behaviors outside of the classroom in the residence hall and other places.

But I think in order to really move any initiative forward that it is key that the Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs, the Vice-President for Student Affairs has a really close relationship with the Vice-President and/or Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs.

Lucey: I'm so glad you brought that up because obviously at the student level we know that the issues related to drug use, alcohol and drug misuse are so closely connected to academic affairs and to the academic achievements of students.

So it helps them to see that modeling if you will at the upper administration level is great and forge that relationship.

I'm glad you brought that up.

As I move onto the next question, actually it's a nice segue talking about student achievements, academic achievement.

So throughout your career how has student drug use affected student success, and what were some things you and your teams have done to help intervene and support?
Davis: You know, I have unfortunately witnessed student drug use firsthand and the impact that it has had on students.

And my goal was to always continue to engage those students regardless of their academic profile.

Oftentimes you may see students who may fail out of school for a semester or for a couple of years based on academic performance, and it doesn't necessarily mean that as an institution we should give up on those students, that we should continue to communicate with them, continue to encourage them to come back and to provide a safe and supportive environment for them to come back and be successful.

 And so I am a proponent of; we don't have football at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

We've had it at other institutions where I worked.

Things such as alcohol-free tailgates or tailgating and alcohol-free activities to really promote that you can come to a college campus and you can be successful without participating in some of the activities that may be responsible for why you had to leave the institution.

Lucey: You know, that is I think a perfect segue to my next question because I understand that you have a passion for collegiate recovery programs.

Can you tell us a little bit about that, how it's affected your work?
Davis: I've had, I actually have two stories and hope I don't get emotional kind of talking about them.

But I was teaching a class.
Lucey: It's all good if you do.
Davis: I was teaching a class, a summer class and I had a student who just kind of came to me and said that they needed a summer job.

And I wanted to offer the student a job kind of working around the office, but the student had a reputation for drug use.

And you know, I didn't care.

You know, the student needed a job.

We needed someone to work in the office.

I wanted, I really wanted the student to work in the office because I wanted to see the student on a frequent basis.

In my community sometimes we use the phrase "lay eyes".

I wanted to lay eyes on the student on a daily basis just to check in to see that the student was okay.

And we did not hire the student to work in our office, and the student ended up OD-ing that summer.

And it's an interesting thing when you're teaching a class and the student sits in the same seat every day, and you look over to that seat and the student is not there and you know why they are not there.

And so that was really; I kind of take it personally.

I feel like if I hired the student, that I checked in with the student on a daily basis that maybe the student would not have gone home and done drugs and may have overdosed.

I'm not saying that that's the case, but just something makes me.

I just think about that all the time.

Another is there was another student who I taught, and this is who raised his hand and very polite student, had been out of school for maybe a semester, a couple years.

He was coming back to summer school trying to get things on track.

And he left the class and came back drenched in sweat.

Pupils were dilated.

I knew something was wrong.

I have a master's degree in counseling, and in my particular program I took a class called Substance Abuse.

And so you know the signs to kind of look for.

And I didn't embarrass the student.

You know, after class I said, hey, come walk me back to my office.

I said I noticed that you walked out of class.

You came back.

You were really sweating profusely and your pupils were dilated.

Is there something going on? How can I be of support to you? What can I do to help you kind of be successful? At the same time this particular institution was starting a collegiate recovery program, and they knew that this was a person who had suffered from substance abuse.

And this individual really could not join their program because they refused to get tested.

And we knew they refused to get tested because they were still using.

So we had an event every Tuesday.

This is how the collegiate recovery program started.

We would meet at a staff member's home and would bring these students over and really kind of their sponsors would show up.

So I was really this student's sponsor to try to encourage him to get tested and to join the collegiate recovery program.

So he refused and eventually his parents said that we know you're still using.

We're going to give you one more shot to get clean.

And so they dropped him off at a recovery center in north Georgia and told him that we're done.

We're done with you.

Figure it out and just kind of move on.

I went to visit this kid the next weekend.

And I'd say not a kid.

It's really an adult.

I went to visit him the next weekend and took him as well as some other.

Maybe not that time.

 Maybe the second time I went.

I went to take him and some other students that were in his cottage to lunch.

I remember because we went to Steak 'n Shake.

I wasn't making a lot of money, but I paid for everyone's burger and shake, whatever they ordered.

And this person said that you didn't give up on me when other people did.

And I don't know if my faith directed me towards this student to be involved and to try to give, have an understanding or if it was just my upbringing.

I did something because it was the right thing to do.

But I'm here to tell you that this young man graduated from the institution, is extremely successful.

He is married, met his wife in rehab but is the father of three kids and owns an insurance franchise.

I still stay in contact with the student.

He sends me an Amazon wish list for Christmas.

I buy to send it to his kids for Christmas.

But I have seen the impact of collegiate recovery programs and how it can help students who are suffering to not only graduate from college with a degree but to also be productive citizens in society.

So my passion for this started because of one student who was suffering from these issues, and I witness every day his success.

So it impacts my daily work in student affairs because it lets me know that I should not give up on students.

And I see a lot of stuff as the Vice-Chancellor, and a lot of things come through my email.

And a lot of parents and friends of students call my phone to advocate for parents.

And because honestly of collegiate recovery programs, it lets me know that I should not give up on students regardless of what they do, that they have a chance to turn things around.

And that has not only impacted my work with college students but also my work as a supervisor.

That we're all going to make mistakes.

We're all going to do things wrong.

But there is this word that people sometimes like to throw out, but I actually try to live it and believe it.

We need to give people some grace sometimes.

And so I believe in the power of grace, in giving people grace with an understanding that hopefully we will not repeat the same mistakes which we have done in the past.
Lucey: Wow, so you talked about you might get emotional during this.

You got me thinking in your two stories because I've been in this field of prevention for 30-plus years, and I have.

Whenever I do presentations and talks and such, I say to folks, look, in this field we are faced sometimes with some incredible lows and some amazing highs.

And your two stories I think just epitomized that spectrum obviously.

I talk to folks about prevention, which I have often heard referred to as fluff and touchy-feely.

And yet the issues that we deal with, you specifically directly working on a college campus, of students dropping out, failing tests, fights, the vandalism, broken relationships, the ultimate consequence of a student death.

That should, the work we do should never be referred to as fluff or touchy-feely because it's hard and it is complex.

And then you talked about the success story with the student, your second story.

I love that analogy you talked about laying eyes.

And what I liked about that is it wasn't intrusive either.

It really is just you can do that from a distance.

You can do that proactively but not, you know, like I say intrusively.

It's just kind of checking in if you will.

And it reminds me of the past couple of years talking to colleagues around the country.

And I know you kind of joined the UNCW community kind of halfway into the pandemic.

It was last May.

So many times I talked to folks and it was students who were in recovery who really seemed to need the laying of eyes if you will because so many support networks disappeared when they were no longer on campus.

The support networks went away.

They went back home perhaps into the drug using environment or culture.

I mean I have to presume that that's something that you've experienced throughout your career with the students that you've interacted with.
Davis: Most definitely.

I am.

As the students who are going through recovery, I can say this.

My Dean of Students knows that when he brings a student to me who's really done something, I think he will tell you that if there are certain things that a person may have done that he already knows that I'm going to say let's give him a second chance.

Let's give him or her a second chance.

I am equally as passionate about students who've aged out of the foster care system.

And at UNCW we're going to hire a coordinator to really work specifically with this population.

And you have to understand that some of these students were removed from homes because of drug and substance abuse or sexual assault or other things.

 And they find themselves on college campuses trying to be successful, trying to get a college degree knowing that they can't go back to the environment in which they were in or they should not go back into the environment in which they were in.

And it's important that you think about breaks.

These students have nowhere to go.

I remember as an undergraduate student my parents were fortunate enough to where they would purchase a plane ticket.

I would hop on a plane in Norfolk, Virginia, and I would fly to Dallas, Texas, and I was at home for a month.

I had a place to go.

These students don't always have a place to go.

Foster kids are students who are suffering with substance abuse.

They don't need to go back and be in environments that are really not safe for them.

And so it's going back to the laying eyes.

It's important that we communicate with these students during those breaks and during the gaps in the year so that we can work to ensure that they do not fall prey to some of the issues that really brought us as administrators and as staff members in contact with them.

Lucey: Absolutely.

The other thing you mentioned is the what ifs.

And we're plagued by that in our field, and I'm sure that's one of those things that keep you up at night.

And I think that from my perspective we learn from our experience and what we've done, and we move on.

We move forward.

Do you go kind of through a similar process? I mean do you allow yourself? You talked about allowing grace.

Do you allow yourself the moment of what if but need to find a way to move kind of past that?
Davis: I'd say it's hard because I am guided by my upbringing and the morals and ethics which my parents instilled in me as a young child.

And so as I think about moving past some of these things, I am always burdened with trying to ensure that the person's going to be okay.

As a graduate student, I mentioned I have my master's degree in counseling.

And I was doing my internship and there was a young man who suffered from alcohol addiction and did not, wasn't able to, was using his alcohol addiction to mask his sexual orientation and did not feel like he could tell his parents about his sexual orientation.

And this person committed suicide.

Well, they attempted suicide, I'm sorry, but they lived.

I went to the hospital to check on this kid.

I never disclosed what he shared with me, but I met his mother and his father.

And I know some of the things that the person may have shared about his parents and why he didn't feel comfortable in telling them about his sexual orientation.

I just I think because of how I am wired, I always want to ensure that on the end that the person can get out of that situation, that they're going to be successful.

And this has been probably over 20 years, maybe a little less.

Well, I'd say maybe 15 years ago.

I still Google this person's name just to see where they are, on Linked In or whatever to make sure that they are still, that they are still okay.

So it is hard for me.

And I know most people would say, oh, my gosh, Lowell, you're probably dealing with so many things on your shoulders.

But it is hard for me to move past certain things just because I think of how I'm wired, and I want to ensure that the individuals who I know are struggling that we can bring them out of that particular situation.
Lucey: Mm-hmm.

That's another great example of again laying eyes even if the person doesn't even know it.

But for you it helps you to do that check-in.

 And that's also another wonderful example.

So as we draw to a close on the interview, I'll move onto the fifth question which is sort of the standard question I ask of all of the guests.

What advice do you have for professionals on campus who might be struggling with getting support from the school's upper administration for prevention efforts on campus? What do you want to say to those folks?
Davis: I think you have to find an ally.

And wherever that person is you have to seek the person out and allow them to really advocate with you and along with you is really key and important.

I understand that substance abuse and drug addiction, that it's a disease and that no one chooses to be an addict.

No one wakes up every day and says I want to be an addict.

And so I use this really as a kind of frame of reference and I am attempting to in my time here to ensure that we allocate resources to students who are struggling with these issues and that the money follows really the issues that students who we are dealing with on a frequent basis.

And so find the ally.

Ask them if they have any funding that they can share with you to help the cause.

And as you begin to advocate on your behalf, I think you will honestly find that there are more people out there who are in support of what you're trying to do than possibly not in support.

And there is strength in numbers.

And use all those individuals to help you to get support from upper administration to really work on prevention efforts.
Lucey: That's terrific advice, and allies are out there.

I know in the prevention field oftentimes people feel they're kind of alone in this issue on their campus regardless of the size of the campus.

And it's just wonderful advice to find that ally which may take you some time.

Sometimes they're in places you don't even know.

But it's just terrific to hear you say that because it's so important.

Davis: Most definitely allies.

And I went to my boss, if you have maybe another 30 seconds, when I was at the University of Alabama.

And he was probably, Dr. Nelson saying like, who is this young person who is brave enough to meet with the Vice-President? And I scheduled a meeting and he accepted it.

And I said here are some things that I want to do on this campus to support students.

And he allowed me an opportunity to do it.

And I think once you find the ally, get out of their way and let the person do the work to show you that the proof is there.

And that's how things are done.

Lucey: Absolutely.

And that's just another great example.

A mentor of mine used to say sometimes don't wait to be invited to the table.

Invite yourself.

Sometimes you need to do that.

You need to be your own advocate sometimes.

And I think that that's a perfect example of that.

Dr. Davis, this has been a pleasure to have you on this podcast.

I want to thank you for sharing your perspective but also your heart.

I mean I can hear it in your stories and in your perspective.

It's been a pleasure to have you on the podcast.
Davis: Thanks so much, Rich.

And this is really and truly important work.

And so if there's anything that I can do to help you or if I can invite other vice-chancellors or vice-president colleagues to participate around narrative topics, just please feel free to let me know.
Lucey: Oh, well, you've opened the door so I definitely will kind of walk in.

We appreciate that because we'd love to hear from your peers around the country and their varying perspectives on this issue.

So thank you again, Dr. Davis.

 And to our listeners, I want to thank you for joining me and listening to this episode.

And with that I'm going to wish all of you to have a great day.

Thank you.
Davis: Thank you so much.