Joseph Greenwell took the position of UC Berkeley’s associate vice chancellor and dean of students this spring. In his administrator role, Greenwell formally oversees many student-related groups and activities as well as emergency and crisis situations affecting students.
But unlike many administrators on campus, Greenwell hails from divergent roots — he grew up on a small farm in rural Kentucky and found a great affinity for the piano. Nevertheless, he said, school presented its own challenges. Greenwell described himself as “awkward” growing up and said coming out as a gay man was difficult in Kentucky.
On the cusp of graduating from Vanderbilt University, where he majored in music and psychology, Greenwell had plans to attend graduate school in the field of music therapy. During his final year of university, Greenwell caravanned from Tennessee to Florida on spring break with his friends.
But one night, he sat by the ocean, and his perspective pivoted. He said he realized how rash his impending plans felt. Greenwell deferred his acceptance to graduate school and began working at a small coffee kiosk.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “I take pride in everything I do. I made the best freakin’ cappuccino that you’ve ever had.”
It was an unusual stride from an individual who later would dedicate his life to working in academic affairs and student life. But taking the break afforded Greenwell time to reevaluate his future. During that gap year, one of his mentors from Vanderbilt asked whether he had ever considered serious involvement in college administration and student affairs, because Greenwell had been involved in undergraduate student affairs at school, having been an orientation leader.
He began to consider the option seriously, took the jump and later enrolled at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education. Nineteen years and three universities later, Greenwell is now the campus’s new dean of students and oversees more than 36,000 students.
Greenwell began May 1 after Jonathan Poullard resigned from the post in September 2013.
“He’s been a very different type of administrator and invested in what the students want and need, and he puts so much effort into being everywhere,” said ASUC President Pavan Upadhyayula. “It’s a refreshing feel. As dean of students, he’s making an effort to be a lot more visible.”
Greenwell has self-identified as an approachable figurehead, sporting a quirky bowtie wherever he goes. That bowtie is a fixture of Greenwell’s, appearing in the countless casual selfies that he posts on his Twitter account and in his formal portrait alike. The bowtie, coupled with his social media savvy, he hopes, will help to fulfill his intention of fostering a welcoming environment within his administrative office.
“I’m really trying to engage with students throughout Berkeley,” Greenwell said in an interview. “Interacting with students both at professional and structured settings is important, but so is the unstructured relaxed settings … when I have much more of a connection.”
Prior to his position at UC Berkeley, Greenwell worked as dean of students at San Francisco State University and held administrative positions related to student affairs at Stanford University and Colgate University.
Mary Ann Begley, who served as associate dean of students and director of residential life at SFSU during Greenwell’s term and is now interim dean of students, lauded Greenwell’s ability to connect with students on campus. She recalls that one year, the SFSU sorority Alpha Gamma Delta held a lip-syncing competition, of which Greenwell was a judge. It wasn’t expected that he would sing, she said, but he got up and lip-synced “Let it Go” from the Disney movie “Frozen.”
“He’s kind of a ham,” Begley said. “He loves getting out there and interacting with students.”
Greenwell’s predecessor, former dean Poullard, drew the ire of some students after his response to the Occupy Cal protests in 2011, when he concurred with former chancellor Robert Birgeneau that linking arms to prevent police from entering an encampment was not “nonviolent civil disobedience.” Some student leaders at the time criticized Poullard for what they deemed tense relations with student protesters, while others said he was a strong advocate for the students.
Though Greenwell’s administrative trajectory is similar to that of Poullard in the way that he concurrently dealt with the Occupy movement as dean of students at SFSU, he maintained the importance of freedom of expression and said that “freedom of speech is part of our campus history, and it will be part of our future.”
At UC Berkeley, Greenwell maintains that he will not take a stance on any contentious issue but rather hopes to support all the students during a discussion “so that we can have dialogues and challenge each other.”
Looking forward, Greenwell plans to continue his involvement with various student groups. He works with Upadhyayula on a strategic planning initiative that revolves around strengthening the campus community on both staff and student fronts. Greenwell is also part of a work group for the President’s Task Force on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence and Sexual Assault at the University of California.
“One of the reasons I came here is because I enjoy the activist spirit and that students are trying to make change and push the limits,” he said. “Not to say that I agree with everything that activists do, but I think when you’re challenged, you stretch your mind. And that’s what we’re all sort of here for.”