It’s mid-July, and Ricardo Hall, Lehigh’s new vice provost for Student Affairs, is busy setting up his office on the third floor of Williams Hall. Surrounded by boxes of still-unpacked Pez dispensers, various framed documents and even a few comic books he’s collected over the years, Hall is experiencing a bit of a culture shock.
“I was coming from a meeting in Wilbur and I stopped and snapped a picture that I sent to a former colleague,” he said. “I said, ‘Look, no swimming pool next to my office.’ At (the University of) Miami, we could watch the swimming and diving teams practice in the pool adjacent to the Student Center.”
Hall’s view now includes treetops, an expanse of lawn and centuries-old stone buildings. And he is quickly acclimating to a campus culture that could be seen as markedly different from his former university, where he served a student body of 15,000 students, supervised crisis responders and was the Student Affairs division’s second ranking officer.
Some of the differences are obvious – Hall points to a balmy climate that allowed for outdoor student activities throughout the year. Miami’s student body was more diverse than Lehigh’s and the university was part of a lively social scene that included South Beach and other attractions.
“The overall pace of the metropolitan area is slower here. And definitely less congested,” he said. “And the people do seem friendly. When we were at the store, a cashier actually made eye contact.”
Other differences will most certainly make themselves clear in the coming weeks and months, as Hall takes over the helm of one of Lehigh’s largest divisions. It includes the Dean of Students Office, the Health and Wellness Center, University Counseling and Psychological Services, Health Advancement and Prevention Strategies and ROTC.
He is bringing more than 20 years of experience in the field through roles at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Clemson University in South Carolina and Miami, where he served since 2006. Last February, he was named the successor to Lehigh’s former vice provost John Smeaton, who retired from the role in 2016 after 32 years at Lehigh. Selected after a nationwide search, he says he is eager to embrace a new culture while bringing a fresh perspective and approach.
“Every campus is unique and I’ll be careful not to try to fit one of my previous institutions’ square pegs into Lehigh’s round hole,” he said. “We are an exceptional university that is poised and well suited to meet, and even surpass, the forward thinking vision that has been outlined by President Simon and Provost Farrell – and Student Affairs will be both partners and leaders as Lehigh’s exciting future takes shape.”
In his previous roles, Hall was consistently praised for his accessibility to students, which he characterizes as “an organic process. I’m not quite sure how it happens. Either they find me or I find them.”
He hopes to accomplish that same level of visibility by simply being on campus, interacting with students wherever they are, or reconstituting a racquetball challenge he started at Miami: Beat him at racquetball and Hall will buy lunch. At other institutions, Hall has bonded with students over his fascination with Pez dispensers, his Greek affiliation, a lifelong love of comic books and tales of super-heroes, and a penchant for bowties, which grew out of watching reruns of "Matlock."
“I remember thinking Andy Griffith was like this Southern gentleman in his seersucker suit with the occasional bowtie, and I started wearing them,” he said before adding, “You can get away with some crazy patterns in a bowtie.”
He also will be making a point to meet with student leaders, “and not just with student leaders, but with as many students as I can,” he said. “My thought has always been that students who don’t gravitate toward those roles have a lot to offer and I want to hear them.”
Hall is joining Lehigh at a time when the university is formulating bold plans for growth of the student body and faculty, expansion of its international footprint and a reimagining of the physical campus that will most likely include new or upgraded residential facilities and academic buildings.
“It’s an exciting time,” he said. “It’s exciting to have a president and a provost who want to think big and move Lehigh forward on so many different fronts. The expansion of the student body may or may not mean more staff, but under any circumstance, we’ll be challenged to become smarter and better at what we do. And we’ll be challenged in the way we expand our demographic and in the culture we create – a culture that allows everyone to feel that they are at home when they’re here.”
Hall officially assumed his new role in late June, after moving his family to Bethlehem Township and enrolling two of his four children – seven-year-old Maxwell and 11-year-old Mallory -- in local schools. His oldest daughter, Madison, is a junior at Ohio University, and his 18-year-old daughter, Morgan, just started as a freshman at Penn State. His wife, Andrea, also began her career in higher education before a becoming an elementary school teacher when the family lived in North Carolina.
In the few short weeks he’s been at Lehigh, Hall has taken part in a senior leadership retreat, attended a two-week leadership institute at Harvard University, participated in planning meetings with the university Crisis Management Team, met with his staffers to plan for the upcoming academic year, and welcomed the Class of 2017. He also became acquainted with some of Lehigh’s traditions, such as the convocation for first-years, the rally on the UC lawn and Move-In. He chronicled his Move-In experience on Instagram (he posts under @drrdhall and also shared his first ride on the Lehigh campus on a custom longboard).
Later that same day, he also addressed the families of the Class of 2021, congratulating them on their student’s success and reassuring the anxious parents.
“When you leave town, just know that your sons and daughters will be well cared for, in and outside the classroom,” Hall said, acknowledging the parents’ efforts to raise bright, successful young men and women. “We’re going to do our level best to build on that over these next four years.”
His confidence in that assurance is no doubt bolstered by his faith in his staff, which he characterized as a “tremendously dedicated team of student affairs professionals, who have been a solid resource for me throughout this transition,” and his colleagues on President Simon’s senior leadership team. What he’s already observed – and deeply admires – is a “real willingness to communicate” within the Lehigh community.
“There are some uncomfortable conversations folks can have,” he said, “but I’ve never been a person who runs from these conversations. It’s what you should do on a college campus. We will face difficult situations, no doubt. But I consider myself an optimistic realist, and I have a lot of faith that we can do great things here.”
(Follow Ricardo Hall on Twitter at @LehighVPSA and on Instagram at @drrdhall.)