• Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech

New VP for Student Affairs Named

Joseph Shepherd (PhD '81), the C. L. "Kelly" Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and professor of mechanical engineering, is leaving his post as dean of graduate studies to succeed Anneila Sargent (MS '67, PhD '78), the Ira S. Bowen Professor of Astronomy, as vice president for student affairs. Shepherd's new role is effective September 15.

Sargent, who served the campus as the leader of student affairs the last eight years, announced in March that she was leaving the post to return to research and teaching full time. Shepherd, who joined the Caltech faculty in 1993, has served the last six years as the dean of graduate studies.

We recently sat down with Shepherd to talk about his past role and his new one, his strengths and goals, and his experience at Caltech.


Q: What does the vice president for student affairs do?

A: Student Affairs includes the offices of the undergraduate and graduate deans as well as obvious things like the registrar, undergraduate admissions, fellowships and study abroad, the career center, the health center, and the counseling center. It also includes things you might not think of—athletics; performing and visual arts, which includes the music programs, the theater program, the various arts programs, and all of the faculty and instructors that make these programs possible; and a whole group of organizations lumped under "auxiliaries."

The term "auxiliaries" is misleading, because they're central to student life. Housing and dining are the biggest parts, but there are services like the C-Store, the Red Door Café, the Caltech Store and Wired.


Q: What makes this role exciting for you?

A:  People speculate about what it is that makes Caltech a great school. A lot of folks say, "Well, it's because it's so small." But I think it's also because we work with people instead of creating some bureaucratic mechanism to solve problems. We say, "All right, what's the issue here? How can we resolve this?" instead of, "We need to create a rule. And then we need to create a group to enforce the rule." My approach is to ask, "What do we want the outcome to be?" In Student Affairs, you want the outcome to be something that supports the students, supports the faculty, and then you make sure that it's not going to adversely affect the Institute.


Q: Are there any changes coming, any initiatives you want to establish?

A: We need to think about how we build on the strengths we have and improve the things that we're weakest at. Before you make any changes to an organization, you need to understand those two things. There are a lot of parts to Student Affairs, so I need to understand the strong points of those organizations, and then get them to help me formulate what's important to do.

You always have to be careful of unintended consequences. As they say in chess, you want to think several moves deep. All right, suppose we do that. What will it mean for different parts of our population? Do we make this choice based on the data we have, or do we need more data? Will there be effects on people we haven't thought about? Maybe we need to go talk to those people.

When you have the authority to change things, you also have the responsibility to ask, "Are these the right changes?" Nothing happens in isolation. Anything you do is invariably going to wind up touching quite a few people.


Q: You've been dean of graduate studies since 2009. Did you consider taking a breather before jumping into this?

A: Well, much to my surprise, I found that being the dean of graduate studies was rewarding in many different ways. Sometimes you had to do some difficult things, but I actually liked being the dean. I was able, to some extent, to continue my research. I did some teaching—although last year I taught a major course all three terms, and I had my research group—and I was the dean of graduate studies. That taught me a lesson: a man's got to know his limitations.

So when I was asked if I would take this position, I did think about taking a break and not doing it. I enjoy my research and I enjoy teaching. I enjoy working with students, but I also enjoy trying to help the Institute as a whole. Here at Caltech, we pride ourselves on the notion that we have this very special environment. We have this small school, and we have dedicated professionals that work together with faculty to nurture that environment—having faculty who are invested in participating in the key administrative roles is essential.

When I was a graduate student here, my adviser was Brad Sturtevant [MS '56, PhD '60, and a lifelong faculty member thereafter]. Brad was the executive officer for aeronautics [1972-76]. He was in charge of the committee that built the Sherman Fairchild Library and he was on the faculty board. He emphasized to me that being involved in administration was just as valuable as all the other aspects of being a faculty member. He was a dedicated researcher, but he also felt strongly that you should be a good citizen. You should contribute.


Q: It seems like this is more than just a duty to you, though.

A: I'm looking forward to it. I'm also very conscious of the responsibility. I think it's going to be important for us all to think about how we maintain the excellence of the Institute and that we imagine how this place is going to evolve. As society evolves around us, we will naturally wind up changing. We need to do that in a thoughtful way so that we continue to be the special organization that we are.

At the end of the day, I'm counting on help from the faculty and staff. Caltech works because of the committed individuals within our organizations, the personal connections we form as we work together and the cooperation across the campus that these connections enable.  It's a collective enterprise.

I think administration is not something that's done to people. It's being responsible for making sure that folks have the right work environment, the right job assignments, and the right resources. It's making sure we're doing the right things with the finite resources we have. One of our former presidents said something that's always stuck with me: an administrator's goals are not about their own career so much as helping the careers of others. You need to think about how you're helping the people working for you, because they have goals and aspirations. That's where you take your satisfaction.

Written by Douglas Smith