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   from the issue of June 8, 2006

  Griesen retires after 20-year run as VC for student affairs

Time to try something new


James Griesen is a man people don't mind waiting for.

Position Change - James Griesen will retire as Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs on June 30. Griesen has served in the...
 Position Change - James Griesen will retire as Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs on June 30. Griesen has served in the post since 1986. He will continue to teach at UNL.

In 20 years as vice chancellor for student affairs, Griesen (who retires June 30) has earned a reputation for being tardy. And, his lateness is nearly without fail.

But it is not because Griesen doesn't care. To the contrary, it is because he does.

"He takes a lot of razzing about his timeliness on campus," said Barb Wright-Chollet, an assistant vice chancellor for student affairs who has worked with Griesen for 10 years. "But if you see him, you understand that he's taking that time for someone else even if he's supposed to be with you."

Griesen is especially open to student needs, taking time to make sure what they need happens.

"When he is talking with you, he is there, in that moment, not thinking about where else he has to be or where he is supposed to be," Wright-Chollet said. "He's not doing it because it's his job. He's doing it because he wants to be doing it."

And so, come July 1, it will be odd for administrators and students to not be waiting for Griesen's arrival. But Griesen said the time has come to try something new.

Student Involvement

Grisen and his wife moved to Nebraska so he could take a job at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He later came to UNL as the associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, and in 1986, he took the interim position of vice chancellor of student affairs. It couldn't have been a more perfect fit.

"I sensed that it was right," Griesen said. "The administration did, too."

The concerns, the wants and the needs of the students became his passion.

He recalls being shocked that incoming Nebraska students had virtually no guidance on what went along with applying for classes at UNL, let alone what life as a student would really be like.

"We did a survey of students and asked them how they liked the system," Griesen said. "Turns out they all hated it."

The result is a laundry list of UNL student mainstays: the student bulletin, the university honors program and the yearly new student enrollment event.

Griesen remembers his first visit to the university Culture Center. It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday; Griesen was invited to hear a talk happening that night, so he went. (As vice chancellor, he said he quickly learned the value in attending as many evening student meetings as he could.) He was the only white person in a room filled with a black administrator, black students and a black minister.

"It was a very moving talk," Griesen said. "I remember the minister delivered a message of peace and cooperation, and I remember the students in the room saying that to them, at that time, peace and cooperation didn't change anything. It had a profound impact on me."

Griesen worked to develop what is now called the Student Affairs Advisory Council, a group that brings together all the diverse campus organizations - Afrikan People's Union, Mexican American Student Association, University of Nebraska Inter-Tribal Exchange, non-traditional student groups, the Association of Students at the University of Nebraska, the University Program Council and the Daily Nebraskan, to name a few - for a yearly diversity retreat in which students talk about the issues in an open, involved forum.

"The only way to know the issues, problems and ideas is to spend time with the students talking about them," Griesen said.

Leader to Students

Students, to be sure, treasure Griesen's devotion.

"Of the administrators, he's the most familiar face," said Quentin Lueninghoener, 2005-06 Daily Nebraskan editor.

Griesen has been liaison to the Association of Students at the University of Nebraska since 1986, and he says he can remember every ASUN president he's known. Omaid Zabih, president in the 2005-06 school year, believes it. Zabih and Griesen met twice a week during Zabih's term - at first the meetings were short and Zabih said he was uneasy around Griesen. That soon changed.

"I had to start setting aside hour-and-a-half blocks for our meetings," Zabih said. "I could feel comfortable with him to talk about my life. His secretary would always come in and tell him he was late for his next meeting."

Zabih and Griesen worked closely on making UNL's new Culture Center a reality. The student body overwhelmingly supported the final proposal: the new, 30,000-square-foot center will be part of an expansion to the Nebraska Union. A student fee increase will pay for half of the $8.7 million project; UNL administrators and student leaders will find private and corporate donors to cover the rest.

Future Impact

Griesen remembers when he first came to Nebraska in 1977, he had to look over the university benefits package. The retirement age - a mandatory 65 - seemed a lifetime away. It came quicker than he expected.

"Suddenly, it was 2006," Griesen said. "I started to think about how I was going to keep working these 75-hour weeks. I had to think about how I was going to continually challenge myself, be creative and work hard. I am going to stay as close as I can to student leadership meetings without interfering. But I don't have the stamina anymore."

That commitment falls to Juan Franco, vice president for student services at Utah State, who has been hired to take over the student affairs position.

However, Griesen will return to UNL in the fall in a new office in the College of Education and Human Sciences, where he will be an educational administration professor, teaching a new course. The class suits his experience: it is a management course for higher education administrators. Griesen is excited about the opportunity, though he said he does hope his new office has a window.

"I have been here long enough to say that I truly believe Nebraska has the greatest students in the world," Griesen said. "They pay me to do this - to look after students and make sure they prosper - but 99 percent of the time, the students come to the right conclusion on their own."



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