University Senate Secretary Kevin Hahn On The PEPRE Process, Why Coming To Fredonia Was A “Culture Shock,” And Helping Students Feel They Belong

Assistant Director of Residence Life, Kevin Hahn

Kevin Hahn has one of the wisest, most interesting voices I know of when it comes to current events on Fredonia’s campus.

Since 2015 Hahn has been Fredonia’s Assistant Director of Residence Life, before which he spent fourteen years at Geneseo as both student and staff member. He also serves as Secretary of the University Senate and is a member of “The PEPRE Team,” charged with ensuring Fredonia’s Cabinet follows the PEPRE document as it’s written:

Ryan Maloney: The way you speak can only come from someone who’s constantly thinking about current events on campus. Where does that interest come from?

Kevin Hahn: You know, it was a big culture shock when I got here in 2015. I had spent a long time at Geneseo. I had been there for four years as a student, another two as a residence hall director, another three as an area coordinator, and another five as an assistant and associate director, so I had been there for a long time. I thought, “Okay, another state school in the same geographic region, the same size, the same campus feel, and even the same school colors.” I was like, “Oh, it’ll be an easy transition,” and it really wasn’t. Fredonia operates differently, so when I got settled into my job I felt like I needed to figure out how this campus operates. There’s no manual you can read; you either have the institutional background or you don’t, and if you don’t know what questions to ask you don’t ask any. I felt like it was high time for me to do something about that to better serve the Residence Life staff and the students who live in the residence halls. In fall 2017 I was elected to be the secretary of our University Senate, and I figured that would give good insight into the campus. I didn’t know the first thing about how Academic Affairs worked here; I didn’t know much about other divisions, and I figured that was a really good way to serve the college and increase my knowledge base. 

Maloney: Why was it a culture shock to come from Geneseo to Fredonia? I would think it’s the same thing.

Hahn: Some of it related to my work. At Geneseo I was given a lot of autonomy: I supervised professional staff members and I supervised residence hall directors. Here, even though I have the same position I don’t directly supervise anyone. I think I came in with some assumptions about what best practices are, and then I got here and realized that either they weren’t best practices or that Fredonia didn’t ascribe to that way of doing things. I don’t mind change, but I wasn’t expecting it to be as different here, both in my job and in the way the campus operates. Geneseo has its own division of enrollment services; here it’s combined with student services. I’m like, “Wow, that’s different.” I think those are two completely different functions. One is focused on getting more students here, and one is focused on retention. That’s two different skill sets. 

Maloney: What’s the negative to having those two together?

Hahn: I don’t think it’s a negative, I just think it’s different. It was different in that it was new, but also, especially before Dr. Howard came, there wasn’t much chance for departments to interact within the division. How often was Athletics with Admissions? How often was Residence Life with Athletics, or with Admissions? So when I realized that was the case I thought there was going to be a lot of collaboration here, and then there wasn’t. I think that’s something that we’re gradually working towards–getting us all together is a good first step–but it’s an issue if you have people in different departments and different offices on campus that don’t know what other people are doing. And there’s a good excuse for us all to get together, namely that we’re all in the same division, and that didn’t happen. That was really confusing to me.

Maloney: So at Geneseo that did happen?

Hahn: It did happen, it did.

Maloney: How do you articulate the benefits of that collaboration?

Hahn: I think it’s efficiency, in terms of you don’t duplicate efforts, and I think it’s relationships. Our work is all about relationships, and if you don’t know the other people that are in this work with you, that’s a really big issue. There may be things that Residence Life could do to help out Athletics, and the other way around. If you don’t know who those people are and if you’re not getting together every so often to see what those opportunities are, I think you’re missing out. We’re all here for the same purpose: We’re all here to serve the students, and we may have different levels of expertise in different areas, but we’re all here for the students. So that was a shock that that [collaboration] wasn’t happening here.

Maloney: How exactly was it happening at Geneseo?

Hahn: We had divisional meetings every month, and from there there were opportunities to build relationships. Our division was also smaller because we didn’t have enrollment as part of the division. It was basically student services. “Student and Campus Life” is what it was called.

Maloney: So are people coordinating projects together?

Hahn: Sometimes. We would work on assessment projects together. We would be split into different task forces–similar to what Dr. Howard had us do when he first got here in terms of the restructuring–but there was more of that and it was more consistent. It wasn’t about restructuring the division, it was about different projects that needed to be done within the division. There were often calls for volunteers to be on committees, and people would jump at the chance because it’s a unique experience to be able to collaborate with other departments. Here, those relationships still happen, but it’s more hit-or-miss, and it’s more on the people themselves to make those relationships happen. There’s not as much facilitation around them. That’s no fault of anyone’s; it’s just a different culture here. And so when I say “culture shock,” that’s an example of what I mean. And I don’t think that it’s better or worse here; it’s just different.

Maloney: You were on the Senate pretty quickly. What were the things you intentionally did to make those connections?

Hahn: I just paid attention to e-mails. There was an e-mail that came out that said there’s a seat available in this committee for somebody that works in Student Affairs. That led to me being elected and then volunteering to be the secretary for that group. I had a good relationship with the Chair, and that translated to that opportunity with Senate. It all happened pretty quickly. 

Maloney: Because you haven’t been here that long.

Hahn: It’s been under four years. I’m a senior here (laughs).

Maloney: The first time I met you was interesting: You were bringing a group of Residence Life folks over to a basketball game. It was over winter break, and you were surprised to find that the Residence Life staff didn’t seem to care about what was going on at the game. It’s kind of like what we’re talking about, different departments working together. For example, how could Residence Life and Athletics work together?

Hahn: Well, I think by trying to do more things like that. Our student-athletes work really hard, and my sense is that unless it’s a hockey game there’s not a whole lot of spectators that are supporting those events. So when we were looking for something to do with RA’s during January training that year, the basketball teams were playing very well. I don’t think the women’s team had lost, and so I was like, “Wow, our women’s team is ballin’ out. Why don’t we have our own tailgate party, make some signs for the players, especially the ones who live in the residence halls, and show how much we support them?” I think it just takes someone with the willingness to do it, even knowing there might be some RA’s for who athletics is not their thing, working through that feedback and saying, “Okay, this might not be their thing, but we are doing something really cool for the athletic teams, because it’s also winter break and there’s not a lot of other students that are here.” I think it’s just somebody coming up with an idea and proposing it. Chris Case, the women’s soccer coach, did just that last year when he worked with us to incentivize students to go to the women’s soccer games. He was really generous in offering to buy breakfast for the residence hall that had the most people attending. I thought that was fantastic. I think it’s going to take a lot more than that to change a culture to say, “Let’s really rally behind our athletic teams,” but I think it can only start with those grassroots types of initiatives. And I think we have people who are willing to do that, and the more that happens the more that becomes the culture. People have to be free to do that, and that means people feeling like their position is secure and that they don’t have so much other work to do that they can’t do that. In these times that’s tough because financially the school isn’t in a good position. In some departments that means people are having to do more with less, and so sometimes you do have to buckle down and get your own work done and you can’t think about collaborating. I understand that perspective, but I don’t think that should be our default. I don’t think we do that intentionally, but for a while it’s been, “Well, we’re just going to operate in our own department and that’s how it’s going to work because that’s what we’re used to and that’s what’s easiest to do.”

Maloney: I always feel like we operate in a silo in Athletics, and I’ve always thought we’re unique in that sense.

Hahn: I really don’t think you are.

Maloney: I’m not supposed to compare Geneseo and Fredonia, but you’re in a unique position to do that, so why did Fredonia develop this in such a way? Is it because at some point we tried to be bigger and do more than we were capable of doing?

Hahn: No, my sense is that it’s the people. We, as the people that are here–students, staff, faculty, administrators–it’s those people that set the culture. I think sometimes people have certain ways of doing things and that’s what the culture becomes. Fredonia is great for Fredonia graduates; there are a lot of opportunities; we like hiring Fredonia grads here, and I think that’s really great. One of the drawbacks to that is that we have people that may not necessarily have the outside experience to bring to bear on the work that they’re doing. It’s hard to know how something can operate differently if you haven’t seen it operate differently. 

Maloney: Talk to me about the PEPRE Process. You sit in on all the PEPRE meetings. What is your official title for that?

Hahn: We call ourselves “The PEPRE Team,” and it’s comprised of the current Senate Executive Board, minus the current Chair, plus the two past Chairs. Michael, the current Chair, isn’t on it so he can be free from having to wear both hats and still lead the Senate where we need to go. Our role is to make sure that Cabinet members–who are the ones ultimately responsible for executing the PEPRE Process–are following the process as it’s written. We’re sort of like the fact-checkers. We’re not offering opinions or endorsing any plan, but we’re there to make sure that, whatever decision is made by Cabinet, that four-page document is followed and that the decisions are being made in an appropriate way. The PEPRE idea was conceived before it was ever needed. This was when SUNY was going through some tough times and the Senate created this document, almost a “Break the glass in case of an emergency. We hope we never have to use this.” The idea of the process is that it’s a strategic, intentional way to identify programs and offices for possible reduction or elimination by Cabinet. That final decision will not come until the spring semester. PEPRE is a part of the puzzle, which is to right ourselves financially–to reduce spending, to increase revenue, and to get the budget to balance. PEPRE is part of that process. Sometimes it’s hard to extricate that from budget reductions and reorganizations and it’s confusing: “Well, does this fall under the PEPRE Process, or something else?” But ultimately, a lot of the campus tenor and discussion is about, “We’re spending too much and taking in too little, and now our reserves that we’ve carefully built up over the years are dwindling to the point that they’re no longer going to be an option to offset some of the costs we have.” Now Cabinet is in the position to make some of these really tough decisions in order to align our budget.

Maloney: Why is there so much distrust in the PEPRE Process, from maybe a vocal minority?

Hahn: My sense is that the message that our reserves are being spent down–and this does predate me–but what I’ve heard from other people is that that message has been communicated before, and so it’s almost like, “Well, you told us that this was happening back in 1997, you told us this back in 2008, and then nothing really happened.” So it’s this, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” That’s what I’ve heard, and maybe it is a vocal minority. I understand that perspective. If you’ve been here for a while and you know how things operate I can understand that skepticism. I don’t think that’s the case this time; I’m only basing that on the information I’ve gathered in my role with the PEPRE team.

Maloney: As we go through the PEPRE Process it makes me think about how we should prepare students for the future. Are those conversations being had? It’s unique, because there are considerations about finances and considerations about what’s best for the student.

Hahn: It’s a really good question. I think the answer is, “We’ll have to wait and see what happens.” I do think that care is being taken with any decisions that it doesn’t so detract from the mission and the ethos of who we are. Obviously losing any academic program or service is going to be a blow, but trying to get a sense of the programs that don’t have a lot of people in them, or things that might not be central to our mission.

Maloney: One night I was at your house and we were talking about, “What if we put Xbox’s in the Williams Center?”, and the point was brought up, “Students might steal them.” You said, “Or we could just trust students.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that: All the ways I might not be trusting students, whether it’s the use of a facility, or taking something and bringing it back, and it’s made me reevaluate how much trust I’m putting in them.

Hahn: I think trust goes a long way. When I was an RD the practice was that you sign out the pool cues and balls between 8-10pm when the RA was at the desk. I asked the question, “What happens when it’s not 8-10pm?” People just shrugged their shoulders and said, “Well, they’re not playing pool.” That seems ridiculous to me. Why can’t we leave this stuff out? I would rather trust somebody and then have things get damaged or go missing rather than not trust at all. If I want my residence hall to feel like a home, well, at home you don’t have to ask anyone for the pool balls and cues; they’re going to be right there and you can play whenever you want. I like the idea of trusting students, putting out board games and puzzles for people who want to do them and saying, “I trust that these aren’t going to walk away,” and maybe as another student, if you see them walking away, saying, “Hey, I don’t know as though that belongs to you. Why are you taking that?” If we can get to the point where students aren’t only standing up for each other, but standing up to each other and holding each other accountable, I think that’s what we want. That’s what being responsible means. That’s what being a good citizen means. Above all else I think that what we do in Student Services is to be the co-curricular educators. We are supposed to complement what students do inside the classroom, and if we can teach that responsibility and trust, whether it’s in the residence halls, the soccer field, or the fitness center, I think that we’re doing our job. I thought that it was something that made sense. Do we do that here? I don’t think so, personally. I don’t think that’s wrong or right, but I do think we’re in a more traditional mindset here, that if you leave something out it’s going to get taken. I can understand that mindset–we have had some theft in the residence halls–but I think that when it comes to things that belong to the residence halls, things that students pay for, they should be able to use those things. The money that students pay towards activities fees, hall dues, they should be able to see that money put to good use as long as they’re doing that in a respectful way. They’ve earned that. It’s on us to make sure that that is happening for the students.

Maloney: There’s a big issue of student belonging on campus right now. I don’t necessarily see it, partly because of my background and partly because of where I’m located on campus. So how do you think about the issue of student belonging, particularly with the things you’re already trying to help address it?

Hahn: We’re certainly trying; we’re definitely trying to help students feel like they have a home. In Residence Life we’re probably more likely to see those issues than in Athletics. In Residence Life we don’t worry about students that are athletes as much because my sense is that they tend to be really successful as a group. They have a niche; they have a team; they have a sport that they’re motivated to do. A lot of times they’re getting support from coaches, from other teammates, from people like yourself. Of course we’re concerned about all the students in the residence halls, but the ones that we worry about are those that don’t seem to find connection at all, where we say, “Geez, do they feel like they belong here?” We would like to think that everybody can feel like they belong, but it doesn’t work that way for a lot of students. So we do a lot of work in the residence halls to make sure that there are social events around food, around games, around things that are interactive and fun for people to meet naturally. Every semester Residence Life tries to sponsor new student meetups. Usually they’re free for students and they happen at the beginning of every semester. We did pick-up basketball, we did cricket in September, we do crafting, we did a walk in the the campus woodlot trail–they’re activities that are open to all students that are low-stress and low-key. You can come with a friend or you can come on your own. Everybody is invited so it’s not weird if you go on your own and you meet other people.

Maloney:  I keep thinking, “Shouldn’t these things just happen on their own? Do we really need somebody like you or me to organize these things?”

Hahn: They do–again, I give our students a lot of credit–but I also think that the people we’re particularly worried about could use extra encouragement, or an RA coming up to them and saying, “Hey did you see that these events that are going on? I know that you’re interested in Smash Brothers; maybe you’ll come with me to the Smash Brothers tournament.” Some people are going to do that naturally and some people are not. Some people say, “I’ve got plans with my friends.” Great, go with your friends, that’s already happening for you, but for some students that’s not happening. There are a lot of assumptions made by people that students go to college and they just make friends, but we forget that some students haven’t had to make a new friend since they were five-years-old. At least for me, my upbringing was that I went to school with the same people from age five to age eighteen, and the people that I was friends with at age five or six, a lot of them I was friends with until I was eighteen and beyond. So some students have never really had to make a new friend, and then they get to college and they’re like, “Where are my friends? Oh yeah, I don’t know how to make them. How do you make friends?”

Maloney: Sometimes I still don’t know (laughs).

Hahn: What I tell students is, “If you’re hungry and you want to go to the dining hall, all you have to do is walk down the hallway, knock on an open door and say, ‘Hey, do you want to grab dinner?’” But I think it’s like asking somebody on a date, you know, it can be stressful for some people. And so if you have somebody that’s coming in and saying, “This is happening at 6 p.m. Just show up at Starbucks and we’re just going to draw.” They’re like, “Okay, at least I don’t have to take the initiative; I’m just going to go and then I’ll be able to talk to people.” In Residence Life we’re all about trying to help people make connections and build a community–anything that we can do to make that happen. Some professors might be of the of the mindset that the main reason why students would not come back here would be for academic reasons; maybe they thought the classes were too easy or too hard or the academic program wasn’t quite right. I’ve always been a proponent that if a student doesn’t feel like they’re at home they’re not going to stay. That’s not in the classroom; that’s Student Services. Students aren’t necessarily worried about the classes when they first get here; most of them are worried about, “Am I going to find a friend?” That’s what they’re worried about, and the sooner we can get them on that path the sooner they can focus on the other aspects of college that are important.

Maloney: Are there any other thoughts you have that I haven’t asked about?

Hahn: When people are faced with a crisis, as Fredonia is in terms of its budget, I think the natural human tendency is to be divisive: “I’m going to fight for mine; I’m going to advocate for me regardless of what I think about you.” What we’ve seen unfold with the PEPRE Process is a lot of unfortunate divisiveness and departments advocating for themselves, but in doing so fighting back and saying, “Well, why don’t you cut from here? Nobody’s talking about this over here.” I see that and I cringe, because we really are all on the same team, and I would imagine it hurts to be identified as an office or department that could be slated for reduction or elimination, because then it feels like what you do isn’t valued and isn’t important. I certainly don’t think that’s the case, but I see how it can be interpreted that way. What we really need right now is unity, not divisiveness, and so it’s hard to watch this unfold in such a way that is further hampering campus morale. I wish that people would remember that we all want the same thing: We want our students to be successful.