Interim Student Affairs Leaders Focus on Student Health, Happiness, Success

August 31, 2023 By Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu

In the heat of the Central Virginia summer, University of Virginia President Jim Ryan delivered a proposal. The University’s dean of students and vice president for student affairs had departed and Ryan was considering a pair of candidates to step in temporarily.

The first was Dr. Christopher Holstege, a father of six and longtime medical faculty member who was once a guest on Ryan’s podcast because he holds four job titles at the University. One of them is executive director of Student Health and Wellness, and he is a longtime member of the Student Affairs leadership team.

The second was Cedric Bernard Rucker, who earned an advanced degree from UVA before moving to the University of Mary Washington. He had already delayed retirement – and a deployment with the Peace Corps – to return to Charlottesville to fill a gap in the Office of African-American Affairs.

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“President Ryan talked to me and Cedric, then we both met at the Colonnade Club on the porch,” Holstege said. “And we both looked each other and said, ‘I’ll do it if you’ll do it.’ It was that simple.”

A quick decision, but one based on lifetimes of serving students.

“This was not, for either of us, to advance our careers,” Holstege said. “We both have had very successful careers and have enjoyed our time. But we’re both exceedingly committed to the students.”

So Holstege added another title and Rucker again pushed off the Peace Corps. While the University searches nationally for an executive to oversee the Office of Student Affairs, the pair has assumed new duties to ensure that first-year and returning Hoos remain happy, healthy and successful.

Same Destination, Different Paths

Holstege has served UVA 24 years. He is the executive director of UVA Student Health and Wellness. He’s a faculty member with appointments in the Department of Emergency Medicine and the Department of Pediatrics. He’s the chief of UVA’s Division of Medical Toxicology and the director of the Blue Ridge Poison Center.

Chris Holstege

Holstege, a longtime UVA faculty member, has been a leader in Student Affairs more than a decade. He is also the executive director of Student Health and Wellness. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

He’s been awarded a slew of educational honors, including induction into the UVA Medical School’s Academy of Distinguished Educators. A former chair of the Faculty Senate, Holstege is a prolific author, contributing to or writing more than 200 publications and 10 books. He’s also one of the University’s most quoted leaders. A story featuring his expertise on snake bites, for example, was one of UVA Today’s top stories last year, while Holstege’s research on suicide attempts by children and teens during the pandemic was cited in national news stories.

Rucker received his undergraduate degree at Mary Washington and earned a master’s at UVA, where he served in several student-leadership roles. Charlottesville is where his higher-education career started, as an assistant dean of admission. He then returned to Mary Washington to serve 34 years as associate dean of student activities, and later as associate vice president for student affairs and dean of student life. His steady leadership of the student experience and decades of contributions to the university led to an exceedingly high honor: a building bearing his name, the Cedric Rucker University Center.

The combination of the two men – a longtime and established UVA faculty member, plus an accomplished educator who boomeranged back to Grounds – works well, Rucker said.

“I think we are very complementary, which is fantastic. It’s great to have someone to take full measure, full stock of the student experience you have had as a faculty member,” Rucker said to Holstege sitting across from him in a ground-floor room in the Rotunda, “as someone who does research here, and also in your capacity in the Student Health and Wellness system.”

Holstege bounced back the compliment.

“Cedric is humble,” Holstege said. “He’s got years of experience from Mary Washington, and the personal experience of being a student here. And certainly the experience with student governance, really highlighting that with the students, which brings a lot of credibility.”

Cedric Rucker

Rucker received his master’s degree at UVA and began his academic career on Grounds before working for more than three decades at the University of Mary Washington. He was asked to return to UVA a year ago to help guide students, and in doing so, postponed a retirement and a deployment with the Peace Corps. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

Another Day, Another Duty for Holstege

This summer, UVA leadership asked Holstege, along with Rucker, to assume the duties of Robyn Hadley, the former vice president of student affairs and dean of students, who departed in July.

Although many know Holstege for his medical expertise, he’s has been a leader in Student Affairs more than a decade. So at Ryan’s request, Holstege added to his pages-long résumé the title of interim vice president and chief student affairs officer.

“It’s broad. It includes all the students here at the University of Virginia,” he said. “I see a big part of the role is assuring that they can matriculate here without interruption.”

He’s faced interruptions before.

Holstege was a key University leader as the administration stared down the COVID-19 pandemic, first shuttering classes and sending students home, and then gradually and carefully returning to a full, in-person college experience. Although the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, as both the highest-ranking student affairs officer and a physician, he can’t help but consider what health risks students will face this year.

“I think the pandemic is behind us, at least in the form that we see it right now,” he said, adding that the University still works closely with the Virginia Department of Health to spot any hint of resurgence. But just as important, he said, will be monitoring students’ mental health.

“We do know mental health has been a concern for this generation,” Holstege said. “We know, and I have published on this, the younger generations, too, are having some of this problem. This is something that is not going to get better. It has continued to escalate. It’s not clear why, and it is going to be a team effort as to how we mitigate that aspect.”

Rucker Returns

Rucker returned to UVA last fall to serve as senior associate dean in the Office of African-American Affairs. His title now is interim senior associate vice president and dean of students. But for simplicity’s sake, just dean of students is fine, he said.

“I support the students’ journeys,” Rucker said. “I tell people all the time the lion’s share of the student experience has been outside the classroom. And the dean of students is the person who supports the marriage of the co-curricular and academic side of the journey.”

Cedric welcoming students back to UVA

Rucker, right, welcomes students back to Grounds on the first day of classes. With him is Jessica Miles, a senior administrative assistant. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

He comes to that perspective through his own journey.

A self-described “kid of segregation” who “grew up in the projects,” Rucker parlayed his education into a career of guiding students and pushing them to explore beyond the classrooms and campuses. Rucker has visited 115 countries and urges students to take advantage of all the trips available to them, whether around Charlottesville or around the globe. He’s particularly keen on finding ways for students with limited funding to fully participate in University life. He also wants student voices heard in institutional decisions, including in the search for UVA’s next full-time dean of students.

“I’m a cheerleader for students. I am an advocate for students,” Rucker said. “I’m the person who’s seeking to onboard them and make sure the presence of students is in every facet that touches their university lives.”

Partnership With Students

In addition to health and happiness, another focus for both Holstege and Rucker will be student self-governance, and the unique and outsized role UVA students play in shaping and leading their own University experience. The pandemic interrupted that experience on Grounds, and Rucker is dedicated to fully restoring it.

“That’s my platform,” he said. “We want to get the messaging out that the voice of the students, the power of the students to make this institution theirs, what they want it to be, to serve their needs, the functions they see as essential, that we are again committed to partnering with them.”

Holstege said the first meeting he and Rucker had with anyone after their appointments were announced was with student leaders.

“And we’ve had a great dialogue with all the student leaders up to this point,” he said, “which is a dialogue we want to continue in this partnership.”

Cedric and Chris

The men say the combination of Holstege, right, a longtime UVA faculty member and Student Affairs leader; and Rucker, left, a former UVA graduate student returning to Grounds after serving a full career in student services at Mary Washington, is a complementary pairing and they enjoy working together. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

“That’s why” Rucker added, “the engagement is so essential.”

A national search is underway for a new Student Affairs leader. In the meantime, Holstege and Rucker will urge students to make the most of their experiences in the classrooms, in student self-governance, on Grounds and even away from Charlottesville.

“Drink in the fullness that this region has to offer,” Rucker said. “We live in a phenomenal region, from the mountains to the forests; the beaches; Washington, D.C. – the Smithsonian, one of the greatest museums in the world, is just up the road.”

So while Holstege and Rucker are dedicated to serving students, the real measure of Student Affairs success, according to Holstege, is when these Hoos go on to serve others.

“They are our future, the future of this country, the future of democracy,” he said. “The future of everything is based on these students. We have phenomenal students who graduate and become leaders throughout this country. I am very excited for this year.”

Media Contact

Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications