Byron Hughes feature

Byron Hughes guided Virginia Tech through the COVID-19 pandemic as dean of students, before starting in the same role at UT.

Byron Hughes, an expert in higher education and former dean of students at Virginia Tech, became the next dean of students on July 1 after a months-long national search.

Like Dean Shea Kidd Brown, who left the position in January of this year, Hughes first took on the role of dean of students in 2018 after a decade at Virginia Tech, where he previously served as assistant director of student conduct and director of fraternity and sorority life.

Less than two years after he became dean of students at Virginia’s research powerhouse, Hughes experienced a rapid expansion in the field of student services, spurred on by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the pandemic came to American universities, the dean of students office was not seen as an emergency response unit. But overnight across the U.S., students were directed to take much of their confusion and fear to the dean of students office.

Hughes recalled how his office became a beacon in the earliest days of the pandemic, beginning the night students were sent home.

“By that evening, we probably had nearly a thousand messages in the inbox for the dean of students office,” Hughes said. “I think that’s what the pandemic showed us, is that people just had no idea, families had no idea, supporters had no idea where to start … who am I supposed to go to? And that’s what I think the dean of students office became.”

As the dean of students transformed into something of a fireside presence, the pandemic reinforced for Hughes that crises create community. It was a lesson he had learned over a decade before.

Hughes arrived at Virginia Tech a year after the deadliest school shooting in the United States occurred there on April 16, 2007. He remembers going around campus with the chief of police ahead of the annual Hokies Spring Football Game to prepare student groups for a celebration set to take place near the anniversary of the massacre.

The deep commitment to community Hughes saw among students and administrators shaped his leadership.

“Even the smallest of things are being noticed about students, and everyone feels, I think, tied to and connected to the idea of wanting to be part of care,” Hughes said. “We as administrators have to work together to think about student success and well-being holistically and throughout the community.”

“We’re all in it together, we’re all co-creating it together.”

Hughes holds a doctorate in higher education from Tech, where his research focused on the influence of masculinity among college men. He is an active member of the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity and spent nearly a decade working in fraternity and sorority life.

His arrival at UT follows a spring semester in which more fraternities were suspended or on probation than were in good standing. The potential shortcomings of Greek life are familiar to Hughes, who left the first fraternity he pledged in college.

“The end for them was brotherhood, as opposed to brotherhood being a means toward something more. That meant they fell short, significantly,” Hughes said.

Integrating each part of the campus community, including sororities and fraternities, into the common mission of the university is a pillar of Hughes’s leadership. In his new role, he will oversee a diverse group of programs and offices, including Student Conduct and Community Standards, Student Disability Services, Multicultural Student Life and the Pride Center.

“I would hope and expect that people feel like they can bring their whole selves into any space and that their whole selves will be valued,” Hughes said.

As Hughes and his family prepared to move to Knoxville, he came to appreciate the similarity between UT’s Torchbearer Creed and Virginia Tech’s motto, “Ut Prosim,” which means “That I may serve.” Vice Chancellor for Student Life Frank Cuevas touched on the connection when Hughes was hired.

“I am excited that Byron will be joining us on Rocky Top as he brings a wealth of experience in student advocacy and support to our campus. He is committed to the Volunteer experience and developing a sense of community as we work together to make UT a place where all students matter and belong,” Cuevas said.

As part of his interview process, Hughes attended a lunch with student leaders from across campus, who were able to ask him questions in an open forum. Eva Karnowski, a senior nursing student and assistant in the Dean of Students Office, gave Hughes a tour before the lunch.

“I think UT needs a Dean of Students who can foster community and collaboration across campus, both from the faculty and administration side and the student side,” Karnowski said. “Things have not felt quite the same since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I look forward to having someone who can get all areas of campus engaged!”

At each interview lunch, student leaders were handed evaluation sheets for candidates with two large spaces, one for pros and another for cons. Student assistants in the Dean of Students Office say there were few cons to be found on any student evaluations of Hughes.

Michael Rodriguez, a senior studying business administration and management and president of the Interfraternity Council, was struck by how, in under an hour, Hughes spoke at length about making a campus community that is welcoming and productive for students of all backgrounds, including all racial identities and sexual orientations.

“His energy, personality and passion for students were evident within my first five minutes of interacting with him,” Rodriguez said. “What I found most impressionable, though, was his ability to tie in students’ needs and the importance of student advocacy into all of his answers – which is crucial for his position.”

He even wrote down one of Hughes’ quotes from his interview with students, so that he could remember it.

“I would be a Dean of Students for all students, on both sides of conflict,” Hughes’ quote said. “Care includes thinking about how we treat everyone.”

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