Panzella navigates first year as dean of students

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Image via University of Pittsburgh

Carla Panzella is the dean of students.

By Jon Moss, Editor-in-Chief

For Carla Panzella, listening is key. Pitt’s new dean of students, who has been on the job since Aug. 2, said it’s a crucial part of her job to listen to student concerns and help turn ideas into action.

“It’s really important that I spend some time listening and getting up to speed on the work that students have been doing,” Panzella said. “Taking the time to learn about Pitt students and about the opportunities that Pitt provides, or the region and Pittsburgh, is really important.”

Panzella spoke with The Pitt News for about 45 minutes in late September about building relationships with students, diversity and inclusion initiatives and more. She said an important part of her initial few months as dean of students is working on a plan for Student Affairs.

To help create that plan, Panzella has embarked on a listening tour of sorts with student leaders, including from Student Government Board and Greek life. She said she is meeting with different club presidents to hear what they need from Student Affairs and the University, while also trying to mix in events open to any student, such as I Love Pitt Day in front of the William Pitt Union.

“The way I think about it is probably getting the broad sense of these topics, and then using town halls or meet and greets to get to the nuances of some of those topics,” Panzella said. “I think I want to do it on every level — from the student leadership level, but also from the individual student experience level as well.”

Panzella said two areas of “focus” related to diversity, equity and inclusion that have come up are providing more support for students of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

She arrives on campus a little more than a year after the Black Action Society and 17 other Black Pitt student organizations released demands — the largest changes requested since the group’s famous 1969 Cathedral of Learning sit-in — in the wake of George Floyd’s May 2020 murder. Student Affairs released a Racial Justice, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Action Plan about a month later, but although the plan addressed many student demands, the University said it was not a formal response and instead the culmination of ongoing conversations about anti-racism between Black student leaders and administrators.

Panzella said she plans to continue meeting with Black student leaders, as well as create actionable plans that can then be turned into reality, such as retooling or restructuring existing Student Affairs departments.

“I think there are some things already underway or continue to be underway from when that plan was first written, so driving them forward is really the task at hand,” Panzella said. “I would say [Cross Cultural and Leadership Development] is our primary focus, but I think one of things that I’d like to do is look at how everything supports our students, our students of color, and becoming a welcoming and belonging and …  a student-ready campus.”

Members of the LGBTQ+ community on campus have also argued for change from the University. SGB created the LGBTQIA+ task force last August to launch new resources and spread awareness for the community, including a LGBTQ+ center and improving counseling services for these students.

The idea of creating such a center has been long considered, but usually runs into the difficulty of finding a physical space to house it. Some University administrative departments are shifting staff members to work remotely on a permanent or semi-permanent basis in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially freeing up space for the center.

Panzella said she has spoken with SGB about “thinking differently” about campus space, adding that “creating space on a college campus is a lifelong challenge.”

“Evaluating it regularly makes sense to me, being fair and equitable to the folks who already occupy space is also important to me and thinking creatively about how we use space is also important,” Panzella said. “Meeting with the student groups, listening, that’s all part of how we —  the administration, the leadership — learn about student needs. Then we prioritize and then we share. Sometimes the share is ‘we’re going to make this change, but we’re not making this change today.’ Being fair to students and sharing where we’re at is very important.”

One area that has been a focus for student advocates in the past has been the University Counseling Center, which is part of Student Affairs. Some students have argued the UCC has not always met student needs, whether due to insufficient staffing or poor communication. Dr. Jay Darr, the center’s director since 2019, has implemented several initiatives to improve its operations, including adding more staff members, placing clinicians directly in some residence halls and holding public town halls.

Panzella said she has met with Darr and is learning about the resources available on campus.

“In general, we want students to feel supported and to have resources at the level in which they need,” Panzella said. “When I do look at student wellbeing, and counseling being a tool for that, I don’t think of just counseling or just think of psychotherapy, I think of all of the resources and to make sure they’re scaffolded.”

Panzella also spoke about the kind of relationship she wants to foster with students, one she hopes to be “transparent and open door.”

“Being out there so that students can see and hear from me, and find me approachable is really important. I think that is the hallmark of my approach to students, is that we’re here to talk and kind of be on the same page,” Panzella said. “I’d like to think that’s why Pitt chose me and I think that me wanting to be that way is why I chose Pitt.”

She added that it’s “both a question and a challenge” of how to reach Pitt’s roughly 20,000 undergraduate students. Panzella last worked at Salem State University, a public university located about 30 minutes north of Boston, which has about 5,700 undergraduate students.

“I think I’d have to feel my way through it a little bit to figure out ‘How do I do that?’ But some ideas — I think one is, the staff that serve those students everyday, being in communication with them and having a structure that doesn’t ever make me too far away or too isolated from my staff … having reporting structures and ways of sharing information that are effective,” Panzella said. “It’s partly these are some ideas and partly I don’t know, I’ll let you know at the end of the year.”

Panzella said she often considers herself to be a “coach” for students, and if students have proposals for the University, she wants to help them with structuring such documents or ways to think about such issues in the first place. She added that she thinks all Student Affairs staff should coach students daily, whether dealing with organizational issues, personal crises, professional development or other items.

“I think that is the role of Student Affairs, particularly the dean of students’ role, is to be that conduit between them. And that’s part of the coaching, right — let’s translate your student need into a way that the institution can understand it,” Panzella said. “Sometimes it’s quantifying it, sometimes it’s illuminating it — depends on what it is — and helping the students do that is 100% my job and the role that I intend to play.”

Given that Student Affairs now has two high-ranking officials — Kenyon Bonner as vice provost of student affairs, and Panzella as dean of students — when it used to only have one, the duo will split up responsibilities. Panzella said Bonner is the “strategic leader,” providing “strategic leadership” across all of Pitt’s campuses, while she handles more of the day-to-day operations and student needs.

“His is the high leadership, he liaises with other vice chancellors and other folks across the institution,” Panzella said, “and then I kind of focus on the strategic leadership of the day-to-day and supervising the areas, responding to emergency-type situations.”

Panzella said she is excited to go around campus to meet students, and hear what she and the University can do to help them.

“I’ve been here since August, and I will say that the Pitt community is a very welcoming community and they have been kind to me,” Panzella said. “Pitt students seem to be particularly focused on their studies, focused on their extra- and co-curricular experiences, but really interested in making Pitt a great place to be. Being part of the Student Affairs division and working with students who want to continue to evolve Pitt is amazing.”

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