UCI Gets a New VC

Claudia Cheffs | Staff Photographer

When Dr. Thomas Parham graduated from UC Irvine in 1977, he headed off to Washington University in St. Louis and later Southern Illinois University Carbondale for his master’s and doctorate respectively in counseling psychology, with no idea that he would one day wind up back at UCI.

However, going into his 26th year back on campus, Parham has been named the interim vice chancellor of student affairs replacing Manuel Gomez, who retired after 15 years on the job. Parham will hold the position until June 30, while a national search is held for the permanent candidate, which very well may include Parham.

“Being invited to serve as interim vice chancellor is a very flattering and humbling experience,” Parham said. “It’s flattering because it’s nice to know that people have that confidence in your talent, and appreciate you for the things you’ve tried to do over your career. It’s humbling because it’s an awesome responsibility and for me, there is no greater blessing in life, next to being a parent, then being trusted in the intellectual growth and development of young people.”

The social ecology major served as assistant vice chancellor for counseling and health services under Gomez for the last 15 years, which made him the longest serving assistant vice chancellor in Student Affairs on campus.

“[Gomez and I] share a passion for helping students, academic freedom, civility and being able to create an environment where people can exchange ideas and have a civil discourse that is free from the ransom of taunts and name calling,” Parham said. “We share a passion for making sure those who are most underrepresented at the margins of society have a voice. We also share a belief in the model of public education in California. California has a rich tradition that is both accessible and affordable to the people.”

In comparison to Gomez however, Parham brings a wide array of experience beyond academic administration. The serious and down-to-business Parham has experience as a counseling psychologist both privately and for the National Football League, as an academician who has championed the cause of empowering students, and as a professor in the classroom.

Parham also has been a fierce advocate of human rights, something that should benefit a campus that was rocked with racial issues and protests last year.

“Being able to advocate for human rights and human decency and respect for the dignity and humanity of everybody is one of the fundamentals of who I am as a person,” Parham said. “So that level of advocacy comes along with just who I am. It’s part of the job.”

Parham remarked that he was certainly not oblivious to the levels of racial tension that existed around campus.
“We have to listen to [all groups] and find a way to create a satisfactory experience and supportive experience while they’re here on this campus,” Parham said. “The campus is a microcosm of the world. One of our challenges is that we are charged with educating the current and future generation of students … at a base level, we are all members of the human family there.”

Parham, who lists Martin Luther King as one of the persons who has influenced him the most in his life, had an interesting perspective on the state of UCI’s ethnic diversity, which he said was one of the best parts of campus.

To start his time as vice chancellor, Parham will use his four “pillars” to guide his duties in student affairs. First, Parham aims to not only learn the operation, but master it.

“I have a pretty good view of the operation having been assistant vice chancellor all these years,” Parham said about learning the operation. “But you never know it until you actually know it from the perspective of the people who do the jobs every day … I will actually be walking their shops to see what they do and what impact what they do has on students. So for example, I want to go to admissions and see what a student sees when they try to fill out an application online, and how are we serving them.”

The second and third pillars involve Parham connecting with the academic deans and administrative and management staff, as he believes student affairs exist to support the academic mission of the institution.

The fourth pillar of Parham’s movement may be the most instrumental — getting out to the students. Parham aims to increase the number of office hours that the vice chancellor will hold, as well as hold them in locations on campus, such as the Student Center or Cross-Cultural Center.

“For students, my goal is to help students grow in ways that are important to them,” Parham said. “I also want to be much more visible and accessible to students. I think Manuel Gomez was very good at that, and I want to be better … I want to be visible and just listen to student voices.”

With all of these goals in mind, Parham does not sugarcoat the budget situation that the UC system faces. However, he looks at the situation with a positive attitude, a self-described “glass half-full mentality.”

“We know that our resources are a little constrained and limited,” Parham said. “You will never have enough money to do everything you want to do. But what good managers do is understand that you can always find sufficient resources to do the things that are most important.”

This past Saturday, Parham turned 56. But in an example of a day in the life of a vice chancellor, Parham celebrated his birthday by attending the All-University Leadership Conference on campus, driving up to Hollywood for a Jackie Robinson Foundation fundraiser, spending time with his daughter (a student at Cal State Northridge),  and that evening attending the UCI medal dinner, a black tie affair — all in one day.

“That’s the role of the vice chancellor, and it takes more than 40 hours a week,” Parham said.

A few days into the job, it is clear that Parham is raring to go in his new post. It appears that UCI’s student affairs are in dedicated hands.