‘Come Talk to Me’: New Dean of Students Encourages Students to Introduce Him to Roger

Associate Vice President for Student Life Derek Zuckerman shares his thoughts on inclusion, belonging, the college experience and supporting students

By Melanie Thibeault
A headshot of Derek Zuckerman

BRISTOL, R.I. – The week before his official start as the Associate Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students at Roger Williams University, Derek Zuckerman was already finding a home on campus and cheering on the RWU Men’s and Women’s Basketball teams at their home games.

As part of his new role as a member of the Student Life leadership team, which began Jan. 23, Zuckerman will oversee the departments of Student Programs, Leadership & Orientation; Residence Life; Community Standards & Conflict Resolution; and Student & Family Assistance. He will also co-chair the Students of Concern group with Assistant Provost for Student Success Allison Chase Padula. Additionally, he will focus on student emergency assistance, the resident advisor experience, and the redevelopment of RWU’s Spiritual Life program as priorities over the next two semesters.  

“Derek is a talented, engaged and approachable administrator who brings 30 years of experience in student life and student success work to his leadership role at Roger Williams,” said John King, Vice President for Student Life. “The search committee determined that his deep experience, together with demonstrated advocacy for LGBTQIA+ students and his recent work at Union College as a Class Dean, have prepared Dr. Zuckerman for important collaborations with Academic Affairs, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging, Title IX, and Athletics.”

A distinguished higher education leader with 30 years’ experience, Zuckerman was selected after a national search. He most recently served as Class Dean and Director of the Scholars Program at Union College where he focused on academic success, advising, and retention, along with Crisis Assessment and Risk Evaluation responsibilities. Prior to his role at Union, Zuckerman served as Assistant Vice Provost for Residential Life at Iona College, followed by Associate Dean at Holy Cross where he supervised directors in Residence Life, Student Involvement and Campus Recreation.

Zuckerman, a native of upstate New York, has a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management from Le Moyne College, as well as an MBA from Bentley College. He received a Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Leadership, Administration and Policy from Fordham University, where his dissertation focused on student perceptions of campus safety.

A proud first-generation college student, Zuckerman serves on the Board of Trustees for his alma mater, Le Moyne College. He’s also a member of several organizations, including the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, the National Ice Hockey Officials Association, the National Intercollegiate Soccer Officials Association, and is a National Training Staff Member for USA Hockey.

In a Q&A session, Zuckerman shared his reasons for joining the RWU community, how his decades of experience will translate into his new role, and his hopes for this new position.

Q. What are you most looking forward to about working at Roger Williams University?

Zuckerman: The students. I’m looking forward to building relationships with students. Working in student affairs, that’s the number one piece.

The other thing is the community here – being able to engage and be involved in the vibrant community and the great people who are committed to creating a wonderful educational experience for everyone here. I’ve certainly seen the commitment over and over. That was extremely attractive to me: knowing that there’s a team – of faculty, staff, and student leaders – who are committed to making Roger Williams a great experience.

One of the things that’s really been impressive to me is when I walk around campus and I see the antiracism messaging and I think about the university’s commitment to being an inclusive space. Over my career, I’ve worked on various diversity issues, and I’m really proud of my commitment to DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging), the LGBTQ+ community, and doing all that I can to make a difference and be an advocate for people in different marginalized communities. I’ve recognized that that’s really important at Roger Williams, and – as a gay man – I want people to know that I’m an advocate, I’m somebody who’s here to help.

Q. How have your experiences over your career in higher education prepared you for your role at RWU?

Zuckerman: I’ve had a tremendous amount of opportunities and experiences working in higher education. I always kid with my friends that I went to college, and I never left. Most recently, my role was in academic affairs, and I think that broadened my perspective on working to build relationships with faculty and really focus on the whole student. I think that the office supervision experience that I’ve had in the past bodes well for my ability to work with the team members and to help Dr. King guide the vision in an appropriate way. I’m really looking forward to all of the professionals who are here, knowing their expertise and their commitment to making Roger Williams a great place.

Q. At RWU, we want the whole student to thrive. How can student life and faculty best work together to support students’ academic success in the classroom and their sense of inclusion and belonging on campus?

Zuckerman: Students sometimes don’t recognize ‘this is the classroom, and this is outside the classroom.’ They look at their (overall) student experience. Part of my job is how can I work with (different campus partners) to really create a new collaborative way of looking at the full student experience. My hope is to create an inclusive environment where we value multiple identities and really work at recognizing where students are at and how we can all come together to build a community that is inclusive and recognizes the value that each student brings to the table.

It takes time to sit with people and listen to their story and really hear who they are and where they want to go. I’m so excited about all the opportunities to meet Roger Williams students, faculty, and staff in their environments and learn what’s really important to them. My hope is, over the next few weeks, I’ll continue to take every opportunity to meet new people.

Q. How does getting involved in scholar programs, like the one you led at Union College, enhance a student’s experience?

Zuckerman: From my experience at Union, there were two things about that program that really stood out. One was the opportunity to build a cohort of like-minded students and give students an avenue to find people who were consistent with their academic goals. At the same time, there were opportunities to engage in conversation about things that were really important. One of the things I’m most proud about is that each year we chose a book that addressed different social and DEIB issues to ground the program in the first term. The conversations we had with students were around big social issues and gave them the opportunity to share in a safe space, think about perspective and develop an approach to critically examine important social issues.

Q. You’ve refereed NCAA ice hockey championship games, worked as a USA Hockey trainer and are a member of the National Intercollegiate Soccer Officials Association. What makes you so passionate about sports and how can they be an important part of the college experience?

Zuckerman: When I was growing up, my father was a college hockey referee. I grew up playing hockey and I followed my dad to the rink. I wanted to be just like him. I've been blessed to have been able to travel internationally for USA Hockey, and at the Division I level, I’ve worked a lot of different NCAA tournaments. Outside of work, that’s always been something I’ve enjoyed, but it also ties in well with the work I do. Being a hockey referee has given me a lot of experience that helps in my day-to-day job, as far as dealing with conflict and really listening and understanding what’s important to people.

Athletics can teach you a lot of leadership skills. Being involved in athletics is something that you remember: your teammates, the trips, the games. I’ve heard that from students in so many areas, whether they’re talking about performing in a show on campus or singing in the choir.

The opportunity to be engaged and involved is really important to creating that experience while you’re at college. Working in student life, I always encourage students to get involved and figure out what works for you. For me, personally, athletics has been an important part of that – an important part of my own personal development.

Q. What would you like RWU students to know about you?

Zuckerman: What I want to tell students is: please come by and talk to me. As the new guy, I’m looking for ways to get involved and get engaged. I really want to hear about their experiences and hear if there’s something I can do to help.

For me, I’m a New England sports fan: Bruins, Patriots, Red Sox. That’s important to me.

This past year, I was in a couple of shows as a background actor. I was in seasons one and two of HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” and the second season of “Modern Love.” I really enjoyed that.

I am also a small partner in West Point Thoroughbreds.

I’m lucky to be a trustee at my alma mater (Le Moyne College). That’s been an opportunity for me to give back to a place that I love. Being a first-generation college student, I didn’t really have a clue of what it all meant. I have been blessed by everything that my undergraduate institution did for me. As a trustee, I think: what can we do for first-generation students and how do we create experiences that create opportunities for everyone? And that experience informs my work experience.