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Wellness and Well-Being: An Interview with Dr. Bill Fox, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Antioch College

Doctor Bill Fox Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students sits on the floor amidst Denison students

Dr. Bill Fox Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Antioch sits amidst Denison students. Photo by Shanti Basu. Courtesy of The Denisonian.


MW: “Hi Bill. Thank you for joining me for this interview. I’d like to start with your background. Where are you from? Where were you born? Where did you grow up and what were your parents like?”


BF: “I grew up in northern New Jersey. My father grew up in Newark, New Jersey and my mother nearby in Clifton, New Jersey. So about 20 minutes outside of Manhattan. It was a great place to grow-up. It was vibrant and diverse with densely populated, tight-knit neighborhoods. My dad was a civil servant and my mom was trained as a clerical assistant. Both gave so much time to volunteering in the community. I am the oldest of four – two brothers and a sister. Family came first and I remain amazed at how much my parents were able to be so present with us. Being the oldest of four, you just kind of have this sense of responsibility. I feel like I have brought that forward with the work and the communities and the relationships that I’m finding myself in. I try to work hard, doing the right thing, and make sure I’m contributing and keeping things moving forward.”


“You know, I think of my childhood as a place where I really came to value the importance of strong relationships with your neighbors, and learning the life skill of how to be a good neighbor. And also how to be curious and interested about the people that you live next to. I value just being of service to others and in my hometown I focused a lot on community service.”


“I’m the first in my family to move out of state to go away to a traditional four-year college. I talk about my experience of really not knowing what I was walking into in my own college experience. I really benefited from a strong student affairs program that anticipated needs really, really well and empowered students to co-create their experience. I think about that background as informing what I bring to the roles that I take on in higher education. It’s a lot driven by those early years. I’m enthusiastic about community building. I’m enthusiastic about how  we come together to be part of a really intimate community where people care about one another and want to see them be well and succeed. Basically, how do we teach how to be a good neighbor and an effective citizen?”


“I tend to be someone who tries to pay that forward in terms of anticipating needs and putting myself in students’ shoes. And it’s so important to me that students are open and honest with me about what their needs and experiences are so that I can provide a responsive and modern program and design a staff model to facilitate that.”


I have a family of my own now. My partner of twenty years is Dr. Kirsten Fox. We started dating when studying in England together. We built our family, in part, through adoption. Our son Nathan is 10 and our daughter Molly is 9. They love all the sports, reading, Pokemon, robotics, theater, and time with friends. We also have two dogs: Gracie and Luna. Kirsten is an educator too. She just took a new job as well serving as the Executive Director of Mortar Board National College Senior Honor Society. It’s an organization that celebrates student scholarship, leadership, and service. Our household sure is an active one. Working at a college is just a special thing. The kids always ask about my work and occasionally ask to visit and hang out with students so they feel part of it all.”


MW: “I’d love it if you could describe your own college experience and early career.”


BF: “I went to college in Virginia, at James Madison, which was very student-centered. It was smaller at that time in the 90s than it is now. It was in a rural location in a beautiful setting in the Shenandoah Valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was very different from where I grew up and I remember feeling a bit of culture shock when I first got there. In time, I really grew to appreciate the residential nature of the campus and how easy it was to access resources there and make connections to people. I then met some mentors there who really challenged me to think about what I thought I wanted to do, which was go work in Washington D.C. on policy issues. And I was steered, rightfully so, to something that I was passionate about around education policy. So I switched more to that focus in grad school and went to Ohio State for my Master’s Degree in Education Policy and Leadership. I was fortunate to then be able to go to Washington D.C., where I always wanted to live and experience that city, the culture, all of the complexity that is there, and to be part of that community. I was able to be there for about eight years.” 


“I found my way to a certificate program in nonprofit management at Georgetown University, where I worked in student affairs. I was really engaged with about 35 executive directors of nonprofits in the greater Washington D.C. area and across the country. I really enjoyed that experience quite a bit. I learned a lot from those leaders and learned so much about my own leadership style and who I wanted to be in my own organizations.” 


“And then I came to Denison. It’s been an amazing 15-year experience here. I’ve  served in four different positions in Campus and Residential Life. I’ve been fortunate to be promoted a few different times and been able to do lots of different things to help students have a great experience. I have been known to care deeply about student safety, Diversity Equity and Inclusion, well-being broadly defined, student success, retention, and town/gown relationships. Serving as Denison’s Dean of Students for nearly a decade was an amazing professional experience. I learned a lot, worked hard, implemented changes, and leave with a tremendous sense of pride in shared accomplishments.”


“I took some time to think about going back to school myself and ended up going to the University of Pittsburgh while being Dean of Students at Denison. I recently earned my Doctorate of Education at Pitt, Class of 2020.”


MW: “I’m curious about your work at Pitt and your thesis if you could speak about that a little more?”


BF: “Sure. It took me a while to discern if I was ready to go into a doctoral program and what I wanted to do with that experience. And with any good program that pushes you to do more than you thought imaginable, I feel like I explored five different dissertation topics before I actually landed on the one that was most interesting to me. And, although it was in the School of Education, it was very much an interdisciplinary approach. I felt like I stepped out of my comfort zone of what I knew and just was like, “Alright, this is the moment to really feel vulnerable in all that I do not know”. Becoming a content expert in this one particular area just makes you so humble in realizing how much you still do not know and how much it drives you to know more and to want to contribute more. I just feel more of a sense of responsibility to do something important and good.” 


“So, I focused on how higher education might better build healthier academic communities. And I think about that really broadly. I think about how “mission fit” is the concept of wellness and well-being at colleges and universities right now. Is there room for that alongside the academic goals of the institution? What’s our commitment to that work? What are our limits? What do today’s students think about the concept of well-being and what are their own expectations of the college in terms of that? I was just curious and I wanted to raise a lot of different questions about what higher education is doing right now in the health and wellness space? How can we improve it?” 


“When you get a Doctorate of Education, your mission is to try to improve the practice of education. And the gift I had at the University of Pittsburgh was that I was able to be with 60 educators in K through 12 and in the higher education space. Most of them worked in urban education settings, predominantly in Pittsburgh. And it was just such an important experience for me to drive across the state border to class and expand my own network. I really enjoyed being with a new cohort of people in a diverse classroom environment. We really challenged ourselves to know more than what we knew. And everyone was really open to each other’s different lived experiences and were very curious about the work that we all were doing. We were all trying to go beyond our own thinking about who we were and what we were doing and what we were trying to accomplish with our dissertations. It was really a collaborative cohort. I very much appreciate that time. I always speak very highly about Pitt’s faculty, staff, and students.” 


“In my work I chose the angle of: who is leading this work in higher education and who could lead it into the future? And, are there different models out there to advance the ball on creating a healthier academic community? And also, who is working towards achieving a holistic sense of well-being? Not just for students, but for the faculty and staff of the institution as well.”


“And I chose to go big and study how Ohio State University, a very complex and dynamic organization, is doing that currently through a role that they call the Senior Wellness Officer. They were one of the first institutions to create that role in 2012. So I wanted to study how it emerged, what was the immediate focus or problem to address, and what’s been the impact?”


“So I did a case study and I was able to meet with the president, executive leaders, and others at Ohio State to understand how a big complex organization empowered a leader who then empowered a team. And then together they created a strategy where everybody agreed on the metrics to study. They came up with a plan that could be achievable.”


“That was exciting to me. I have since formed a community and network with other Senior Wellbeing Officers out there in the country. I’m also interested in how I might share their experience. I’m not one of them, but I am one who cares about the work that they do. I wonder how I might share that experience through my scholarship and research to highlight that there can be good work done when institutions devote time, resources, strategy, and leadership roles to doing it well. And it’s so important, right? I want to understand their experience as leaders and managers doing this work and find out what promising practices they’re bringing to their campuses. As a Dean, I like to incorporate some of those tactics in a way that makes sense for the organization I am working in. I’m excited to share some of those ideas with students and hear their reaction to see if it would fit in the culture.”


“And then, of course, COVID happened in the middle of it all. And so it was also about reflecting on what we’ve all been through. I think it just highlights the importance of having someone ultimately responsible for helping move an institution and a culture through smart strategy and design so that culture can change. There is also so much potential to work with students to identify creative ways to build a campus experience that is on the cutting edge of truly integrating our commitments to holistic well-being, diversity, equity, inclusion, and a vibrant residential life program.” 


“So that’s an experience and outlook that I think I bring with me that’s fresh on my mind. Of course, there’s a different scale at Denison or Antioch compared to OSU. But the lessons I’ve learned from that is we must be more attuned to our well-being and be adaptive leaders in this moment. I don’t have it all figured out and, like everyone, I’m a work in progress in relation to being mindful about my personal wellness goals. I find it’s helpful when organizations can identify who’s on point, get some content experts around the room, invite people in who are curious and passionate about the work, and who want to innovate and implement in the space together. Let’s be creative and say our purpose is to improve the state of well-being in the organization that we’re in and call in to question how we can do that together? So that’s something I think I bring that might be unique and be embraced at Antioch right now. I think I could be helpful and be a champion for the good work happening right now.” 


MW: “Thank you for your answer. That was really insightful. One point of clarification that’s on my mind that I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about is wellness. When you’re talking about well-being, I’m wondering are you thinking about wellness and physical wellness? Or are you thinking of organizational health? Because the Wellness Center here is relatively such a big center and it’s such a big issue. But also the community and the organization have a lot of wellness needs structurally. I’m just wondering if you could speak to that?”


BF: “Yeah, I mean, I think I want to acknowledge that words matter. Definitions matter. And I’ll be curious how Antioch defines health, wellness, and well-being. I acknowledge those can look different in different organizations. I tend to embrace the CDC description of well-being which is quite personal to that individual. Well-being is a positive outcome that is meaningful for that person and their perceptions of satisfaction related to dimensions of quality of life. I do believe colleges and universities have a role to play in helping students realize their potential. The work we do is about supporting the student’s wellness journey by enhancing the capacity of an individual to build a life and achieve the goals that they have identified for themselves. We are very much aware of health disparities, social barriers, and issues of healthy equity in this work. Yes, there are certainly aspects of physical health and behavioral health that matter. But I’m also taking a more holistic view on the wellness dimensions. For example, financial wellness which is a particular topic that I’m attuned to at Denison. I have some oversight and responsibility for our financial well-being programs. I think a lot about academic well-being in the context of a rigorous academic program that aims to stretch learners. I think a lot right now about social well-being, issues of belonging, issues of loneliness, and all of those things wrapped up in one’s sense of well-being. I mean, for me, my intention is to really build a program where students benefit by being able to experiment with some wellness and life hacks, so to speak, in terms of how they manage their own health and wellness. And then I also talk a lot with students and colleagues about how our behaviors contribute to the environment and the larger culture within the institution. And the power that we all individually hold. It’s not about only seeing our own action plan through related to our own well-being. But how important it is that everybody is “all in” for building a healthy  organizational culture in which we can all thrive.”


“I think, from a leadership perspective, it’s about me making sure that those content experts who oversee health and counseling have the infrastructure that they need to implement programs well. But also, that we’re not doing this work in such a siloed way. That we’re looking out for the bigger picture. And we see how someone’s financial security and financial well-being may impact other aspects of their wellness. And that we’re taking a team approach in doing this work. I look forward, to the extent that I am able, as an early priority, to have fresh eyes on what’s happening, and see if there are ways to improve our practice and relationships. I think it’s a challenge for every institution in the country right now. And I like big challenges and messy problems.”


MW: “That’s great. That’s super helpful to hear you speak on that. I think people will be really curious to see how that goes. Just a few more questions if you don’t mind? Why Antioch? What do you know about Antioch? What do you love about it? What are your views on Antioch and what attracted you here?”


BF: “Yeah, well, look, I think I just need to step back and say it’s such an honor to be asked to serve in this role, and particularly, to be asked to serve in this role at Antioch right now, in this moment. It’s a big responsibility and I am realistic about the challenges Antioch faces right now. And also, the sector that we’re in, small residential liberal arts institutions face very similar challenges and opportunities that are unique. I’m coming in from Denison where I have seen the transformational power of a four-year, residential, liberal arts experience. And the amazing students that we have, and what they do with their lives after having this experience together, and being challenged in the classroom, and kind of owning this fully residential experience that they have. I have so many questions as I begin. I can’t wait to learn more about the culture now at Antioch and who Antioch is serving now, and what the institution aspires to be moving forward. I am really enthusiastic about the ambition and vision that Dr. Fernandez brings, and their prior experiences and I think that can be leveraged. I feel inspired by the faculty and the staff that I’ve met so far. And in particular, I’ve spent a good amount of time with members of the Co-op faculty, and heard the stories of how they serve students so well. I mean, they are everything. They are faculty, mentors, advisors, and quasi student affairs staff. Antioch faculty have high expectations for student learning and the students benefit from that.”


“So, I’m just thrilled to join, to listen intently, and to bring some fresh eyes on persistent challenges. I see many of those as opportunities for Antioch. I am one who really has cared to know the local community here in Granville and Licking County and I look forward to getting to know the Yellow Springs residents and community. I look forward to getting to know the vibe there and connect with leaders in the region. I am someone who feels really connected to Ohio and the opportunities, especially workforce opportunities, that arise in the state. I look forward to trying to help connect students to those opportunities. Antioch is one of those revered institutions of higher learning and I cannot, like Jane has said before, wait to roll up my sleeves and get to work in service to Antioch and sustaining its future.”


“And I’m all in. I think I would just want people to know that, as a newcomer to the community, I come with really goodwill and excitement. And I’m all in. For me, it’s about creating the conditions for students to be well and do well. But, first and foremost, I hope to improve the student experience. The students will know that I am invested in that. It will be good to work with them to create a sense of shared traditions and experience while supporting their individuality. I have a track record of just being really open, approachable, and curious. I appreciate honesty and candor. And I also value when people bring solutions to the table and are willing to put in the work of making real change. I have plenty of personal quirks which will be revealed in time. But I plan to just be myself. I also have the energy that makes things happen and I am open to change. So, I think it’s a good fit.”


“I know this experience will transform me. I know I will have a learning curve. And I can’t imagine a better place to learn alongside the people that I’ve met already. I’m excited to meet more students. I’ve been able to meet a few in my visits and in the dining hall and my walks on campus. But I know I have so many more students to meet and it’s important to me that they know me right now. I really appreciate the chance to talk with you and share a bit of my story. I welcome emails with thoughts on any of this to”


Headshot of Doctor bill Fox

Dr. Bill Fox, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Antioch College.