At 2 a.m. on his first night of college, then-freshman Winston Crisp jerked awake to the sound of the fire alarm blaring. He sprang from his bed, scrambling to gather his thoughts as he rushed out of his dorm. After all, where he grew up, the fire alarm always signaled an emergency.
As he exited his dorm, Crisp realized that he was the only resident outside. There he found the residence hall director, who told him the incident was only a fire drill.
“People were laughing at me, and I’ll never forget,” Crisp said. “I mean, it seems like a really dumb thing, but the notion that people just ignored stuff like that routinely . . . so I was always taking stuff seriously.”
Crisp’s college experience was marked by the fear that he was not supposed to be there — a sentiment he compared to imposter syndrome — and that he was going to be thrown out of school if he did anything wrong.
“For a lot of people, when you come to college for the first time in your life, you’re surrounded by people who are all pretty much just as smart as you are,” Crisp said. “And then you start looking around at what they’re doing … And I had this panic that I’m doing it wrong.”
But with his college experience came insight that Crisp said he has carried to all the communities he’s served. After 26 years working in various student affairs positions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Crisp followed President Carol Folt to USC as vice president for student affairs, officially beginning his position Aug. 16. Since then, Crisp said he has been meeting with various members of the University community and listening to their concerns.
“I am not the kind that comes in and just immediately starts,” Crisp said. “This is a great place with wonderful people so far, who all have a desire to see the place rise and to be better and to treat folks, and I’m trying to figure out how to best apply myself and my talents to make that better. And it’s going to take a little bit of time to learn.”
TURNING TO EDUCATION
Growing up, Crisp thought there were only two career paths he could follow to be successful: medicine and law.
It soon became clear which path Crisp would choose after taking his first biology class. When his class did frog dissections, he hid behind his lab partner and peered over her every so often as she cut through the cadaver. He immediately scratched med school off the list and set his sights on becoming an attorney. But as he got older, Crisp said he was not sure how much of that dream was his and how much of it was his family’s — another aspect of being a first-generation student, he said.
“When your entire family is pointed toward achieving something, how do you separate your own desires from [theirs]?” Crisp said. “But I had another desire, and I had another love that I was discovering. And that was education.”
Crisp’s family ingrained in him a deep respect for education, and he said he always knew he would go to college. His grandfather told him about generations of his family who had worked hard so that he could get an education, and Crisp’s parents made sure he maintained straight A’s before he stepped on a sports field as a student-athlete.
When it came time to apply to college, he wasn’t sure how his family would afford the expense, but Johnson C. Smith University, a small HBCU in Charlotte, N.C. — a place he said was where “folks who didn’t necessarily have access could gain access” — and later the UNC School of Law offered him the scholarship money he needed.
“I don’t know anybody who can be truly successful by themselves, not in this world,” Crisp said. “And I think people who need to tell you that they are solely responsible for their success and the whole, ‘I pulled myself up by my bootstraps,’ I don’t subscribe to that. I think nobody gets anywhere without help.”
But once he stepped foot onto campus, Crisp said that he fell into assumptions about what college life would entail. He recalls thinking students were required to wear suits and ties to their classes. All of what he expected from the college environment stemmed from movies and books.
“I felt like sometimes that I showed up like a month after everybody,” Crisp said. “Because … everyone had the whole college thing down, and their parents had been there. They had been shopping . . . and I’m looking at people’s residence hall rooms, and I showed up with one military footlocker and a military duffel bag because that’s all I owned.”
The turning point in Crisp’s education came from the relationships he developed with various mentors. At first, he hated one of his professors, who gave him C’s and told him she was grading him based on what he was capable of doing and didn’t do. In other words, Crisp said she was calling him lazy and that he was doing “just enough to break the curve.” But looking back, Crisp said she was one of his greatest influences because she refused to let him settle for anything less.
Another mentor, the dean of UNC School of Law, told Crisp he should consider pursuing education just as he was finishing up his law degree with plans to join the military. She contacted Crisp’s father as well as the colonel to stop him.
“I thought she was just completely derailing my life because I had a plan,” Crisp said. “I had a plan, and I was ready for my plan. … [But] the colonel told me at one point, ‘If you don’t take that job, I’m going to rescind your commission offer because you’re too young and stupid to understand what a gift you’re being handed.’”
And with that mentorship, Crisp changed his plans entirely, beginning his career as an educator at UNC.
LOOKING BACK ON UNC
Jonathan Sauls, who worked in student affairs with Crisp at UNC for 14 years, said Crisp often gave out his phone number to the thousands of families in each incoming class when welcoming new students and parents to Chapel Hill. Sauls said that at a graduation ceremony last December, Folt commented on Crisp giving his number to so many families, and one mother stood up and yelled back, “Yep, still have your card, still have your number.”
“What it really did is in a tangible way affirm to people that he was sincere and authentic in saying that he cares about the well-being of our students,” Sauls said.
Sauls said that even years after graduating, students would check in with Crisp on their visits back to campus.
Crisp often met with student organizations and leaders to discuss issues on campus, but Sauls said Crisp also made time to talk with and mentor students to give career advice or help students dealing with barriers to education — even inviting them into the office after the workday had ended.
While she felt other UNC administrators struggled to listen to students, 2019 graduate Sarah Lundgren said Crisp seemed sincere in his efforts to help students feel heard. After student government leaders voted in 2017 to split into separate bodies representing undergraduate and graduate students, Crisp stepped in to help facilitate the change.
Crisp was also appointed the co-chair of the Chancellor’s Task Force on UNC History in 2015. Folt created the task force to reckon with the school’s past, both in terms of its contributions to society and its relation to issues of race, class and privilege.
Crisp said he has tried to be consistent in his values over the course of his career, and his values always began with the health and safety of the students.
“My philosophy is very simple, and you will get tired of me saying it: Every single student that comes to this University without regard to what adjective goes in front of the name is supposed to get the same shot at figuring this out,” Crisp said. “And if you aren’t healthy, if you’re not safe, if you don’t feel welcome, if you don’t feel like you have access to the same room, then that stuff is not going to happen.”
According to Crisp, Silent Sam, an 8-foot commemorative statue of a Confederate soldier that marked the entrance of the UNC campus for more than a century, created a health and safety issue among students. The statue sparked decades of protests, but with the support of conservative alumni and state legislators, Silent Sam stood standing until August 2018, when it was toppled by protestors. In January, Folt, who was then the UNC chancellor, removed the remnants of the statue before announcing her official departure from the university.
The Daily Tar Heel reported on texts and emails obtained by WRAL, a local publication, revealing Crisp’s position on the statue’s controversy before it was taken down. In the texts, UNC Chief of Staff for Student Affairs Christi Hurt texted Crisp, “You think they’re gonna take that thing down?” to which Crisp responded, “One can hope.”
After the statue was uprooted, Crisp texted, “Whew. What a mess. Won’t be texting. You be very careful with text and email also. Call if you need.”
“When you have so much angst and anxiety and anger and fear … that it’s taken up the kind of time and energy and effort, and it becomes the central defining character of a place, then that place is not … discovering knowledge, educating and teaching people,” Crisp said. “My attitude was, ‘This [statue] is detrimental.’”
Lundgren, who worked as the digital managing editor for The Daily Tar Heel her senior year, said the administration seemed reactionary and closed off after the Silent Sam incident.
“I’m not saying that that was Winston Crisp, but more so UNC administration in general,” she said. “I wouldn’t necessarily call that his mistake, but I would say in the administration he was part of, that was definitely the most notable problem.”
While he was in retirement after leaving UNC, Crisp told Folt he wanted to return to education and student affairs. In the coming months, Folt accepted her position at USC, former Vice President for Student Affairs Ainsley Carry announced his resignation and Crisp applied for and accepted the job. As part of Folt’s plan to create a more student-led presidency, she included Crisp in her cabinet along with other key administrators, like the heads of finance and human resources, who will help advise her decisions.
For others, Folt said the phrase “student-centered” may seem like a buzzword, but at UNC, she watched Crisp put that term into action through his efforts to get to know students and parents and work on efforts to cultivate a better campus and community.
“His contributions were to create a loving presence,” Folt said. “Even when there were things [students] didn’t like, they would have turned to him and say he was really important for us.”
HEALTH AND SAFETY AT THE FOREFRONT
In 2018, Crisp created a Mental Health Task Force at UNC that released a report the year following his retirement recommending nearly 60 changes related to Chapel Hill’s wellness and climate; identification, treatment and ongoing support and academic policies.
But mental health became a focus of Crisp’s career over the past two decades. When he started his career in student affairs at the UNC School of Law, Crisp and his department worked with a student who had significant mental health challenges and saw him start to improve. Then in 1995, the student, Wendell Williamson, went off of his medication and shot two people: a student and a fellow Chapel Hill resident. Williamson was later found not guilty by way of insanity.
The shooting shocked the UNC community and the nation, and at first Crisp wondered if he had failed or allowed the incident to happen. As lawsuits and trials followed, Crisp said he watched conversations on mental health unfold at more universities and saw a change in how colleges and health centers approached their relationships with students.
When a gunman opened fire at Virginia Tech in 2007, leaving 32 people dead, presidents and vice presidents from ACC schools met to see how they could help the school move forward. Because Crisp had dealt with trauma on a campus before, he was sent to VT to help faculty and staff recover and rebuild as they prepared for an incoming class of students.
“I spent a lot of time learning about grief and learning about how to move forward and learning about how to move populations forward,” Crisp said. “And I never expected to have that happen, and I never would have dreamed in a million years that it would happen.”
These two incidents helped define Crisp’s career and solidify his focus on campus wellness and safety. If community members don’t feel healthy and safe, he said they’ll never be able to focus on the academic and personal growth that mark the college experience.
As he settles into his role at USC, Crisp said he will likely deal with the same issues that face many college students: mental health, safety and relationship struggles. He’ll continue to meet with students, faculty and staff across campus to learn about the specific issues he can address at USC.
“I also don’t think I’m going to be reinventing any wheels,” Crisp said. “I think there’s probably good work, and good people, from students all the way up who are already engaged in all of these things. My job is to figure out how can I integrate with that and facilitate and help and figure that out, and it’ll take a while to do that.”