Backdrop Q & A: Ryan Lombardi

Photo provided by Ohio University. Interview transcription by Briana Ekanem. 

Ryan Lombardi, Ohio University’s vice president for the past seven years, is moving onto Cornell University in just a few days time. During his career as a Bobcat, Lombardi has changed the way students think about administration at a university. Along with Jenny Hall-Jones, Lombardi was often seen walking around campus, making himself accessible to the student body. Backdrop sat down with Lombardi to talk Athens foods, tests and what advice he’d give to whomever is the next VP.

Backdrop Magazine: What yearly event in Athens has been your favorite?

Ryan Lombardi: First and foremost I would have to say the Leadership Gala. I have judged air bands for Greek Week every year I’ve been here. It was the first thing I did when I got to Athens. I also like the international street fair. I can’t say that I love the fest, but it will be different not having them.

BM: What made you stick with social media?

RL: I had been here for a year at the time, and I realized that students wanted interaction with the administration. When I started Twitter, I wasn’t very good at it. Once I started tweeting personal tweets and talking about myself, I saw students reacting positively. They felt they had someone they could trust and someone they could go to for questions. It even got people mad that I worked with. It helped a lot of people be proactive. I mentioned that year when we had a lot of deaths, social media allowed us to talk openly about the tragedies. I remember being in a residence hall at 3 a.m., sending out an all-campus email to make a statement. Some people thought I shouldn’t do that so soon. Just changing that approach is something that social media can be used for. It shows that you’re real. You can’t control the message that someone died.

BM: Have you had to think about blurring the lines at times?

RL: Oh yeah. There’s definitely things I can’t say. We always ask families if we are allowed to send out alerts during a time of death. I’m always keenly aware of not crossing that line. But you can be genuine and real without crossing that line.

BM: What do you do when you are sitting with them at those moments?

RL: Well, unfortunately, one thing I’ve learned is that there is nothing you can do. You just have to be there for them and their family.

BM: How do you guys hear about deaths and tragedies involving students?

RL: Hopefully we hear about it through an official source. Sometimes family members let us know that something happened to a student. It varies in terms of how we hear. Sometimes it’s better than others but once we hear we always try to support.

I still keep in touch with some of those families that died that year. I even heard from some of them when I got this new job. Being with a family after they just lost their son or daughter is a pretty powerful moment. It’s a relationship that isn’t likely to terminate. I’ve sat in hotel rooms and residence halls with moms and dads, brothers and sisters of people who have died. I’ve tried to comfort them. I’ve went to funerals across the state. I’ve been there to support these families and those relationships don’t end. That’s just being a human being. That’s the part of our work that most people don’t see. I did something once for a student that passed away and he was about to graduate, right after the funeral I presented his family with his diploma. It was the scariest moment of my life because I was so aware of the power of the moment. These are the things that we do that people don’t see and we develop the deeper relationships with people. There are still relationships in the good things like Airbands but our role is to be there for people and get them through good and bad times.

BM: What kind of sandwich are you eating?

RL: Southfork Ranch.

BM: Is there something that’s more exciting to you about Cornell than getting to do more with athletics?

RL: It’s the whole thing. It’s not like there is one thing that made me go there. It’s a great institution, great job, the faculty and staff. My children will be closer to one set of grandparents. The whole package of it was incredible. I wasn’t looking to leave OU but sometimes opportunities arise and you have to go for it.

BM: Is your family excited about it?

RL: I think so. My daughters are young enough to where I think they will be fine. They have friends that they will have to say goodbye to and that’s going to be emotional but I think they are excited. We are excited about joining the Cornell community but I have already cried and I will cry again when I leave here because it’s a special place and it means a lot to me. I think I gave the students of OU everything I could these last seven years. I like to think that I’ll always be welcomed back here in Athens.

BM: So, I have to ask you something…I’m a Duke fan.

RL: Yeah, I was there before I came here.

BM: How’d you feel about them winning? Do you still kind of follow the teams or schools that you worked for?

RL: Yeah, I have a lot of friends that still work there of course. You develop an affinity for the places you’ve been. I mean I’m a Kansas Jayhawks fan,  fso I follow them in basketball and I follow Duke really closely in basketball. It’s funny because different schools have different sports that they’re good at. I’ve never worked at like a really good football school. I joke sometimes and say that I need to find a place…. Kansas had a good year where I think they went to the Orange Bowl not that long ago, maybe 10 years, but not consistently like a Michigan or an Ohio State, I’ve never had that. I’ve jokingly said that I need to land at one of those. Cornell, where I’m going, doesn’t have good football either from what I understand. There big sports are hockey and crew and some of that stuff.

BM: Now where is Cornell exactly in New York?

RL: It’s upstate New York. It’s a beautiful part of the country; it’s in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It actually reminds me a lot of Athens, just bigger and it’s colder in the winter, which I’m not that excited about. Ithaca College is in Ithaca, and then Cornell is in Ithaca, so it’s bigger and there’s more stuff, there’s a small airport, but it still has kind of the feel of a college town because with two big universities that kind of dominate the culture. So even like the downtown again, a lot bigger than Court Street, but that feel with those kinds of places. They even have a place called College Town Bagels which reminds me a lot of Bagel Street [Deli], you go in and it’s chalk, it feels very similar.

BM: How did this switch to Cornell come to be?

RL: Well when you’re in the field for a while and you have the kind of job that I do, search firms get hired to fill these positions and so you get contacted by “head hunters” is what they’re called, so they reached out to me back in the winter at some point. It was a while ago because these processes take a long time and they just asked if I was interested in the job, I had been recommended for it. That happens with come frequency, I probably would get at least a couple of them every month. Obviously Cornell has a brand that gets your attention and so looking a bit more specifically at the job and the opportunity, I was like “yeah that’s something I’d be interested in, so let’s continue the conversation,” and then it just kind of unfolds.

BM: What are some of the other places you’ve been contacted by?

RL: I’d rather not, just because it’s confidential. Most of them are private institutions. That’s what’s interesting; a lot of students were surprised by the announcement because no one had heard anything about it. Well it’s a private university so, unlike when things happen here or another public school, it’s likely to be in the newspaper that you’re a finalist before you get selected. At private institutions none of that stuff happens, so it’s kind of like boom, it happened.

So there’s a lot of confidentiality involved with that, which I appreciate too, but it doesn’t make it easy for your home campus to hear. So they reached out and I explored it and the more I engaged with the people and the campus the more I thought it would be a good next step for me professionally and also for my family.

BM: What was it that drew you to Cornell once you started the conversation and digging into it a little bit more?

RL: I think there were a lot of things that felt like OU and Athens, like there are really good people. My predecessor there, the current vice president, she’s terrific and she has a very great reputation. She’s been there a long time, she’s been the vice president for 20 years, so they’re really excited about having a new perspective come in, a kind of fresh perspective so that was really appealing to me. The students were great; I’ve enjoyed our students here thoroughly. I really feel a very strong connection with my new boss who is the president of Cornell and I have a great working relationship with President McDavis too, but he’s kind of toward the end of his presidency and he’ll probably be retired within a couple of years, where as with my new president I am her first hire and she starts July 1 at Cornell, I start August 1. It’s also her first presidency, so she has a lot of time left and I really connected with her and I really bought in to her vision, her approach and style and thought I’d love to work with her. Again, the people of Cornell seem great and the job itself is a really terrific job in that, it has a much broader scope of responsibility compared to what I have here, I oversee athletics there and I oversee other departments that I don’t have oversight for here at OU so professionally it gives me some new things to learn and to be responsible for.

BM: Would you say that the fact that Cornell is an Ivy League school kind of drew you to the job as well?

RL: Well sure, Cornell has an incredible brand. It’s really neat, I don’t know if you knew this about Cornell but it’s an Ivy League institution but it’s also the public land grant for the state of New York, which is like what Ohio State is for Ohio. It actually has a public service mission which I really like, because I do believe in public education but then it has this Ivy League cachet and a kind of firepower if you will, which is really awesome too. I mean it’s one of the top universities in the world too so you can’t bonk it bad when the job itself is one of the best in our profession for student affairs professionals. All that put together makes for a pretty neat package.

BM: What food are you going to miss most from Athens?

RL: All kinds of stuff in Athens! One of my favorites to go with my family is Larry’s Dog House, we go down there and have milkshakes and hotdogs. Avalanche Pizza. I’ve become a big fan of it; I didn’t like Avalanche Pizza when I first got here but I’ve come to love it. Athens just has so many unique little niches like that. Although, honestly, Ithaca seems to have the same with a lot of interesting little fruity places like I was mentioning. Brennan’s is also one of my favorite sandwich shops to get a sandwich at lunch.

BM: What is the one accomplishment that kind of sticks out in your mind or that you’re most personally proud of?

RL: You know, it’s interesting, there are a lot of things that we’ve done that I’m proud of whether it was the new work in the Career and Leadership Development Center, whether it’s building these new residence halls that are magnificent, whether it’s the new student health Campus Care that we envisioned almost five years ago now and completely transformed into what it is today; there are lots of really good things. I would say truly what I’ most proud of is the relationships I’ve had with students, I think students don’t naturally view the administration necessarily in a positive light. There’s kind of a natural tension I think that exists between the administration and students and what I’d like to walk away from here thinking is that I at least was able to change that a little bit and that that’s not the way that most people feel about me and it’s certainly not the way I feel about students. I’m most proud about my dynamic and my general rapport with the student body. I can’t tell you how many houses I’ve eaten in on Palmer Street where students have invited me over for dinner and I go over or wherever, and having that kind of relationship with the student body over the last seven years that I’ve been here is really what I’m most proud about in my tenure here at Ohio U. Forget all of the projects or the policies and all of that, that’s great and it helps students, it helps the university but the relationships with students, with human beings, is why I do what I do.

BM: From the time you stepped on this campus, how do you think you changed and grew as a person and how do you think OU has helped you do that?

RL: I think OU has really shown me what it means to be a community. I’ve been to a lot of different schools and I’ve worked at a lot of different schools but there’s a really tight knit community on this campus, students really look after each other, the whole community does. We’ve had tragedy on this campus that I’ve been apart of trying to help work our way through.  Just seeing the students pull together for each other and seeing the way the student pull for each other has been incredible. The first year I was here in 2008, we had twelve students die that year. Think of your time here, you might have one or two or three, but twelve in one year, in one academic year, literally from August to May. The way you would see community rallying around people who were hurting, their loved ones, their close friends, and all kinds of people. Or like the fire last year, just the way this community comes together in difficult circumstances is pretty unique and not like what I’ve seen in a lot of the other places I’ve been. I’ve really seen what it means to have that unequivocal support. You talk to other Bobcats and Ohio U alum across the country and universally people love this place. Almost never you meet someone who’d answer, “How’s college?” with “Ah, it was okay, it was college.” No, it’s always like “Oh my gosh! I loved being at OU! I loved Athens! It’s really neat and I think it’s something that OU taught me about loyalty and community and all those types of things.

BM: You’re not involved in the process of selecting someone for your position here, correct?

RL: No, that’s the president’s job. It would be super fun to be able to pick my replacement but I would have picked who he picked, I’ll tell you that. He picked Jenny [Hall-Jones] to be the interim, which is a fabulous choice no question about it.

BM: If she doesn’t end up transitioning, what kind of qualities would you like to see in your replacement and what should they do in the future?

RL: I think that whoever comes in to this job, and this sounds obvious, they have to be student centered. I’m going to elaborate, because in student affairs work of course, you better be student centered. I find that not everybody truly is at the level I think Ohio U students have come to appreciate and should demand. That means people who are very comfortable in all kinds of situations, students will go to their house for dinner that will truly try and meet them on their level to help advance the social fabric of this campus and the student life of this campus. And someone who is really comfortable in embracing students as partners for that. There are plenty of people in our profession who will say, “I’m the professional and you’re the kid, I decide how things go and you take them or leave them.” A person who will really embrace students to help make decisions and to help shape policy and those kinds of things, I think that’s really important on this campus. I think that’s something that I’ve tried to do a lot and something that Jenny has tried to do a lot and my predecessor tried to do, we’ve had a very recent history of that happening and I hope that they’ll stay committed to that. I think someone who will really throw their heart and soul into the Bobcat family. I didn’t go here, but when I got here seven years ago I threw in everything I could and for seven years I’ve given everything I can to be a part of this community and part of this family and that has made the experience, I think for me, that much better but also for the students that I’ve served that much better too. Someone who will really throw themselves in if they don’t already have that affinity or they’re not an alum, that they will throw themselves in like we did.

BM: So if you could talk to the next VP, what would you tell them about the students of OU?

RL: They’re awesome, they’re a ton of fun, they care deeply about this place, they care deeply about the decisions that you will make as the Vice President which goes back to my advice to engage them and have them be a part of those decisions. If you do that they will be incredibly loyal to you and they will embrace you and if you don’t they won’t. I’ve truly felt like students have treated me like a member of the family for the last seven years even though I’m not a Bobcat alum and that’s so special and powerful and I’m so grateful for that. I would just tell them to cherish that because the students here are really special.

BM: So since you’ve been here you’ve probably found things that work. Do you have any specific practices that you’ve learned here that you’re going to try and implement at Cornell?

RL: I think my general approach. People often think, “I’ve seen your level of administrators being really approachable and down to earth.” I’m going to try and continue my social media presence; I mean I really started that here. I had more of a Twitter presence than the university did back when I started in 2009; of course they’ve passed me now, as they should. There were a lot of people in the university staff and faculty who were like, “What are you doing?” and like “What’s this Twitter stuff? Why are you doing that?” So I’ll try and engage with students the way I have here with social media and other platforms. But I think more than anything, it will be that general approach of involving students and engaging with students and not trying to make decisions to them or for them but with them, working alongside of them. In the interview process the students at Cornell have a lot of issues that they want me to address and they want their administration to address just as we do here and they want to do it when I told them that my general approach is to sit down with students and say, “What’s on your mind? What do you think about these issues?” and they were like, “Really” I said yes, that’s what I do. We sit down with students and get feedback about different issues and we try to implement things and we’ll check back in with them. They were like “That would be fantastic, we’d love that,” so I think that general ethos and that approach of engaging with students is what I’ll try.

BM: What challenges do you anticipate, assuming you’ve heard some of their expectations?

RL: They have very high expectations, as do Ohio U students. It always takes time; I didn’t hit the ground in perfect place here on day one. You have to learn a new campus and you have to learn a new culture and that will certainly be the case at Cornell. I mentioned before it’s unique, being a private Ivy League but also the land grant. It’s got this really unique kind of personality if you will where it has kind of multiple personalities being a public entity on one hand but also a private Ivy League entity on another. Learning that and kind of the nuances of that and learning the student body. Cornell has an incredibly diverse student body which is terrific and makes for a very robust experience, but that does bring challenges because not everyone coming to the table has been accustomed to that in their high school experience so helping students learn how to truly live in an intercultural and interconnected world I think is a challenge for them and will continue to be a challenge for them in that kind of pluralistic environment that exists for them. It’s very exciting and these are exciting things to tackle. They have other things like trying to figure out what to do with housing, and we’ve been working on that so some of those very tangible projects that we’ll have to dig into that I think I’ll bring a real strength to because I think I’ve done some of that stuff here.

BM: What has been your favorite weekend here at OU?

RL: “There are a lot of them. I mean the fests are always interesting, I can hear them from my house because I live so close. I love move-in weekend and the energy of move-in; I love walking up from the convo. In the summer it’s so quiet and chill and literally in the course of 24 hours it’s like a hundred miles an hour. No one’s exhausted yet, no one’s cranky and everyone’s happy to be back. New students are happy to be here and upperclassmen are happy to be back. There’s so much positive energy. Even when you go to Palmer and Mill, there’s a lot of activity, but it’s different then it’s more positive that first weekend. Later in the semester people get into fights, or there’s like nastiness but not at the beginning. I also think commencement weekend is also pretty special because I think some of that comes back again and just seeing the students, the seniors especially, going through that process of saying goodbye and going through their bucket list is also really fun. Then it’s just surreal literally like Sunday the town changes and you see everyone packing up and leaving and there’s all the trash all alongside the rental houses. Overnight it transforms into a different community.

A side note from Lombardi on on fests:  Seeing students interact in their environment, it helps you relate. That’s something I bring to the table. I’m not too old to where I can’t relate to the college experience of these kids. I’m not too far removed. I would really encourage the next VP to get out there and interact. If you come here to the office from 8-5 and leave right away, you won’t get the full Bobcat experience. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve went to random events or jumped in a lake on the spur of the moment

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