Fostering collaboration and care: Meet Shruti Desai, new associate vice president of student affairs for campus life

Shruti Desai, Duke’s newly appointed associate vice president of student affairs for campus life, is determined to create an environment fit to support all students at Duke.

“The pipeline of higher education is changing. There are more first-generation and low-income students, more students of color from various faith backgrounds, more LGBTQ+ students as well as students with disabilities,” Desai wrote.

As a queer woman of color whose parents are immigrants, Desai added that she has had experiences with imposter syndrome, racism and homophobia but that she knows “how [she has] healed from the impact of those.”

“I hope that I bring some of that healing in the ways I lead,” she wrote.

Desai began her new role on March 15, succeeding Zoila Airall, who retired in December 2020. An experienced academic, Desai holds a doctorate in education from Maryville University, a master’s degree in education from the University of Georgia, and a bachelor’s degree from Mercer University. Prior to her appointment at Duke, she worked in higher education for over fifteen years, of which the past seven were at Washington University in St. Louis. 

In her associate vice president role, Desai will help oversee Duke’s relationship with student government at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Desai’s role also includes overseeing Greek life and involvement in identity and cultural spaces at Duke, as well as performance venues.

Desai’s main focuses this summer have been to find ways to support Asian students in the Duke Center for Multicultural Affairs, continue work on long term mental health support and support President Vincent Price’s anti-racism initiatives.

“This pandemic and the civil unrest in our country has brought about emotional and physical fatigue. The students I talk to are tired and the staff I talk to are looking forward to a light at the end of this long pandemic,” Desai wrote.

In spite of this fatigue, Desai acknowledged that “minoritized populations are dying at alarming rates and [she needs] to honor that urgency.” She hopes that a collaborative approach will “help us all find our way forward that honors our responsibilities to humanity.”

Senior Shrey Majmudar, a student representative on the search committee, believes Desai’s multicultural background adds to her ability to understand people from all walks of life. 

“I think Dr. Desai comes here at a crucial time in terms of representation for our Asian and Asian American students in general,” Majmudar said.

Desai added that it means a lot to him to be able to connect culturally, even if it’s just small things, such as when he and Desai had a conversation about how there are Indian grocery stores about 15 minutes from Duke’s campus

“Desai wasn’t afraid to answer the hard questions when students posed them, especially around student activism and access, and has years of experience working in higher education,” said senior Ysanne Spence, another student representative on the search committee  for the role and president of Duke University Union. 

Spence added that she hopes Desai will “tackle the siloed ways in which our cultural and affinity groups work.”

“Now, more than ever, I think it is important to institutionalize collaboration and connectivity between our groups and bringing in someone with a new and fresh perspective is one of the best ways to do so,” Spence said.

Mary PatMcMahon, vice provost and vice president for student affairs, said that Desai has a “particularly cutting-edge sort of understanding of intersectional identities and lived experiences of students who are at Duke right now.”

“Together, we can innovate and partner with cultural centers, work with faculty departments in intersecting academic disciplines and think about supporting an equitable campus experience,” McMahon said.


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