You’d probably do best to avoid taking a course with Tryan McMickens if you’re not an avid reader.

“What is a verbatim quote that stood out for you?” he asks the eight students of the assigned text for tonight’s three-hour class. Far from nonplussed, they are chomping at the bit. Then again, these are the higher education administrators of tomorrow.

Each class starts with students sharing a news story from the past week that has been trending in the world of higher education.A woman raises a series of racial incidents at Oberlin College. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I was in shock.” Another student adds that “hopefully people will learn from the discussions taking place.”
McMickens watches an animated dialogue unfold before finally interjecting,“As administrators, we have to come up with ways to respond to [racism]. What are our roles?” The dynamic is less like a class than an educational roundtable comprising a well-informed and passionate group of professionals.

“Professor McMickens generally rejects the traditional model of lecturing,” explains Nicholas Jordan Kaempf ’14. “He tries to break down barriers between a professor and the students and encourages students to contribute their own knowledge to class discussions.”

After the students review the week’s top stories, McMickens divides the class into work groups, each assigned to cover a different chapter of the reading for tonight’s topic, big-time college sports. Most students have highlighted wide swaths of text with memorable ideas and talking points. The group conversations are just as lively as the classroom discussion. The class reconvenes to tackle some big questions: What effect does the emphasis on athletics have on a university’s academic climate? Should there be a spending cap on athletics programs?

A look at the syllabus for the course reveals similarly challenging themes: college cost, financial aid, and affordability; student mental health, suicide, and shootings; race and racism on college campuses.

“He will combine presentations, class discussions, papers, group work/in-class exercises, and course readings to convey the particular week’s topics,” says Alicia Vinal ’13, “and he expects his students to be prepared to bring questions, ideas, critiques, criticisms, etc. to the table. The learning process is not one-sided in his courses!”

McMickens influences the collegial, professional tone not only of the course but of the program. He is involved in the admissions process with most of the students for the Administration of Higher Education (AHE) program, so he has a hand in shaping its composition. “I am particularly looking for students who are curious, conscientious, and willing to make a meaningful contribution to the evolving field of higher education,” he says. The 40 to 50 AHE students learn about research, finances, organization, and legal matters of higher education, and, says McMickens, they receive “individualized learning, teaching, and research opportunities.”

Growing up in a working-class household in Canton, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, McMickens was a first-generation college graduate. Yet, he says, his family and community “encouraged me to pursue a higher education at a very early age.” His favorite teacher at the predominantly white public high school he attended dealt him a “huge blow” when she recommended he not consider a historically black college.

“She told me those schools would not be the best fit for me because those schools are not the best schools,” he told U.S. News & World Report for its special 2007 edition, “The Crossroads of History: America’s Best Black Colleges.”

However, McMickens chose Tuskegee University, a historically black college, for his undergraduate degree. He then followed his partner (now wife) to Boston so she could pursue her education. Here, he found the AHE program at Suffolk a good fit for his future goals. McMickens received a master’s degree and completed a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania.

“My original goal for pursuing degrees in higher education was to become president of a university,” McMickens recalls.

“Although I am still interested in a senior academic and/or administrative position, I am finding that the creation of new knowledge is very fulfilling, and teaching is paramount to addressing many of the salient issues in American higher education.”

McMickens’ decision to affect education at the grassroots level, in the classroom, can be seen in the students he selects for the program, the teaching style he models for them, and, yes, the work ethic he instills in them.

The course “requires a lot of reading and time spent working on the material outside the classroom, but it all comes in handy when you are participating in class discussions,” says Caitlyn Connerty ’14. “You can tell he truly cares about what his students are learning and wants to push them to be the best that they can in this field. It’s a challenging teaching style, but it’s definitely effective and makes you want to do well in the course.”