Dean of Students Allen Groves crossed the Lawn on a Sunday afternoon last winter, bracing himself against the 29-degree chill as he finally headed home at the end of a particularly tough week.
That’s when a student approached him, dressed as Gumby.
He couldn’t help but laugh. The student asked Groves (Law ’90) to come along to the shooting of a “Harlem Shake” video on the steps of the Rotunda. And as is his habit when a student asks him to get involved, he said yes.
The resulting video of Groves, in his customary bow tie and sport coat, doing a jig in front of rows and rows of wildly costumed students went viral on YouTube, with more than 340,000 views.
“He could be like a stuffy old man in his office who sees people for drinking too much on the Corner—which obviously is part of his job—but he wants to have fun with students and be an ally,” says fourth-year government major Brendan Maupin Wynn (Col ’14).
And Groves is unafraid to buck convention to do so.
On any given day, the 53-year-old Groves may be scooping ice cream for students in front of Peabody Hall, tapping out his latest tweet or sitting perched in a dunking tank.
“There are a lot of people, I’m sure, who would say ‘I’m not doing that because I don’t think that’s dignified.’ I view it differently,” Groves says. “I view it as building a remarkable relationship between me and the students that would not exist without my saying ‘yes’ when they ask me to do these things.”
As a result, in his six years as dean, Groves has become one of the most recognizable and well-liked figures on Grounds.
While tasked with overseeing safety and security and handling some of the most wrenching aspects of life at any university—sexual assault, hazing, aftermath of an overdose or suicide—Groves has become widely known for his accessibility and agility in bridging the generation gap. He publishes his cellphone number and responds to students’ text messages. He meets them for lunch, tennis or golf.
“What’s astonishing,” says Victor Luftig, an associate professor who teaches Irish and English literature, “is how well Dean Groves manages to project real authority and real knowledge, while at the same time being approachable.”
Those who work alongside Groves point to his unconventional road to deanship as one factor in his approach.
A Florida native, Groves studied history at Stetson University. Law school at UVA followed, and he served as area coordinator for 11 first-year dorms under Patricia Lampkin (Educ ’86), then the associate dean of students.
Groves then spent 16 years as an Atlanta lawyer. But his love of higher education never waned, and when Lampkin, now vice president and chief student affairs officer, called in 2005 to say the hunt was on for a new development officer in student affairs, Groves applied and got it. A year later, he became interim dean of students; a national search committee tapped him for the permanent position, which he calls his “dream job.”
“The fact that he’s a lawyer and brings a frame of reference that goes beyond the University helps a great deal,” Professor Luftig says. “He’s taking the broad view of a particular circumstance.”
Just look at Wynn. A highly engaged student who serves as chapter president of a nonprofit focused on making college affordable, Wynn was arrested in July after a mix-up involving a speeding ticket and a clerical error.
“The first thing I wanted to do was make sure Dean Groves knew,” Wynn says. “I knew he’d be understanding and would listen to the entire situation.”
Even in serious cases, Groves’ goal is rehabilitation; last spring he gave a TEDx talk in which he argued that expulsion actually makes the community less safe than an educational sanction.“His focus is on student outcomes, not what makes it easiest for him, or PR for the University,” Wynn says.
In walking the line between being advocate and enforcer, Groves points to UVA’s self-governance system.
When an accused student appears at a University Judiciary Committee hearing, Groves, represented by a student, serves as complainant.
“Most every other dean in the country is the enforcer,” Groves says. “You’re not just going to talk to him or her about what happened. You know at the end of that they’re going to tell you, ‘Here’s your punishment.’”
Freed from that obligation, Groves extends compassion and expects candor from the students—just as he is candid with them and their parents.
“He’s really open and willing to meet students on their terms,” says Sandra Seidel (Engr ’85, ’89), associate professor of biology and assistant dean. “Students observe that, and they also recognize that it’s genuine. It’s not an act. He’s a human being who works from his heart.”
Groves is equally outspoken in his support of students of various backgrounds. The Black Student Alliance gave him an award for being an outstanding administrator. On YouTube, Groves describes UVA as an accepting and supportive community in an “It Gets Better” video, aimed at encouraging young people who may be coping with bullying in light of their sexual orientation.
“When you come of age in a different time and you are keenly aware of the prejudice that can exist out there, it certainly makes it more visceral for you,” says Groves, who is openly gay. “I’ve been lucky. I’ve had a remarkably supportive family, remarkably supportive friends my entire life, my law firm, my fraternity, the University. I’m blessed in that I have never in my life encountered the ugliness that some people do.”
Whether through YouTube, Twitter or texting, Groves connects with students in the ways they communicate today. But electronic interfacing only goes so far, and he encourages both parents and students to get in touch.
“Pretty much any day, you can go to the Garden Room and he’s having lunch with students. He listens to their problems,” says Gordon Stewart, interim associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs.
Groves sees it as an investment, one that pays off when students hit a pivotal moment.
Sometimes, despite all efforts, the worst happens.
Back in February, Groves got a call that a first-year student had committed suicide. The call came at an already emotional time for Groves, who’d just returned from carrying the ashes of his beloved stepfather to the mountains of Tennessee, the resting place of his late mother. Groves assisted the police in finding the student’s parents and then met with them and the student’s friends.
It was the next afternoon when he encountered the student dressed as Gumby on the Lawn.
As they filmed the “Harlem Shake” video, the joy and enthusiasm among the dozens of boisterous students overtook Groves.
Coming at a time of such heartache, he grasped that joy with all his might. “I remember thinking,” he says, “those young people have no way of knowing the huge emotional boost that they gave to me.”