Lee Bird is leaving a legacy of health and wellness and crisis management at OSU
From her 18-plus years on the job at Oklahoma State University, Dr. Lee Bird has a list of academic accomplishments nearly 10 pages long. She has influenced untold numbers of students as vice president of student affairs. She’s the pebble dropped in the pond, where one ripple leads to the next and the positive consequences cannot be measured, only appreciated.
On Jan. 4, Bird officially retired.
"I think the joy comes from allowing students in your office. About half of my day has been with students."
Bird got her start in higher education as a college counselor four decades ago.
“I loved it,” she said. “Then I went into housing and loved it. Then I did housing administration and loved it. I have loved everything I’ve done in student affairs.”
When Bird came to OSU from St. Cloud, Minnesota, she fell in love with the campus and students.
“The students were incredibly engaging,” she said. “The opportunity to work with these students has been remarkable. I think vice presidents choose whether they will be ‘tower people’ or ‘people people.’ I think the joy comes from allowing students in your office. About half of my day has been with students, and that just doesn’t happen on other campuses.”
Bird likens being the vice president of student affairs to being the mayor of a unique, moderately sized community. People need a place to eat, a place to lie down, health care, somewhere to relax, other people to connect with. Over the last two decades, there have been changes in what the university offers and what the students need.
“It’s not just providing services,” she said. “We are doing some great research on resilience. We are not just the fun people. It’s also real-life issues of health and wellness and crisis management.”
Under Bird’s leadership, the Threat Assessment Team has evolved into the Behavioral Consultation Team. In a crisis, help is requested at the moment of critical need. With the BCT, the goal is to identify struggling students and intervene much sooner.
“I’m very proud of the research we’re doing on wellness and student resilience,” she said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done in promoting engagement, which helps with the mental health issues and resilience. There’s a lot to be proud of. I have great departments, great people, great programs, great students.”
Bird and a former student created a program that takes their knowledge of student affairs to China. They set their sights on the university at Fudan, which Bird calls the Harvard of China.
From there, they created an international symposium on student affairs that’s entering its 11th year. OSU student services leaders go to China to teach classes. Then, more than 50 senior student affairs administrators from all over China come to OSU in an intensive one-week symposium. Bird and her directors lead classes on student conduct, career services and the American delivery of health care to students.
She’s also proud of OSU facilities, from the transformation of the Colvin Center and Seretean Wellness Center to the Student Union.
“What we’ve done with the Wellness Center, renovating that and the new equipment there — those are amazing facilities,” she said. “Now it’s one program called the Wellness Program. And the Union. We’ve won best Student Union in the country at least four times in the last 10 years. Unheard of.”
“Retirement” does not carry the typical meaning for Bird.
She’s a First-Amendment champion who speaks nationally on the subject. With a colleague in Tulsa, she is updating her 2006 book, The First Amendment on Campus, which has served as a handbook for university administrators on first amendment issues.
She’s also volunteered with the Red Cross for 48 years and hopes to join its disaster services. She’s renewing her EMT license. The classes for that started five days after she left OSU, giving her just enough time to paint the kitchen and garage first, she said.
She decided to leave while she still loved the job, when she could look back on a career well-spent.
“The best part of all of this has been working with the students and creating programs that help sustain them, work through the issues and help them grow into great human beings,” Bird said. “What has kept me here has been great students and great staff.”