For Winston Crisp ’92 (JD) to give out his cellphone number to a couple of thousand anxious parents each year for use in case of an emergency, he had to make darn sure he didn’t give them any reason to call. As vice chancellor for student affairs at UNC since 2010, he had the responsibility of ensuring that students remained safe and well during a time in their lives when they seem preordained to make mistakes and learn from them. It didn’t take students — and their parents — long to trust that they could take him at his word.
Gregarious and approachable, “Vice Crispy,” as he was known on Twitter, connected instantly with students. His mission was to help them find their place at UNC. He believed that every student, no matter what adjective preceded their name, whether self-imposed or thrust upon them, deserved the same opportunity to achieve. He honored the story behind each individual who arrived on campus.
Winston has his own story, of course. A Fayetteville native, he grew up in towns across the U.S. and Europe as the family followed his father’s career in the military. Eventually, the family returned to Fayetteville, where they had kin on both sides. Winston earned his undergraduate degree at Johnson C. Smith University before enrolling at Carolina Law.
Apparently, he’d exhausted his wanderlust by the time he got to Chapel Hill, because he never left. His mentor and the law school dean at the time, Judith Wegner, recognized the natural-born teacher in him and persuaded him to become her newly created assistant dean for student services. Every time he got restless, some new challenge would open up at UNC: associate dean for student services at the law school, then over to main campus as assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, then dean of students. Nearly 30 years after he came to campus as a One-L, he retired, in October 2018.
In 2005, the Student Bar Association established the Winston B. Crisp Award to recognize students with extraordinary leadership. In 2014, he received the Hortense K. McClinton Outstanding Faculty/Staff Award from the GAA’s Black Alumni Reunion. The recognition he said was the most significant he’d ever received came in 2019: The offices of UNC Student Government in the union will be named for him. He was honored again this morning when he gave the Commencement address at the School of Law.
Winston served as primary crisis manager for the campus, from the small everyday flare-ups to the devastating losses. As disruptions of various sizes and origins detonated around him, Winston was the rock on which others steadied themselves. Such was his reputation for balancing the anxiety and sadness of others that UNC loaned him to Virginia Tech to help after a mass shooting at that campus in 2007.
Students came first in Winston’s priorities. He always found time to mentor and meet with them individually. He considered no problem too small, if it felt big to a student. He was a visible and active presence where students went, such as when he attended Halloween festivities on Franklin Street, and he made sure the University maintained a strong working relationship with Chapel Hill where the students’ interests were concerned. He recognized that despite people’s differences, their core needs for connection are the same.
Which is not to say he didn’t lower the boom when necessary. He took the work of the Campus Alcohol Task Force seriously in its attempt to quell underage or excessive alcohol use. After stepping in to straighten out one fraternity party calamity too many, he called a house meeting and “used strong language” to get across his point that he had reached his limit. His “tough, in-your-face challenge” was necessary to change unhealthy behaviors, he said. More quietly, he strolled Franklin Street during Halloween festivities as a resource to get ahead of any problems.
Winston aimed to ensure every student got a shot at success. He led the University’s student crisis team, and he convened a mental health task force to assess the mental health care needs of students, recommending how to fill any care gaps. He co-chaired the Chancellor’s Task Force on History, working to tell the complete and accurate history of Carolina. He supervised a dozen departments that address student needs, such as Recreation, Career Services, the LGBTQ Center, Disability Services, Campus Y and Carolina Parent programs. These programs and services benefit the nearly 18,000 undergraduates and 11,000 graduate students enrolled at UNC.
In charge of leading the new-parent orientation sessions, he gave speeches that became legend. Colleagues describe his ability to do standup comedy while delivering a complex message to parents about letting their children grow. He coached parents about not micromanaging their children’s development. They could see that he understood what they were going through — having to let go every year of students he’d connected with for four years gave him parental insight.
Some of the students he worked with early on are now the anxious parents of the students he worked with more recently. He’s still giving out his phone number.
The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations are read to the audience at the Annual Alumni Luncheon and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.