Dr. Keith E. Whitfield is president of UNLV.
When I joined UNLV as its president in August 2020, our campus – which would normally be brimming with the excitement of a new academic year – was a fairly quiet place. Nearly all of our 31,000 students were taking classes remotely, and my introduction to UNLV and our students and faculty was largely limited to Zoom screens and recorded messages.
Now, I know that’s how it was in most places, but as a new president it’s so critically important to meet people, to experience the culture of the campus, and to learn about our pride points and pitfalls directly from those who’ve been living it. That’s especially true for our students. I wanted to meet them – all of them.
So, my office set up a series of virtual listening tours that were socially distant. The sessions were an open opportunity for students to share anything on their minds. I learned a lot from the sessions, and there were dozens of them, about what UNLV students care about and what concerns them.
I walked away from the listening tour more determined than ever to engage with as many of our students as possible, many of whom were diverse, first-generation college goers experiencing university life for the first time– at home – while juggling the uncertainties of work and family obligations.
I know if we were going to expand our reach in these tumultuous times, I needed to get creative.
In early 2021, I toured UNLV’s Black Fire Innovation Center, the business accelerator and economic development hub at our research park. During the visit, I was introduced to Russ Logan and Monty Coon, two UNLV alums whose AI Media Lab operates out of the building. I learned about the innovative work they engage in surrounding high-tech digital avatars – including a digital Deepak Chopra – and it hit me. What if we created a “virtual president” that could answer student questions anytime, anywhere, and direct them to our many campus resources?
Realizing that there’s no way I could meet every student in a “normal” year, let alone a near global lock down, I also wanted a way to reflect the care and concern I have for students and their well-being.
AI tools for student support are increasingly common in colleges nationwide, but in my conversations with peers, a digital president that could engage directly with users was a concept that hadn’t yet been done. Text-based chatbot technology is important, but I wanted to take it a step further, to move beyond chats to purpose-driven conversations.
So we got to work. Using the insight gleaned from my many virtual conversations with students, my own experience during my 30-plus years as a faculty member and administrator, and the rich expertise of our university staff, we logged dozens of hours in the studio honing in on the topics that matter most to our students. The AI media team also took scans of me for the avatar part, which was a surreal experience (and it’s still an odd feeling to see a digital version of me).
We launched the Digital President Whitfield on our website in February of this year, and from day one it could answer thousands of questions on more than 500 topics, ranging from financial aid and parking to student wellness, mental health, and ways to get involved on campus. The conversations with users are anonymous – we don’t collect any personal data – but the topics and questions are collected to help us refine and constantly improve the product.
In the initial months, we reported thousands of interactions with the Digital President. Users asked a lot about me (and my dog, Groot) but also about reasons to attend college, how to access financial aid, mentorship, and – perhaps most importantly – about wellness and mental health.
Student mental health is top of mind for many university leaders today, but as someone with a Ph.D. in psychology, the topic really resonated with me. So this summer, the AI Media team and I consulted with our campus experts. They scoured university resources nationwide for common themes, and we held a follow up meeting with students – this time in person – to dive deeper into themes of mentorship, wellness, and mental health.
This new information, coupled with evolving back-end improvement to the AI technology, was incorporated into the Digital President in August and now allows us to proactively address concepts of wellness in our conversations. We can learn about what students actually need in the moment and answer even more questions directly or, if needed, quickly refer them to the right resources. We’ve also added mental hygiene and stress reduction tips that I’ve used and shared with students over my career. As the technology continues to advance, it may open up additional opportunities for proactive engagement with students at key points along their academic journey.
The challenge now is encouraging even more students to engage. In an environment where students are more digitally connected than ever to content, this may seem counterintuitive, but getting the Digital President in front of them – and keeping it in front of them – is a challenge we’re tackling head on. We’re using existing communications platforms, social and traditional media, email, and a few other tricks to boost engagement. Just like the real president, the Digital President learns and improves through interactions, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.
There’s always risk involved with anything new, but as a university leader, I truly believe we need to do everything and anything we can to ensure our students are supported on every step of their higher education journey. And if I can tag team with my digital avatar to support all of our students whenever they need a hand and give them a little extra encouragement along the way, I consider it a risk well taken.