At Campus Health, new leader vows student focus

Martha Sanchez, News Editor

Caesar Ross, Campus Health’s new assistant vice president, joined Tulane after 17 years in a similar role at Coastal Carolina University. (Courtesy of Caesar Ross)

At colleges everywhere, the issue is urgent. 

A mental health crisis is gripping campuses. One in five young adults suffer from depression. Demand in university counseling centers has soared. More than half of college students endure at least one mental health problem.

It is all a stark, crucial challenge for Caesar Ross, who took over Tulane University’s Campus Health department this February after leading Coastal Carolina University’s health center for 17 years. 

His main focus: “Students, students, students,” Ross said last week. “That’s what keeps me motivated, keeps me moving forward. That’s why I like what I do.”

Ross steps into the new role shadowed by the turmoil that engulfed Campus Health over a year ago. More than a dozen staff members quit amid heavy caseloads and allegations of a toxic, abusive workplace. 

It became a troubling cycle; employees left, they said, because tensions with former department leadership hit a breaking point. Those who stayed took on more work until it became unbearable, and they resigned too. 

Two senior Campus Health leaders stepped down last spring. Tulane hired a new Counseling Center director in October. And Ross visited campus for the first time last fall.

Ross will direct a few main changes in his first year, some recommended by a consulting group Tulane hired to improve Campus Health last April. He will hire a medical director and a director of The Well for Health Promotion, a student health programming service. His staff will study patient surveys, follow up with students and look for patterns in responses. And he will help unite Tulane Campus Recreation under the wing of Campus Health.

“We gravitated toward him because he was very student-centered,” Student Affairs Vice President Dusty Porter said. And nearly two months into the job, Ross said it again and again: the focus is on students. 

“You’re our customers,” Ross said. “In order to meet your needs, why not ask you?”

Crucial moment

Now, Ross is listening. After his job orientation, he explored campus. He visited the Counseling Center unannounced to meet therapists who were not in sessions. He did the same at Campus Health.  

“I do pop-ins,” Ross said. He plans to visit the recreation center to chat with students soon, too. He has a list of 10 student organizations to talk to and has already met with the Graduate and Professional Student Association and Tulane University Peer Health Educators. 

He is not naive about Tulane’s challenges. Campus Health needs to hire two directors and fill eight roles that remain open. Tulane competes for those hires with other big healthcare chains like Louisiana Children’s Medical Center, which purchased Tulane’s three area hospitals in October. Many Campus Health staff are so new that they do not yet have pictures on online bios.

But Ross said he is excited to join Tulane and took the job in part because he felt it would let him play a “critical role” in improving student healthcare here.

“This is a time in which students just want more options,” Ross said. He is aiming to lower appointment wait times through telehealth, which allows students who cannot be seen the same day in person to quickly meet a physician online. Campus Health will likely expand virtual appointments to the Counseling Center this year. He also hopes to hire more students in Campus Health internships. 

“We’re living in this era where health and wellness is all around us all the time,” Porter said, citing the pandemic, mental health and the reversal of Roe v. Wade last summer. “All this points to the fact that health and wellness of our students — it’s just paramount.” 

South Carolina to New Orleans

To understand Ross, it is important to know that he keeps his blinds open. 

It is symbolic of his philosophy: Be accessible. Listen to your community.  

“People look in and wave at me all throughout the day,” Ross said. He hopes any students he sees pass by his first floor Willow Street office would feel comfortable bringing him concerns. 

Porter described Ross as approachable, nurturing and caring. He signs his emails, “In health.” 

Ross was hired after a six month search. Porter and Campus Health staff led a committee that chose him out of three final candidates, all of whom visited campus last November. Students involved with Campus Health through Tulane Emergency Medical Services and Sexual Aggression Peer Hotline and Education spoke with finalists too. 

Ross began his career as a social worker. He has worked at the Florida Department of Health and the CDC. He was assistant director for Student Health Services at the University of Central Florida and Florida International University and was director of student health at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. He was hired to lead Coastal Carolina’s Student Health in 2006.

He earned a master’s degree in public administration from UCF and last week, he finished a doctorate in health administration from the Medical University of South Carolina. His dissertation work focused on privacy in telehealth. 

Ross and his family — “my girls,” he called them — moved here before Mardi Gras. “You all have been just very welcoming,” Ross said. Now, he keeps a Zulu coconut and a Muses shoe in his office, all gifts from new coworkers. 

Tulane and Coastal Carolina have similar undergraduate enrollments and their student health centers have the same mission. Coastal Carolina staff did not return calls seeking comment this week.

Ross was Coastal Carolina’s first director of student health, and the staff there is smaller — three physicians, four registered nurses and three nurse practitioners. Here, Ross has a larger staff and six direct reports. 

“I can’t assume one size fits all,” Ross said. “Tulane students will have unique needs.” 

He chose the job to help students here but also admired Tulane because of its reputation and retention rate. And he liked New Orleans. 

“I felt the warmth, the diversity, the inclusiveness of the city,” Ross said. “That was a draw.”

“An advocate”

Over his career, Ross has learned a few lessons. 

One: Get comfortable talking — about everything. 

“I’m quite comfortable with a lot of topics,” Ross said, in part because of early experience in social work. “That was my first exposure to the impact that mental health can have on families and communities.” 

Two: Meet people where they are. 

Working as a public health advisor taught him to bring healthcare to people without “expecting communities to come to me,” he said. 

He visited the Graduate and Professional Student Association at their general assembly in March. There, president Ania Smith said he expressed enthusiasm and gave graduate students, who sometimes feel disconnected from student health services, “lots of space to express our thoughts.” 

“Him appearing at the meeting and listening to the concerns of graduate students,” Smith said, “Not through me, but through other students within the assembly directly, is definitely a show of commitment.”

Ross said he likes to ask people three questions: What should Campus Health start doing? What should it stop doing? And what is it doing right? 

“This is all about listening,” he said. He would also like students to know that he is a parent of a college graduate and understands helping students thrive at universities. 

“I want students to know that they have an advocate,” Ross said. “I want them to feel comfortable coming to me and sharing your experiences.

“Good, bad or indifferent, I need to know.” 

On Wednesday, his blinds remained open.

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