Caleb Lee – Kennesaw State University
It’s summer vacation for the students and faculty at Kennesaw State University in metro Atlanta. Not so for Caleb Lee who’s got an extensive to-do list to complete before the campuses in Kennesaw and Marietta reopen in August.
Lee is director of housing facilities and that means upgrading and sprucing up units with 6,000 beds as well as tending to a slew of other projects under a tight deadline. There’s plumbing to test as well as washers, dryers, bathrooms and what-not. There’s furniture and carpeting to clean or replace and walls and ceilings to paint. HVAC may need fine-tuning, what with reliable air conditioning a must in the sunny South.
“There’ll be no rest for the weary,” Lee tells Blueprint as another academic year winds down this past spring.
But the load is easier to shoulder when one has a team, and Lee says he has a strong one co-fronted by Associate Director Zarko Pilic and Assistant Directors Carlos Reyes, Anthony Garcia Baez and T.J. Cornelius. Under that quartet are around 50 hired hands whom Lee says have earned the right to be spared a tight leash.
“We let them work without much interference,” Lee says. “The closer to the ground you are in an organization, the closer you are to the actual work that needs to be done. They do it well.”
No room for distraction
Having the clearly defined role of housing oversight enables Lee to concentrate on that one area, and he says it’s as important as any when it comes to sustaining a student population of 40,000.
His role also helps spread the word that Kennesaw State University is an agreeable place for a young person’s formative years. Himself a graduate, Class of 2014, the 32-year-old Lee can personally attest.
“I started as a student here and this is a place that’s invested in me,” he says. “I’m making sure to pay that back to my team and the community we’re serving.”
Lee having collaborated with the Association of Physical Plant Administrators, an industry group well represented in academia and institutions, he’s applied its guidelines while writing his own game plan for efficiency. Although his division long had a game plan, how much more effective he says it’s been since inserted in a 12-month calendar format.
Those 6,000 beds are in residence halls, suites and apartments, and the calendar specifies when Lee’s team looks at each. The preventative maintenance program is among the innovations for which he takes most pride.
The same goes for team building and advancement. There’s monthly skills training that Lee says reduces the need for outside contracting.
“We can call one of our team members and put them into that role,” he says. “We want our people to grow and their skills to increase, and we invest in them as professional staff members. We don’t want to lose anybody but there’s a strong possibility we will, and if so, we want them to leave with skills that’ll make them valuable wherever they go.”
He also likes for Georgia’s school districts to emphasize the value of the trades. The Southeast construction industry thriving, there’s increased need for electricians, plumbers, carpenters and welders, and it can be a challenge for a university to staff a team when the private sector can dangle greater incentives. Lee factors that into his personnel policies, alternating the periods when team members are on call. While Kennesaw State University can’t match most private-sector salaries, Lee might have more leeway in scheduling and emphasizes that his hires don’t have to take their work home.
Fall semester’s coming
That said, everyone’s certain to keep busy this summer. Lee can’t emphasize enough how essential the students’ living arrangements are to their academic and social success.
“We’re all here to help provide that positive impact,” he says. “Everything we do is an attempt to increase the quality of life and general experience for the students.”
Lee says he sure benefited from a supportive environment while earning his degrees in history and education. Coming from a family of modest means, Lee offset some costs by being a residential assistant and then lending a hand to housing facilities and groundskeeping. However, much as he enjoyed those roles, he never anticipated making it a career.
Teaching was his primary interest, and during his senior year he did student teach a history course at North Cobb High School in Acworth, Georgia. Upon graduating, however, teaching jobs were few and that had him staying at his alma mater and extending the roles he had served as a student.
The past nine years, Lee has held four positions, starting off as a customer service specialist and transitioning to occupancy management coordinator and associate director of housing facilities before ascending into his present role in November 2021.
“As a student I never realized this was a job I could do,” he says. “This world was foreign to me. I hadn’t worked with my hands but enjoyed it once I was into it. Being a residential assistant opened the career path that I’ve been on since.”
It’s been a most satisfying path and one in which he can empathize with the young people who essentially are his clients. Come summer, he says it’s always a moving experience when he returns to his freshman dorm room and reflects how far both he and the university have progressed. And though his team’s responsibility is housing, they still know they’re part of a more comprehensive unit.
“Our housing team isn’t siloed and that’s one reason we excel,” Lee explains. “Too often, universities separate their facilities department from housing and the two only talk as needed. We’re at the table all the time.”
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. VI 2023 Edition here.
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