Getting to know...Dean Roberta Bigger
Roberta Bigger, or Dean Bigger as she’s known to virtually everyone on the Wofford campus, was recently with a group of friends when she told them how she envied them.
“I told them ‘I wish I had passions like yours,’” she says. “One of my friends is an avid golfer, another loves boating and fishing, and so on. Then they said, ‘But Roberta, your passion is Wofford.’ I realized they were right. It’s what I do, night and day. I wasn’t able to have any of my own children, so I have 1,400 Wofford children instead.”
That she does. The groundbreaking student (she was one of Wofford’s first 100 female students, graduating in 1981), was the first female member of the President’s Cabinet and has become the first female Dean of Students, gardening more than just the vegetables and flowers behind her on-campus house. She tends to many students who may need a little help finding their identities.
“I like to think I have a soft spot for all Wofford students,” she says. “The students who arrive with initiative thrive here. They shape their own experiences according to their interests and their aspirations. But the students who we try to help are the ones who, like me when I was a student here, come in not knowing what they want to major in or what they want to do with their life.
For that reason, Bigger and her staff in student affairs (who she describes as "tremendous and without whom I could not do my job") have spent much of the last 14 years creating programs and services that not only support the students’ well-being, but help them identify what they are interested in, what their strengths are, and what they want to do for the rest of their lives.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “It’s great to see these students who come in knowing exactly what it is they want to do, and watching them accomplish their goals. But it’s the students who come in who aren’t as sure of their futures or themselves who need that extra support that I concern myself with the most.”
To fully understand why, one must go back to the late 1970s. Much like today, the economy wasn’t the greatest. Only some of the things we now take for granted were not so common back then, such as women at Wofford. Bigger arrived not knowing exactly what she was getting herself into.
“It was very interesting,” she says. “Looking back now, 30-plus years later, my view of it has changed. Now that I’m the Dean of Students I have the perspective of the college as an institution and its history. I realize I was a part of a major change in Wofford’s history.
“When I was a first-year student, there were 60 women on campus and 900-plus men. We lived in Wightman Hall that stood where the Milliken Science Center is now. We didn’t have another college experience to which to compare ours, so we were just going -- and changing Wofford along the way. There were fellow students who would hold the door open for us, and there were some who wanted to shut the door in front of us just to keep us out. Some of the upperclassmen wanted Wofford to remain an all-male institution. But the faculty was very accepting -- they encouraged and supported us. Dean Preston, Dean Dunn and Dean Thomas were constantly asking us what they could do, what we needed, that sort of thing.”
One month after graduating she was fortunate that Charlie Gray, the Director of Admissions (for whom she had babysat as a student) hired her as an admissions counselor. Roberta had been dating Michael Bigger (Class of 1980) and when they were married in June of 1984, Michael was working for Security Federal Savings & Loan in Aiken, S.C. Roberta moved back to her hometown for the first year of their marriage until Charlie Gray called with another job opportunity – assistant director of admissions. It was too good to pass up, so she took it, and she commuted back and forth to Aiken between Admissions trips for one year. In September of 1985 Charlie Gray hired Michael to fill in as an admission counselors for three months until he went to work as a financial advisor and investment counselor in 1986 in Spartanburg, and the two have been here ever since.
She remembers a funny moment (funny now, at least) from her days in the admissions office.
“This great alumnus, Grady Locklear, a longtime high school English teacher in Sumter, S.C., is also an avid antique collector,” she recalls. “His home is filled with priceless antiques. I was responsible for South Carolina high schools at the time, and Dr. Locklear was hosting a Christmas party in his home for both current and prospective students and I was invited. I was walking by the Christmas tree and the sweater I was wearing somehow got caught up in it. Only I didn’t realize it until it was too late. So the Christmas tree came crashing down with all of these crystal ornaments on it. “I was just mortified. But Dr. Locklear took it very well. Every year we produce a different Wofford ornament and I send one to him. I don’t know that I’ve made up for the crystal ones I broke that night, but I’m trying.”
In 1990, then-President Joe Lesesne asked her if she’d like to become his assistant. She gladly accepted.
“I worked in that position for five years,” she says. “It was exciting to learn the strengths, concerns and opportunities of the college from that unique perspective. In addition to all the wonderful aspects of the college – our students, faculty and staff, you are exposed to all the challenges of current operations and future planning when you are working for the president.”
Five years later Dean Mike Preston, who had been in his position since 1972, had sudden heart surgery and was unable to continue. The job was offered to Bigger, who again couldn’t say no.
“In hindsight, I didn’t realize I would need a law degree, a sheriff’s badge, emergency training and everything else,” she laughs. “But I’ve had great fun over the years getting to know the students and their parents. I get invited not only to weddings now, but christenings as well. The scariest thing was when someone I went to Wofford with brought their child as a first-year student. But I’ve gone through dozens of those at this point.”
The job of dean is often portrayed as staid and stuffy in the movies. One minute with Bigger and you realize how wrong that stereotype is.
“Some of my friends love to call me Dean Wormer after the character in the movie Animal House,” she laughs. “Luckily students today don’t even know that movie. One of my student assistants recently said to me ‘Dean, I wish everybody could work in your office and get to know you for who you are.’ I told her ‘They’re going to have to take your word for it.’”
She remembers her first confrontation with rebellion very well.
“My very first year as dean, Campus Safety and Residence Life staff started enforcing the college’s alcohol policy. We came up with contracts for the students to sign wherein they agreed to complete the sanctions for violating the policy. One night Dean (Beth) Wallace and I were on campus and someone got hurt in Marsh Hall. As Beth and I were responding we passed a door that had one of those contracts taped to it. Written on it in big block letters was the phrase, ‘Bigger is not Better.’”
The fact that she tells the story with a big grin on her face tells you about her sense of humor. Another clue is her new traditional role on Bid Day, when students routinely toss her into the fountain, regardless of attire.
“On that day, I’ve learned to lean toward picking out something that deflects mud, shaving cream and everything else,” she laughs. “It’s a fun day.”
While she appreciates the students’ zest for living, she also admires their quest for knowledge and life-enriching experiences.
“I think our students today are so much more sophisticated than I was at their age,” she says. “They’re so well-traveled, for one thing. When I was in admissions, it was very rare to see a student who had gone abroad during high school. Now I see so many students who have taken mission trips abroad or trips with their families.
"Something else I have enjoyed seeing over the last 32 years is the growing diversity (ethnic, gender, geographic and other) that we now have. When I was a student here, I’d say probably 70-80 percent of us were from South Carolina. Wofford was very well known within the state, and we were just starting to break out into the southeast region. But this year we have 25 states and five foreign countries represented in the Class of 2013. With our beautiful historic campus, the academic majors and minors and the additional faculty that have been added over the years along with the experienced and caring staff members who offer better programs and services, I love the fact that Wofford is a national liberal arts college now.”
Outside of her job, Bigger loves walking, reading, writing, cooking for her friends and family and most especially caring for her two miniature dachshunds. There is Emma Rose Wofford, named after her grandmother, and Josephine Victoria (Joe Torre) Wofford, named after the one-time manager of Michael’s beloved New York Yankees.
“Michael grew up with dachshunds his whole life,” she says. “For our third wedding anniversary I gave him a dachshund. These are our third and fourth dogs, and he loves those dogs more than he loves me. One time a student saw him walking them and said ‘Hey, those are Dean Bigger’s dogs!’ Michael said, ‘Oh no they’re not. They’re MY dogs.”
The Biggers, big and small, have a second house near Tryon, N.C. “It’s perfect,” Bigger says. “I’ve actually had to come back from there in the middle of the night, so thankfully it’s not too far away. But it’s far enough away that it gives us some privacy and also gives Michael a place to go where it’s quiet and he can work in the yard.”
Like most of the 1,400 students she looks after, Bigger loves to travel.
“I went to Italy to celebrate my 50th birthday,” she beams. “We have also gone to New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, Alabama and Isle of Palms this summer. “We’ll go anywhere, just give me time to pack a bag. My husband loves to play golf, so we’ve been to Scotland, Ireland, England and France so he could play some world famous courses. We also went on two alumni trips – one to China and one to Italy, and we recommend them to all alumni and their friends. It is a great way to travel, reconnect with friends and learn about one part of our world.
If you’re looking to get on her good side, here’s an inside tip – visit the local Starbucks.
“My guilty pleasures are caffeine and chocolate,” she says. “I’m addicted to coffee and we always have chocolate somewhere around the office.”
Perhaps her friends should be envious of her.