Campus News

Housing director helps students belong

During the pandemic, Massey Award winner Allan Blattner expanded his role, meeting needs well beyond shelter.

Allan Blattner
“There were moments when I thought, ‘There’s no playbook for this,’” said Allan Blattner about navigating the pandemic’s many disruptions. (Jen Hughey/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Allan Blattner, executive director of Carolina Housing, is proof of the transformative power of living on campus.

Back in 1985, Blattner showed up for his first year at San Diego State University expecting to play soccer but didn’t make the team. “All of a sudden, I’m this kid from Chicago in a residence hall two weeks early. There’s nobody else around, and my whole identity is flipped upside down,” he said.

When the resident adviser, who was also hall council president, found this forlorn newcomer alone in his room, she appointed him floor rep and whisked him off to a leadership retreat.

“She didn’t have to do that,” Blattner said. “But she knew part of her role was to get people involved.”

Blattner got so involved in residence hall life he became an RA, hall council president and even chair of the National Association of College and University Residence Halls.

Some are called to a lifetime of healing or ministry or the arts. Captivated by the idea of enriching young lives and building community in higher education, Blattner devoted his career to campus housing.

For his work at the University, where he has led Carolina Housing since 2015, and especially for navigating the perilous years disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Blattner received a 2023 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

“Carolina Housing was a critical partner in the campus COVID response,” wrote Jonathan Sauls, senior associate vice chancellor of student success and administration, in his Massey Award nomination letter. “Allan would be the first to say that this tremendous achievement is attributable to the hard work and dedication of the entire housing staff. He is right, but without his servant leadership and make-it-happen attitude, we could not have succeeded.”

This story is part of The Well’s coverage of the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Awards, which recognize “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees. Find others you may have missed.

Keeping people safe and employed

Even without a pandemic, the scope and complexity of Blattner’s role boggles the mind. At just under 10,000 students, Carolina Housing supports one of the largest on-campus populations among its university peers. Blattner and his team of more than 50 staffers and 500 student employees manage a comprehensive operation that includes residence life, family housing, housekeeping, marketing and public relations, information technology and much more. He is responsible for some 3.3 million square feet of facilities and an annual operational auxiliary budget nearing $70 million.

Imagine, then, the moment in March 2020 when Blattner, hunkered with fellow campus leaders in the emergency operations center, realized he must press send on an email telling 10,000 students not to return from spring break — and that his office would let them know how and when to pick up their belongings. Entire rooms full. Thousands of them.

The pandemic trials had only begun. Blattner and team had to house around 300 students, including those from foreign countries, who had nowhere to go. Then came the need for isolation and quarantine. Carolina Housing supported residential students in more than 4,200 such cases, figuring out how to issue keys without personal contact. They fed students, called daily to check in. They worked with Campus Recreation to deliver yoga mats, put together kits with stress balls and coloring books — “silly things to get people out of their brain space a little bit,” Blattner said.

Once, when a quarantined student-athlete needed help staying fit for competition, Blattner’s team arranged for him to run an empty stairwell during a specific daily time slot.

“There were moments when I thought, ‘There’s no playbook for this,’” said Blattner, who, as Sauls predicted, is quick to credit his team.

“The mantra that kept running through my head was, ‘We have to keep people safe and employed.’” A lot of places furloughed or laid people off, he said. “We didn’t do any of that.”

“Being homesick is hard, but being away from home and sick is even harder,” wrote one student in a letter of thanks to the Carolina Housing team. “The support I have received during my ‘brief’ time here has been nothing short of phenomenal, and I can’t express with words how relieving it has been to be able to rely on the school like I have.”

Leading with a service mentality

Blattner found his calling after an upbringing that prioritized service. Raised in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, he was part of a tight-knit family that was active in the local community and Catholic church. When he was around 9 years old, his parents began caring for babies awaiting adoption, some 150 during a five-year span. “I learned to change a diaper at a really early age,” Blattner said.

He refereed community soccer as a youth and, at San Diego State, found other ways to serve and build community, predominantly in residence hall leadership positions. After graduating with a degree in public administration, he earned a master’s in higher education and student affairs from the University of Vermont.

Before coming to Carolina, Blattner spent the bulk of his career serving long stints at two schools: Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, where he was director of residence life; and UNC-Charlotte, where he rose to senior associate director of housing and residential life. “That let me kind of dig in deep, which is how I prefer to work,” he said.

His wife, Carolyn Blattner, who has also devoted her career to higher education, is associate vice president for academic affairs at William Peace University in Raleigh. They have two sons, including a 2019 Carolina graduate.

Providing more than shelter

Along with food and water, shelter is an elemental need. “If you go back to our psychology roots in Maslow, that’s where it all starts — a bed that is safe and secure,” Blattner said. “What I love about college housing is we don’t just stop there.”

Through the work of RAs and community directors and tons of programming, Carolina Housing helps students meet needs higher up in Maslow’s hierarchical pyramid, such as belonging, esteem and self-actualization.

And because needs differ from student to student based on all sorts of variables, Blattner and his team invest energy and resources in raising the level of cultural competence in the residential community. The goal? Create an environment that appreciates difference and advocates for inclusion.

“There are three things that every Tar Heel does: go to orientation, live on campus and start off in the College,” Blattner said. “At Carolina Housing, we have an incredible opportunity to help students figure out what it means to be a student here and how to leave their Heel print.”