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Challenging the Role of Student Affairs

March 31, 2011

A massive dismantling of the student affairs infrastructure at Texas Tech University has placed many departments under the provost and chief operating officer, eliminating three top administrative positions and startling others in the profession.

The university says it will save $500,000 a year without a senior vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, dean of students and associate vice president for student affairs, and associate vice president for student affairs and external relations. But the move wasn’t strictly for financial reasons, said Doug Buchanan, assistant vice president for human resources at Texas Tech.

President Guy Bailey wanted a more seamless process for communication and work between the president’s and provost’s offices and the enrollment management and student affairs division, Buchanan said. “He had been looking at the idea of the reorganization of student affairs somewhat independent of this,” Buchanan said. “There’s kind of a confluence of things that made this the right time, or the right decision, to integrate the academic and non-academic lives of the students.”

The dismantling splits up the three-division structure in what was formerly called the enrollment management and student affairs department. In that model, auxiliary services, student affairs and enrollment management were all overseen by Senior Vice President Michael D. Shonrock. The other two eliminated positions, which headed the department’s student affairs division, fell directly under Shonrock. (There is no head of auxiliary services, and the enrollment management division head was spared but will now report directly to the president.)

Under the new structure, auxiliaries – revenue-generating pieces like housing and recreational sports – will be absorbed by Chief Operating Officer Kyle Clark. The “core” student affairs functions such as student life and student health and counseling services will go to Juan Muñoz, vice provost for institutional diversity and undergraduate education. All this separation makes for “a more traditional view of what student affairs is,” Buchanan said, adding that faculty and others on the academic side are excited to be more closely tied to the rest of student life.

But the budget was a “catalyst” to eliminate the administrative positions, Buchanan said. “It is fairly rare that in times of budget crisis and all that we go after administrative levels,” he said. “But I think it was especially important to the president to show that ... we take what we do seriously in terms of all levels.” (Earlier this year, Governor Rick Perry challenged Texas colleges to use “Web-based instruction, innovative teaching techniques and aggressive efficiency measures” to develop $10,000 bachelor’s degree programs.)

Tim Pierson, member at-large for senior professionals on the governing board of the American College Personnel Association, called from the annual convention of student affairs professionals in Baltimore to say that while personnel cuts are happening all over the country, he hasn’t seen this level of sweeping change before.

“Cutting administrative overhead is important in this time, but you have to be careful where you do it and what the real costs are,” said Pierson, who is also vice president for student affairs at Longwood University in Virginia. “It’s a complex setting today that needs great expertise at these levels…. Student affairs plays a huge role in developing the student that graduates from our college today.”

“Students spend 80 percent of time outside of class,” Pierson said. “Student affairs professionals need to be there for that.”

In a post on the Student Affairs Collaborative blog, James S. Frier, a residence life coordinator at Texas Tech, said he and his colleagues were “stunned” less than two weeks ago by the abrupt news, which they heard first from a local newspaper, and second in a letter from Bailey, which said the changes would allow the university to “better and more broadly serve its student population,” Frier wrote.

“Professionals around the country, and obviously those here in Lubbock, are concerned about what these moves imply about our institution’s priorities. The most commonly expressed frustration is that we eliminated about $500K in salaries and froze faculty salaries, but gave the football coach a $500K raise and hired a new basketball coach,” Frier wrote. “As institutions nationwide are faced with budget crunches it is likely that there will be numerous casualties – both of professionals and in some cases, of missions and visions. In our case, the reorganization will result in some Student Affairs departments reporting to the Chief Financial Officer – a fact that may have important implications regarding the execution of our mission. Only time will tell. Our job has not fundamentally changed; nor, has the reward.” Frier urged his colleagues to continue unfettered in their mission of serving students.

Student affairs officials chimed in with comments, noting similar but less drastic situations at other universities.

Some shared Frier’s grin-and-bear-it outlook. “I think as entry-level professionals, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the politics especially when situations like this arise,” one woman wrote, “but you’re right – your own fundamental mission hasn’t changed – to serve students.”

Others had more optimistic views. “I look at this time of eliminations, consolidations, mergers, etc of Student Affairs units at large universities as a reset in order to put the system back in check in order for it to grow and flourish,” one official wrote. “I'm not advocating for hacking and slashing student affairs, but we need to take ownership of what we do, step back from time to time and see if there are better ways of helping our students. We can't continue to do more with less, we need to prioritize what we do with what we have.”

While Pierson said Texas Tech’s chosen path is troubling for the profession, he acknowledged that as budgets continue to shrink, everything has to be on the table.

“I think student affairs is really critical in terms of how we assist students in keeping them in our classrooms. Can Texas Tech maintain their retention rates that they have by cutting out staff like that?” Pierson said. “Is this a worry for our campuses? Absolutely. But this is a sign of the times.”

 

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