Student Affairs Groups Won't Merge

April 28, 2011

In a much-anticipated and close vote of whether to consolidate the two largest national organizations of student affairs professionals -- ACPA: College Student Educators International and NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education -- ACPA members opted to join forces while NASPA members did not.

Following the announcement at 6 p.m. Wednesday, the general mood on the Twitter streams of student affairs professionals shifted abruptly from excitement to disappointment and eventual acceptance, with many members fearing polarization between the two groups (some did reaffirm allegiance to their respective associations), and stressed the importance of immediately moving on from the vote.

Several criticized ACPA President Heidi Levine for taking an apparent shot at NASPA via her blog post, which was among the first to indicate the results. “ACPA proudly chose to unite our profession, and NASPA did not,” the post said, in large, bold font. “While this news comes as a disappointment to the majority of ACPA members, ACPA has always been and will continue to be the association for our profession’s leading scholars, administrators, student development educators, graduate students and corporate partners.”

The NASPA website, meanwhile, posted only a joint letter signed by Levine and NASPA President Patricia Telles-Irvin. “Each association possesses long and proud histories and legacies of significant contributions to the scholarship and practice of student development and learning. At this time, it is our intention to lead each association with its respective visions, while at the same time, continue to encourage and support our ongoing collaborative efforts,” the letter said. “It is now time to focus on the future of our profession…. Though the outcome of the vote may not reflect your personal hope for consolidation, let's all be mindful to ensure that our future endeavors and efforts directly strengthen the profession within higher education.”

In NASPA’s own press release, its executive director, Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy, said the group is “uniquely positioned to address the increasingly complex and diverse nature of student affairs and higher education…. We are better-equipped than ever to successfully represent and serve our members during these challenging times.”

A nod for consolidation required a two-thirds majority vote from each association, but only 62 percent of NASPA voters favored joining forces, compared to 81 percent of ACPA voters. The vote was two years in the making, and, although the groups’ leaders generally agreed that their commonalities made a merger logical, opposition among some NASPA members had been building in recent months.

The two associations are similar in size and scope, and many of the subjects of programs offered by the two groups are similar -- diversity, student health, student activities and so forth. ACPA is smaller and has fewer resources. With 8,500 members, ACPA is about two-thirds the size of NASPA (though the membership of each group represents about 1,450 campuses), but has about one-third of the money. NASPA was founded in 1919, five years before ACPA, and still harbors a reputation for attracting more of the upper-administration crowd.

The associations are also similarly structured. NASPA has 25 subgroups, called knowledge communities, focusing on various areas of student affairs, such as health, minority groups, alcohol and other drugs, and assessment; ACPA has 20 such groups, called commissions.

Arguments against consolidation echoed concerns expressed on both sides of the aisle: that it would complicate governance, reduce association options and leadership opportunities for members, and create an unmanageably large annual conference. Critics also worried about the time and money that would be required to rebuild a new group’s influence and branding.

Supporters had said consolidation would only empower both groups and increase their effectiveness, better serving students. (As it happens, many on Wednesday night wondered whether the merger would have been approved had graduate student members been allowed to vote.) They also said a more sustainable group, in terms both of membership and finances, would make for more powerful lobbying for grants and federal funds and policy, and allow greater influence and more efficient collaboration between higher education groups.

The NASPA Board of Directors said Wednesday night that despite the group’s voting down the merger, member input throughout the one-month voting period made clear that there is desire for change in several areas. In response, the board this summer will begin “an ambitious strategic planning process to build upon our strong foundation to enhance our service to all members and ensure the future sustainability of our profession.” Among the points of concern: governance, the role of graduate students, international issues, and outreach to community colleges, small colleges and minority-serving institutions.

“While we embrace these areas of change and innovation, we do so in recognition of the strong foundation that NASPA and its members have built,” the board said in a statement, adding, “While the consolidation question has been answered, the NASPA Board is committed to continuing current collaborations with ACPA.”

A 2010 consolidation proposal by a joint committee with members from both associations said conversations about a merger have been brewing for 30 years. “ACPA and NASPA are marked more by their similarities than by their differences,” the committee wrote, while noting that competition between the two has “undermined both associations” at times. “ACPA and NASPA share similar core values including, but not limited to: diversity, learning, integrity, collaboration, access, service, fellowship, the spirit of inquiry, education and development of the whole student, multicultural competence and human dignity, inclusiveness, free and open exchange of ideas, advancement and dissemination of knowledge, continuous professional development and personal growth, and outreach and advocacy.”

The consolidation process would have taken one to three years, the report said.

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