When the student development pioneer William Perry was researching male students enrolled at Harvard University in the 1950s and ’60s, he concluded that, when left on their own, students generally figure things out and make the right decisions. “Students are lively makers of meaning,” he famously said. The quote is often interpreted as advice that the grown-ups should stay in the background and create the conditions for students to manage the process of their own growth and development.
Today’s senior student affairs officer would be ill-advised to follow Perry’s direction: the pressing complexities of the campus environment for students, when combined with the societal and institutional demands for accountability, safety and “return on investment,” have created a student affairs environment that demands careful planning, strategic thinking, managerial skill and much soul-searching. Campus leadership in student affairs today is not for the faint of heart. Even the most seasoned student affairs officers can struggle to make meaning out of their daily toil.
A Foreboding Climate
The role of the senior student affairs officer has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. The management of student mental health issues, the increasingly regulated environment with regard to sexual assault prevention and oversight of Title IX compliance, and the mandate to be prepared for emergency and natural disaster or intentional violence combines with other factors to create a complex role. It is more about handling risk and liability management, facing the campus-based fallout from intractable societal problems, and preparing for the unthinkable than it is about supporting the academic program with a thoughtfully coordinated set of out-of-class experiences.
The national climate on race relations, the continuing challenges to define “free speech,” the uncertainty of changes in regulations for international students and scholars, the presence of Black Lives Matter groups on campus, and the focus on a community’s relationship with local law enforcement, including campus police units, all inform the campus response to the new administration’s early days in office. This is the emotionally charged setting in which student affairs leaders and faculty members attempt to balance competing priorities and create some sense of community for students from around the world.
Levester Johnson, the vice president for student affairs at Illinois State University, notes, “The current national climate challenges every SSAO to consider both operational and strategic initiatives to address civility and activism on our college campuses. It is imperative that we identify best practices for fostering increased civility and respect among community members. Student affairs leaders must also establish guidelines and protocols for addressing campus activism, including protests and potential occupation, while at the same time, clarifying the appropriate advocacy, support and administrative roles for practitioners that support civil discourse and activism.”
New Issues and Complex Challenges
Counseling centers are overwhelmed by the demands for their services and by the complexity of the presenting issues they see. Faculty members are concerned and afraid when they confront serious mental illness in the classroom that shows up in behavioral challenges, submitted writing and advising conversations. Graduate schools are increasingly aware of the fragility of their students and the isolation that can accompany intensive research agendas and discouraging prospects for postgraduate employment. Community colleges, whose open doors meet an urgent national need for access and affordability for students of all ages and backgrounds, are not able to keep up with the demands for services from students with complicated histories, both academically and personally.
The student affairs conversation increasingly includes discussion of student hunger and homelessness -- realities that student affairs staffs have been dealing with for years that have moved into higher education’s collective consciousness. Nonprofits like Guardian Scholars and the Wily Network join a growing group of agencies managing the transition from foster care to the campus -- they are all manifestations of the demands on campus programs and services to respond to urgent societal needs. The university cannot be seen as a refuge from the realities of the contemporary world. This is the list of issues from which the student affairs officer attempts to “make meaning” on a daily basis.
Culpabilities and Constituencies
Establishing detailed protocols for student hospitalizations, suicide attempts, sexual assault investigation and simulations of active-shooter scenarios are a routine part of in-service training for all levels of student affairs professionals. Further, staff members need to be ready to support students from stressed home situations and those who are in developmental transitions. They include increasing numbers of students in gender transition; growing numbers of international students who come to the United States from countries in turmoil and whose future in the United States seems uncertain; and many domestic students whose high schools and hometowns have not had the strength of infrastructure to prepare them -- socially or academically -- for the rigors of the curriculum and the expectations of independence needed for success in a residential living situation.
For a president who is in a position to hire a new senior student affairs officer, the temptation to “find someone who can handle all of the student issues” is certainly understandable. However, it no longer works that way. The “right” student affairs officer can’t make all the ills of the campus go away, and the presence of significant problems, crises and tragedies on a campus does not reflect an inadequate student affairs team. In the all-too-frequent instance of student death by accident, violence or suicide -- perhaps the ultimate heartbreak for a campus -- there is sometimes a deeply felt communal sense of culpability. This is a very different and potentially much more productive response than the unfortunately more typical response to find the culprit, assign blame and determine “accountability.” Right or wrong, student affairs officers have lost their jobs as one element of helping to heal a campus in distress.
Career Advice for the Long Haul
How does a professional in this field envision a potentially 40-year career commitment to students and their lives outside of the classroom? For M. L. “Cissy” Petty, Loyola University New Orleans’s vice president for student affairs, it starts with a deeply felt resonance with mission and a commitment to a full and satisfying life outside of the campus. She offers the following advice.
- Make sure you are working at a place you believe in -- you can’t sustain the commitment without that.
- Work on your relationship with your president. You must understand each other’s shorthand, and you will need to correctly predict how the president will respond under many different circumstances.
- Invest in your team. You can’t do it all, and you shouldn’t be around all the time. Give other people the chance to be center stage; develop your staff with opportunities for visibility and exposure. You will never get to go on vacation if you are perceived as the only person who can get anything done in your unit.
- Cultivate relationships with people who don’t know or care much about student affairs. It is beneficial to have a set of friends whose professional lives are different than yours.
- Practice yoga, ride your bike or run around the campus. A commitment to wellness in your own life is a great help in managing the very real stress that accompanies a career in student affairs.
Is It Worth It?
Petty suggests balance and focus as the keys to long-term satisfaction in an intensely complex field. Despite the monumental challenges, you can still find great reward and fulfillment in student affairs careers. Student affairs officers and their teams are doing vitally important work. Their responsibilities are central to maintaining the fabric and vibrancy of campus life. As Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, is fond of saying, “This is our time. Student affairs has never been more important on campus than it is today.”
For truly committed individuals, student affairs jobs provide the opportunity to engage deeply with the campus community at its most honest and during its most vulnerable moments. Student affairs jobs require a thicker skin and more subtle skills than in the past, but the chance to make a meaningful difference within higher education is -- sometimes painfully -- clear.
Sheila Murphy  is a search consultant for the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer’s education practice, where she leads the student affairs practice. She also supports nationwide searches for presidents, chancellors, provosts and deans, as well as other senior leadership positions in higher education. She spent 30 years as a senior student affairs officer before joining Witt/Kieffer.