Redeeming the True Sense of Student Affairs

Will it take a letter like this one two weeks or two month from now, Shane Cadden asks, to make COVID matter?
August 11, 2020

While my "Intent to Return" form now holds no value, and my time at the University of _______ serving as a hall director has expired due to becoming infected and then dying by way of COVID-19, I feel compelled to inform you that in the final moments of my life, this institution and field disappointed me. My career, which I stumbled into like many others, that once convinced and inspired me that our work with students could change our campus community and the world, instead turned into sadness. I am saddened by the appearance of hurried choices to reopen during a global pandemic, but even more saddened that the power, privilege and refusal to hear diverse and dissenting voices demonstrated everything we were taught not to be.

Why didn't I just resign from my role -- despite my principled disagreements and my underlying health concern that I probably should have taken the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for -- or simply go on strike in order to stand up for myself, my peers and my students? I did not want my "Intent to Return" form thrown back in my face as a retaliatory action by my boss as it has been in the past as a form of control. I was not well informed enough about FMLA by HR, and when I finally learned more, my boss was not timely enough to talk with me about it because they were too busy and said that we'd get to it later. And, of course, I was not permitted to go on strike.

Even had I wanted to pull the trigger on any of those options, I was admitted to the hospital not long thereafter.

I waited and hoped for letters or statements from leadership as I would in the past when we would have campus or global concerns about racial injustice or college shootings. They never came; it was just business as usual. But as a hall director, I was always reminded I wasn't part of the university business because I was in student affairs, which to multiple somebodies somehow justified my low pay as an entry-level staffer -- who never did entry-level types of work while also holding a master's degree. I won't really have time now to ponder the moment when it became abundantly clear to me that this was really happening to me and that, as many colleagues have told me over the years, "It is actually just a job, not a lifestyle choice as it's sold to people, even when you love it most!"

In my final days, fear of losing that job because of the perception I was not up to handling the false "lifestyle" choice of a 24/7 live-in professional consumed me. It was my job, it was where I lived, it was my career that would be trashed because I made a principled choice to walk away for speaking truth to power and taking care of my family and myself. I have witnessed it happen to others during far less dire circumstances.

Although I was surrounded in my last few years by loving colleagues, students and other members of this community, even their love could not protect me from this end. The rushed, reactive and reckless business practices of my institution will ultimately result in my worst nightmare rather than a sweet dream of pursuing a noble career and life in student affairs. If this field is to survive after my departure from it, it must discover and recover the passion -- yes, I said passion -- and the intellect to do what is hardest. Even when it is least convenient and holds career danger to do that which is hard in public view of our institutions and professional organizations -- places with powerful and privileged individuals who will often ignore dissent or not even allow for it -- the field must find a way to #DoBetter.

Like so many student affairs professionals, I was desperately searching principles, values and competencies that are supposedly guiding the field I once called my own. I recalled voices of past professors, mentors, peers and students themselves as I tried to do what was right, and in a timely manner, to make a difference. Instead, I found many of my peers writing their wills for the first time in their adult lives.

With professional training for the semester approaching, I even looked to my own institution's RA manual, which is littered with the words "If you see something, say something." Of course, nowhere in that same manual or in training itself was it ever described in detail what something was -- and how, without being clear, it was intentionally ambiguous depending upon who read it and was taught it. This call to attention of the risk of reopening residence halls and fraternity and sorority houses and the like with COVID-19 all around us is that something. I paused in this moment of crisis, because I feared my employer and the idea of student affairs being a "small field" (a toxic narrative) instead of prioritizing my life or those around me.

Ordinary professionals with grit and integrity, and who champion candor, can redeem the sense from the nonsense of student affairs by getting in what the recently passed John Lewis, who inspired this letter, called "good trouble." Student affairs professionals are encouraged to do and be all things to all people, especially in my area of campus housing. But we're never encouraged or inspired to get in good trouble, even if the professional competencies set forth by NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Ed and ACPA: American College Personnel Association speak exactly to that, if not using those words. My hope is that if ever there was a moment when professionals and graduate students could step forward to challenge the power structures at our institutions and in the field, it would be now -- a moment in our history when we can all come together from our various places of status and listen to one another and do for one another, not just ourselves.

I will not be with you any longer. But I hope I have not missed my chance entirely to say now what I should have said before. I was wrong not to do something sooner for my students, my fellow colleagues … and most of all for myself and my family. I plead with you now to please return to common sense and science and rely on what we know about students living in communities: sh*t happens … a lot. If the field continues to delude itself into thinking that it will not happen with a global pandemic going down, then all hope may simply be lost, because the field has made itself unsustainable unless it ceases in gaslighting itself.

When graduate students and professionals in the future study higher education, my hope will be that this field and those who serve it did what was necessary, said what was necessary, and innovated to make the college experience a wholly different and fascinating one. I offer this to you now, graduate students, peers and senior administrators across the land: let the spirit of good trouble infect you. Let the leadership we speak of get you to rise in the face of a terrifying time, and when you see something that's just not ethical or sensible during or after this COVID crisis, please say and do something. I wish I had done so.

I wrote this hypothetical letter this first weekend in August 2020 to be shared, because I don't want anyone to have to read something like it for real in the days that follow.


Shane Cadden is a career advocate and creator of Staffing for Social Justice & Sustainability in Student Affairs, now pursuing his next career opportunity while advocating for integrity and inclusion and championing candor. He previously served as assistant director of staffing, training, and leadership at the University of Central Florida and assistant director of housing and residential life at Vanderbilt University.



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