Is it old-style thinking to work at partnerships, collaborations, and bridge-building between academic and student affairs?
Recently a colleague in student affairs was a little exasperated at the notion that student affairs is still talking about collaborating with academic affairs. The exasperation was based on this person’s sense of urgency that we need to focus on the issues of today such as ways to assess the impact of services, engagement of all students, completion with quality, and the changing demographics of college students.
Ironically, in looking at the list of issues we should be concerned about today, it becomes obvious that we must continue to work on collaboration between academic and student affairs.
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at a Northeast regional conference on service learning and civic engagement. In preparation for creating my remarks, I spoke with several registrants for the conference. As each one spoke about the context for their work, a running theme was their bafflement about and desire to create meaningful and effective partnerships between the service learning and civic engagement offices that report to academic affairs and their colleagues in student affairs offices. I was not surprised by the comments.
There are some root causes for the difficulty in collaborating on certain programs and activities. These root causes include a history and tradition that service and volunteer work called community service has been the responsibility of student affairs since the 1949 Truman Commission Report that addressed the role of higher education in sustaining the nation’s democracy and in “using creative imagination to solve the problems of society.”
Some decades later, the expectation and responsibility held by student affairs was replaced by service learning and more often than not located organizationally in academic affairs. While structures are still in place in student services for students to volunteer, the work has not had the explicit endorsement or imprimatur of the leadership of the institution as has service learning has enjoyed as part of the Campus Compact coalition. Despite the history of having a core responsibility redefined and moved organizationally, student affairs has the passion and skills to play significant roles as partners in the service learning experience today.
One example of the desire and capability of student affairs in the area of service is the response the NASPA initiative, Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, received when it made a call to its membership for 25 lead institutions to volunteer to share their efforts with colleagues about civic engagement of which service learning is so often an integral part. More than 100 colleges and universities volunteered and 50 were selected for the first-year of the initiative.
In talking about what could be the root cause of the distance between offices of service learning and student affairs, I suggest that we follow the principle of the root canal that we select with a problem tooth. Generally, before a root canal, there has been pain or some kind of disturbance in the health of the tooth. In rooting out the nerve from which the pain emanates, we save the tooth. In our situation about the root cause of the distance between offices of service learning and student affairs, the tooth symbolizes the concept of providing opportunities for college students to practice civic engagement to preserve our democracy and to learn to be socially responsible. We will do what we must do to save the concept and practice.
Ordinarily, I encourage student affairs to reach out, to take the initiative in collaborating with their colleagues across the campus. Today, I’m encouraging those in service learning and other offices of civic engagement to reach out to colleagues in student affairs. In hearing about the work of the NASPA lead institutions in the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement initiative, it is clear that student affairs is reaching out in all kinds of creative ways to partner. It’s time to meet student affairs part of the way in creating effective and meaningful partnerships to preserve the concept of service among college and university students.