|I recently had the opportunity to talk with David Keymer, who served as a chief student affairs officer at SUNY Utica Rome; California State University, Stanislaus; and Zayed University (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) from 1983-2004. This is the fifth in a seven-part series in which I will be sharing some of the wisdom gleaned from David’s experience in student affairs across these varied institutions.|
I never intended a job in Student Affairs. I’d been a professor. My specialty course was on Machiavelli and More: Political Thought on the Eve of the Reformation. It’s hard to get more un-Student Affairs-y than that.
I moved into an administrative job at SUNY—the State University of New York—and moved through four jobs in five years on the way up. Basically, I was a jack-of-all-trades, trying to be useful at whatever the college needed me to do. And I wound up—with no prior experience in student affairs at all— the college’s first Dean of Students. I didn’t think of the job as a detour. I was still an educator and at the schools I’d attended and worked at, the dean of students was a real player. I found I really loved the work. For one thing, it got me back to students again and I’ve always loved working with students. That’s part of the reason I left full-time teaching because though I was good at researching, I didn’t like working in a room alone. I’m not a monk, I’m a people person.
Then I moved to California, where I was the first vice president for student affairs at Cal State Stanislaus. I’d done eight years as dean of students in New York, nine years as VPSA in California, and then I moved to Dubai, and for three years was the first dean of students at Zayed University, a public university for Emirati women. Until it was done, I didn’t realize how remarkable my career in Student Affairs had been. In all three schools where I’d worked, I was the first true chief student affairs officer the campus had had, which meant, among other things, that no one else really knew what I should do and so I could do as much as I could convince other people was needed to be done. I loved it. I really loved it. It was the perfect job for me.
But I didn’t come in with any expertise in any of the fields that constitute student personnel administration. I wasn’t a counseling guy or a student life guy or a res hall alum; I’d never worked in financial aid or educational opportunity or the registrar’s office…or athletics. I supervised athletics, too, at SUNY Tech, and if you knew anything of my history with Phys Ed courses, you’d know what a stretch that was.
I didn’t find it a problem though because the job of chief student affairs officer is so different from any of the subordinate jobs. Well, maybe not if you’re associate dean or something like that. But if you direct an office, you basically have expertise in a functional area and you know how people operate in that. And you have much more direct control over the product you turn out. If you’re director of counseling, you have a counseling staff with whom, you meet, you can set up counseling standards, everything will be fine. But if you’re a chief student affairs officer, you have a panoply of offices under you. I had 12 directors reporting to me in California and they ran the gamut from student recruitment, admissions and registration, financial aid to residential life, student life, the health center and things like that, various academic success and assistance programs, counseling, and various special entry programs.
The people who worked in these offices—really, really nice people—often didn’t see what they had in common because their particular professions came with a focus. That’s one of the first things that anyone who moves to a top or near-top job in student affairs has got to learn. All of a sudden, what you’re doing is outside the grasp of your own hands. And it may be outside the grasp of your own expertise. What you’ve got to do is persuade the people who work for you that they’re all in the same business, with the same ultimate end. The person who’s doing financial aid is helping students get into school and stay in school just as is the person who works in the residence halls. Students need many services and supports in order to succeed. Our job is to create the conditions that make it easier for students to pursue their educational goals.
Students don’t come to our campuses because we have good dorms. They’re not there because we have financial aid. They’re there because, ultimately, even if they don’t know it, they want power over their lives and to achieve that, they need to be educated. It’s our job to help that happen. If you can get that message across, instead of just talking about your expertise and your services as though they were stand-alone treasures, you can persuade everyone, even faculty, even other administrators who are competing for resources with you that there’s a value in supporting you.