Category Archives: Higher Education

Let Go

A few years ago, I moved into a smaller space, and I had to make judgments about what of my accumulations from over the years to keep and what to let go. Recently, I looked for a favorite fall jacket and when I couldn’t find it, I realized that it didn’t make the cut when I decided what to let go.

During the process of downsizing, I was faced with decisions about clothes, furnishings, and tchotchkes. I also had a huge store of files with articles and papers that I had accumulated over a 50-year career. Two large storage cabinets and five upright file cabinets were full of what I thought were important pieces of information that I might want to reference at some time in the future. At the time that I stored these items, I thought that they were too important to let go.

The files were alphabetized, from the first file cabinet on the left to the fifth cabinet on the far right. When I would pull out the top drawer of the first file cabinet, the first quarter of the drawer held folders that were all labelled affirmative action. The folders held articles that I had written about affirmative action starting in graduate school, as well as many articles written by others that I collected over the years.

Recently, when I heard news about arguments on affirmative action at the Supreme Court, I was prompted to go to my new downsized file cabinets to review some of the papers and articles on affirmative action.

I was stunned to find that I had let go of every single folder labelled affirmative action! In fact, it was a surprise to me that in the top drawer of my new alphabetized first file cabinet there were no folders containing topics beginning with A, B, or C. With the first folders now beginning with the letter “D,” I found “diversity” folders in the place “affirmative action” folders had once been.

This single word—diversity—and its many connotations has been the single thread and lifeline to maintain the spirit of affirmative action, particularly, in selective colleges and universities. In making the argument for the value of diversity for all students, colleges and universities had to let go of race as a prominent qualification in admissions considerations.

With the anticipated decision of the Supreme Court on affirmative action, I want to believe that there is no entity more capable of finding a way to keep the original intent of affirmative action/diversity alive than higher education. To let go of diversity—not only as a compelling interest for all students, but also as a way to ensure that Black students, faculty, and staff are well-represented participants throughout higher education—has huge current and future ramifications for the whole of U.S. society.

Notwithstanding the probable decision of the Supreme Court, let’s hope that colleges and universities will not let go of the spirit of affirmative action/diversity with the construct of race at its center.

Intent vs. Impact: Educational Access and Opportunity

Guest post by Shannon Ellis

I need your help.

Gwen has offered me this platform to speak up in defense of a post-high school education, especially for Black students. Right now, increasing numbers of students of all colors (and their parents) are being sold on the idea that education just isn’t worth the time and money.

They would be wrong.

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article by Oyin Adedoyingave us all the dismal report. “Black enrollment grew from 282,000 in 1966 to more than 2.5 million in 2010 but from 2010 to 2020, as overall enrollments fell, the number of Black students fell even more sharply, to 1.9 million.” 

Adedoyin cites a number of very valid reasons for this decline including the rising cost of college, skepticism about the value of a degree, economic hardship in many Black communities, and Black students not feeling welcome on campuses. I wish this were not true but on any given day at predominantly white institutions (PWI) this is the experience of many of our Black students.

Many of us who are White work to understand the experience of isolation and even hate that a Black student may experience at PWIs. I work with colleagues in the field of student services who face the truths of such experiences and embrace the mission to create a more welcoming and supportive climate for Black students and others who have been historically marginalized, excluded, and discriminated against. I am not alone. Staff and faculty of all colors with vast life experiences stand ready to work with Black scholars to make the leap into a PWI classroom, Western curriculum, loan debt, and a predominantly White surrounding community.

It is no wonder that historically Black colleges and universities are seeing record numbers of applicants in the midst of decline everywhere else. Yet we know that this is not an option for many Black students who want or need encouragement to pursue a post-high school skill and degree. PWIs struggle, have successes, hire more Black faculty and staff, engage in successful and unsuccessful recruitment and retention efforts, and continue to move forward even with setbacks. PWIs strive to be better places for Black students who want to pursue a vocational, community college, or university degree.

As institutions find effective ways to market themselves to Black communities, we need to acknowledge the realities many Black students experience. We need to assure Black students and their families that we mean it when we say we will put the time and money into change. Many of us commit to be leaders and allies, but no one more than Black students stands to suffer lifelong setbacks if we do not succeed. Put in a more positive way, compared with other historically excluded groups of people, Black students stand to gain more from American higher education in economic gains, generational wealth, career advancement, and health. Maybe even more than White students.

While attending a college or university is not essential for all, providing the opportunity for everyone to realize their potential is. Do you have a relative, coworker, neighbor that someone talked out of pursuing a post-high school vocational program or community college path or four-year degree? Maybe you know someone who expressed an interest in pursuing an educational program after high school but also expressed a lack of confidence. Well-meaning people often believe they are doing the right thing by affirming that self-doubt instead of working through the many ways to address each worry (money?) and set back (tutoring?). In my experience, it is often a loving and well-meaning friend or relative who affirms the fear, uncertainty, and lack of confidence that often surfaces when someone talks about “going to college.” If we think we are saving someone from debt or racism or frustration or even physical and mental harm, let’s stop.  We are not.

College graduates earn a million more dollars over a lifetime than those without a degree. Taking on loan debt is only a mistake if you allow yourself to drop out with no degree and increased earning power with which to repay the debt. View it as an investment and exhaust every scholarship application easily found online and in the brains of professionals in an institution’s financial aid office. Sticking with a full-time course schedule designed to get a scholar out in two or four years saves money in the long run (tuition goes up every single year) and gets a student out into the workforce with a salary and benefits.   Remember, we are playing the long game here – one for a lifetime.

Who do you know who could use that nudge, affirmation, and encouragement to sign up for a class? Did you support someone’s decision to abandon such a step in their life? Would now be a good time to go back and offer guidance and support? Maybe it’s you who told yourself that higher education wasn’t for you. Can I give you that gentle push to take classes, apply for financial aid, and connect with someone in the campus multicultural center?

Let’s be unrelenting in our campaign to create access and opportunity for Black students in the world of higher education. Regardless of a student’s academic record, there is an available community college, vocational program, or four-year school. The payoffs occur over decades of career advancement and earnings that are also associated with better health and longer lives.  At any age, Black students should create a lifetime of opportunities through education, so no door is closed.


Shannon Ellis is Vice President for Student Services at the University of Nevada, Reno. Ellis has served as president of NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and has published numerous articles and chapters in professional journals and books. Her ongoing research focuses on organizational transformation and the role of student services in tomorrow’s college and university.

Student Affairs and Social Change

When I was new to student affairs, one characteristic that my colleagues and I had in common was our background as student activists. With such a background, we understood the impatience of our students who wanted social change now and not later. As students learn the history of this nation and the history of the world, thinking critically about what they are learning often leads them to take actions in efforts to make a positive difference.

As I moved through the career ladder in student affairs, I kept thinking about the connection between student activists and student affairs professionals. At one point, I became inspired and excited about the idea of writing a book on student affairs and social change.

It was on Saturday, December 18, 1999, near the end of a five-hour beautiful dinner and conversation. L., our host, had “pulled out all the stops for J., K. and me,” Standing in the foyer of L’s home at the bottom of the stairs preparing to say our goodbyes, I was thinking about the year 2000 that promised a new and significant decade.

Suddenly, I asked everyone what they wished for in the coming year. All of us responded without hesitation:

  • J. wanted to have the book she was writing published and have Oprah love it.
  • K., who had lost a loved one and feared for the health of her spouse, wanted good health for her family.
  • L. wanted to win the lottery in order to establish a fun house for children and adults.
  • I wanted to write a book about the pivotal role of student affairs and social movements initiated and fueled by student activists.  

My response to this impromptu question was the first time I had articulated this idea. The idea had not surfaced so clearly before this moment.

Several days later, on Christmas Day, I was still thinking about the book that I had said I wanted to write. I was inspired.

On December 29, I wrote in my journal that I could write the book within a year despite all my other responsibilities. In my self-talk, I noted:

There is nothing to stop me but myself. Perhaps this book will be the doorway for future writing which could be my purpose. I want to make a selfless contribution to posterity in my lifetime. Maybe writing this book is my light that I must let shine.

Immediately after the holidays, I talked with respected colleagues who were authors of books related to higher education and student affairs about my idea. During each successive conversation, it became obvious to me that there was no support for the idea of the book or for my writing it.

Following these conversations, the energy and inspiration began to dissipate. I wrote a list of what I feared if I wrote the book and what I wanted to happen if I wrote the book.

In my next blog, I will share what happened…

Off to College: Student Imaginings and Creating an Aloha Spirit

I’m 18 and about to go off to college. I think I’m supposed to see this moment as an opportunity to refresh, to become untethered from my life before college. In other words, find my personal identity.

What I hope will happen in college is that I will find a core group of friends who are similar to me in some ways.

What makes me anxious about going to college is that the academics will be more challenging than I might have imagined.

People ask me if I’m excited about starting college. Although I say that I am, I don’t want to have expectations that are too high and be disappointed.

I think it will be an adjustment to have roommates.

Because my parents have taught me well, I’m confident that I will have good judgment about right and wrong.

I can’t wait until I’ve completed my first semester and I’m comfortable in the environment and with my routine.

I think my parents are as anxious as I am because they don’t know how well I will adjust.

I would love it if I can be the best version of myself and college proves to be a positive and inspiring experience.

It may be too much to wish for, but after the isolation of the COVID pandemic, I want my college experience to be an adventure full of fun encounters that I will always remember.


I’m 24, the single mother of a 4-year-old and I’m about to start college. I see starting college as a key and pivotal moment in which my life will finally come into focus.

What I hope will happen in college is that I will discover and develop talents that I never realized I had.

What makes me anxious about going to college are the challenges of doing well in school and being a good mother to my child. I will need to balance my life in a way that I’ve never had to do before. I’ve been successful in working and taking care of my child, but the addition of college courses will test my ability to do it all well. I’m fortunate that my parents are willing to be a back-up for taking care of my 4-year-old’s needs.

People ask if I’m excited about starting college and I tell them that it’s exciting and terrifying in many ways. My greatest fear is that the courses, faculty, and collegiate environment won’t live up to my high expectations. I’m willing to take out the loans and to continue working and doing whatever is necessary to go to college, so I want to know and feel that it is worth it.

I think it will be an adjustment to be in a classroom with students who are just finishing high school and with people much older than me. I don’t fit with either group. Although I’m relatively young, my experiences as a single mother have made me more mature in many ways.

Because my parents have taught me well, I understand that sometimes sacrifices must be made in order to accomplish your goals. I have the resilience to stick to my plan, barring negative circumstances beyond my control.

I can’t wait until I actually have my books and can begin my journey to reach my potential. I feel like I postponed my life by not going to college immediately after high school, and now I have a chance to fulfill my highest goals.

I think my parents believe in me and that makes all the difference. They have always had my back, and that fact gives me confidence that I can succeed.

I would love it if I could accelerate the time to complete my degree requirements and find a group of folks with whom I can develop friendly relationships.

It may be too much to wish for, but I hope that someone such as a mentor or teacher will help me discover what I know is waiting for me and will help me use my education as a perch from which to soar!


Though these future college students are in different stages of their lives, they both are hesitant to allow themselves to feel the true excitement of attending college. Why might this be the case?

Storybook and movie versions of college often depict an environment in which people are interacting and having fun together. Also, in imaginings prior to college, individuals cannot help but feel that this is an opportunity and time when they can be all that they can be.

These expectations can be shattered when in a classroom, residence hall, dining hall, or just walking across campus if they feel as if they are in the wrong place or that they are unexpected visitors. When one feels like this, headphones and text messages are a refuge. The student doesn’t have to look at those who won’t acknowledge them. They don’t have to risk looking at someone who won’t look back. They don’t have to feel the sting of being invisible.

College and university staff, especially in Student Affairs, understand the need for a welcoming campus climate and they provide resources for students to be involved or to get help when needed. However, it takes initiative on the part of the student or someone close to the student to move toward what is available to help students feel as if they belong at this college.

Many students genuinely don’t want to be involved in any prescribed activity. However they do want to be in a warm and friendly environment.

I think colleges and universities with students on campus ought to require everyone to do their part in making the environment welcoming. In short, everyone should contribute to an Aloha Spirit throughout the community.

I’ve seen the idea of creating an aloha environment work. Dr. Doris Ching, a highly respected administrator for years at the University of Hawaii, was president of the NASPA Board of Directors during 1999-2000. Traditionally, the annual conference is the culmination of the term of the board president and a showcase for their leadership. How well the conference was attended and feedback on the quality of the speakers and programs often served as measures of the success. 

Having no control over the conference’s location, which often drives attendance, Dr. Ching decided that the conference marking the end of her term would be one where every person attending would feel more welcomed than they had ever felt at any conference before.

Dr. Ching made it a thing that not just NASPA staff and volunteers, but every single person who attended the conference was given the duty to contribute to the Aloha Spirit. All the nametags had some kind of message such as “Happy You’re Here” or “How can I help you?” Dr. Ching, herself, was the role model, for there simply is no more gracious and welcoming person. She modeled how everyone was to contribute to the spirit of aloha.

In every way possible, Dr. Ching conveyed the message that everyone was responsible for making everyone else feel welcome. People got the message. Although it sometimes seemed that people were self-conscious about their active role in creating this warm and welcoming environment, they wanted to do this because Dr. Ching asked them to.

As we traversed the hallways, it seemed that everyone was smiling, nodding, and in some way greeting others. As we passed one another on escalators, we were waving and smiling as we greeted people. In the conference program spaces, people were introducing themselves to the persons sitting near them. I’d never seen anything like it. I observed and was part of this experiment that proved that an aloha spirit can be created when everyone takes responsibility for making all in the community feel welcome.

At the end of the conference, it didn’t matter how many people had attended. The point Dr. Ching wanted to make was realized. Everyone was an ambassador and felt personally responsible for creating an environment where everyone else could feel that they mattered.

Simple gestures such as looking at someone, perhaps smiling, or saying hello are small acts of kindness when encountering other humans, especially those in your college community.   Speaking and smiling when encountering a fellow human being is not just about manners. It’s all the other things that these gestures represent.

Constant and pervasive messages about everyone’s responsibility to create a positive and welcoming environment is worth a try. I saw it work at a conference where people were only together for a few days.

What effect might it have if the college environment is a mirror that reflects and reinforces the positive self-image that these students have of themselves as they embark on their college careers?

The Ephemeral Nature of “Leadership”

It is encouraging to see increasing numbers of people from previously underrepresented groups being selected as leaders of colleges and universities.

However, if they feel empowered by the title of leader, they must beware of the trap. Though it has a long history behind it, leadership is a false concept and there are no algorithms for it.

Leadership is ephemeral. It motivates on the one hand and mocks on the other. It’s like a specter. No matter how much one studies and searches for it, it will not materialize. Ghost-like, it floats in front of one’s eyes urging a chase.  

As ubiquitous and as powerful as the idea of leadership is, my wish for these new leaders is that they will experience the incredible lightness of knowing that leadership should never be an end in itself.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Identifying Your Institutional Purpose

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 final installment in a seven-part series in which I shared some of the wisdom gleaned from David’s experience in student affairs across these varied institutions.

Different people have different strengths.  You need to look at the institution really hard and find what your own strengths are within that context. Figure out what the institution is for. And what your role is in that. And don’t forget that.

It doesn’t come from the mission statement and it doesn’t come from any of the “official language.” It’s more like Cardinal Newman’s idea of the university in an ethical framework. What kind of a universe is a university or a college? What is it there for? What does it do for our society? What does it do for the people who go through it? What does it do for the people who work there?

And you need to remember that it is a community. It may be dysfunctional at times but it’s a community. Communities are good. We live in communities. You need to make your community work.

If you can keep a clear focus on what’s important, you’ll avoid the trap of slipping into a kind of imperial boat mode: “This is our Student Affairs Empire. Don’t you touch it because we’re in a pond of our own.”

We’re not in separate ponds, we’re all in one big pond (that connects to the larger world in myriad ways). And if you think that way, you have a better chance of understanding the concerns of the other players, and what language they speak. That’s something you run across in higher education frequently: barriers that are there because we don’t learn how to talk to players in the other boats in our common pond.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Documenting Success, Demonstrating Value

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 sixth 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.

One of the things I like about academics is that they tend to respect evidence. It doesn’t necessarily change their prejudices, but they do respect it. So, if you can get a large enough evidentiary base through student interviews and so on, and if your questions are consistent so you can kind of plot things, you’ve got exactly the type of evidence that academics will listen to. And it’s being presented in their language, not your language.

I think anything a student affairs professional can do to document the success of their endeavors is worth doing. Sometimes, student affairs professionals are so busy on the front end, providing service, that they don’t stop to think of documenting their successes and their issues. We need to supply evidence to other people that our services make a difference.  Like it or not, you have to sell yourself all the time.

We all have our own focuses. And we all want the thing we’re focused on to do well, and that’s one of the reasons for having a senior student affairs administrator on the President’s Council. The Provost is interested in students, too, but the Provost has the faculty, which is the 500-pound gorilla in the room. Faculty issues and concerns occupy 80, 90% of the Provost’s time. And when the Provost goes to the President’s Council to talk, that’s what the Provost will focus on.

Business and Finance offer a lot of services. But while they offer them so students can be there, students aren’t their primary focus.

The Chief Student Affairs Officer does two things. One is overseeing a lot of services that make it possible for students to get into the university, through the university, and do better. The second thing is being the voice for the students, for student concerns and issues, to make sure they’re heard at the highest level.

It’s a matter of focus: The Provost talks about faculty; I talk about students; the business and finance person talks about building plans or money; and the advancement person talks about university development. To do my job well, though, I’ve got to listen really hard to the other people at the table. Listening is a paramount skill—and if you do listen, and show them you’re trying to support them as well, you have a decent chance of being heard yourself.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Seeing the Big Picture

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.