Category Archives: Higher Education

Campus Climate: The Significance of Thoughts and Feelings

It used to make me angry and demoralized to think that my race, gender, assumed economic position, body image, sexual identity, religion, or my divergence from commonly accepted standards of beauty could diminish the power of my contributions, whether in public speaking, writing, or being part of a group where I was the minority. These prejudices were wrong and will never be right. In hindsight, though, I am grateful for the results these challenges afforded me.

I think that these challenges and experiences have…

  • been invaluable in enhancing my desire and capacity to learn about the lives and experiences of others, especially those who are often described as “marginalized;”
  • deepened my well of empathy and compassion for others;
  • honed my skills in identifying and supporting individuals and groups who feel that they don’t belong and are not valued; and
  • fueled my resolve to be ever diligent in remaining self-aware in my interactions with others.

Recalling and reflecting on my experiences leads me to conclude that they have been instrumental in making me the person I am, for which I’m grateful. However, the intellectual analysis is only part of the reflection:

  • The feelings of pain, humiliation, and anger are easily relived when I recall how vulnerable I felt as a student. I sometimes wonder how I might have achieved at my university if I had not feared and distrusted my academic adviser, who was also one of my professors.
  • These feelings were magnified within me because I felt that assumptions were being made about my intellectual abilities leading to questions about whether or not I had the right to walk the grounds and enter the classrooms.
  • The times when I felt worse were those times when I was made to feel invisible.

Recalling my feelings and thinking as I do now, I’m encouraged that many colleges and universities are taking their role as humanist institutions seriously by taking giant steps to create a campus climate where no one—faculty, staff, student, or administrator—will feel as I often felt on college and university campuses in each of these roles.  

Pushing on…

Despite intermittent squalls, heavy rains, and poor visibility, students, faculty, staff, and administrators push on in preparing for what used to be the beginning of the traditional academic year.

Why students push on

To increase their learning, which contributes to the development of the means to challenge the fairness of the distribution of power and thereby contribute to the fulfillment of the promise in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Why faculty push on

To provide learners the opportunity to develop critical-thinking tools in order to discern for themselves whether or not there is a systematic plan to stratify people into groups where some are always the most needy.

Why professional staff push on

To provide the environment in which students have the opportunity to create experiences that will help them develop the skills to speak up about inequities and lead communities in public problem solving so necessary for a democracy.

Why support staff push on

To provide the safety net of strong, sometimes invisible, sinews that hold the academic community together.

Why administrators push on

To demonstrate strong leadership in turbulent times because our hope is in a new generation of leaders who can help the nation move toward the fulfillment of the promise in the Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States…promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

 

Do You Know Where You’re Going To?

orientation_SLCCM79It’s 1979. I’m at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, a suburb outside of St. Louis and it’s my turn to be the lead counselor in planning the fall semester orientation. All students are required to attend orientation, followed by a one-on-one session with an educational adviser or counselor in order to select their course schedule for the semester.

In satisfaction surveys across colleges and universities, orientation always fared poorly. Students didn’t want to take the time to attend and when they were required to attend, they often rated it as poor and a waste of time. Ever the optimist and striver, I wanted the orientation that I planned to be different than some of those I had suffered through along with students in previous years.

I had two objectives in mind as I planned the program. First, I didn’t want the program to be boring, so I needed something that was a little unusual. Second, and most importantly, I wanted the program to meet students where I thought their heads were when they decided to attend the community college.

Although mostly white, the students were diverse in age and background. Similar to today’s students, the one thing they had in common was their desire to acquire the necessary credentials to meet their career aspirations although many had no idea just what that eventual career might be.

The setting for the orientation was a large meeting room on the second floor of the Student Center. Following the orientation presentation, students would sit across from educational advisers and counselors at long rectangular tables where they would discuss their desired courses and schedule.

As my colleagues entered the room prior to the students, they exchanged glances with one another; some smiled and some rolled their eyes upon hearing the theme song from the 1975 film Mahogany starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Anthony Perkins. I was sure the students would know the lyrics, since Diana Ross’ rendition of the theme song had been more popular and successful than the film, but just in case I had the opening and most pertinent lyrics on a screen at the front of the room:

Do you know where you’re going to?
Do you like the things that life is showing you?
Where are you going to? Do you know?
Do you get what you’re hoping for?
When you look behind you, there’s no open doors.
What are you hoping for?

I chose this song because I wanted to encourage students to think about their future goals and not just the immediate courses they would take during the semester.

Using a cassette tape recorder turned up to the highest volume, I clicked through images on a slide projector to encourage students to think about connecting what courses they were planning to take with what their eventual career might be.

orientation_slides

As antiquated, hokey, and uncool as this effort might have been, I believe that my intention was on target. If students could not yet imagine a career, my goal was to let them know that it was okay to feel confused and that there were specific steps they could take to better understand where they were headed.

After a decade of one-on-one and group counseling and career advising of community college students, I realized that many of our students had no previous help in connecting what they were being taught with how these courses would help them in attaining a career. Many students saw college as one of the hoops to jump through for a better life, after which they needed to figure out what career they wanted.

Although St. Louis Community College at Meramec was better resourced with staff than many community colleges, counselors could not serve all the students who sought career counseling help when they were well into their college career. In addition to offering one-on-one and group career counseling, the Counseling Center created an efficient self-serve career resource center that included one of the first in the nation experiments with computer-assisted career counseling. Even with all these resources committed, there were still long waiting lists for students to see counselors about their career goals.

We know that when students can connect what they’re learning with what they need to know for a possible career, their confidence in their own abilities and their motivation to learn increase. Colleges today with reduced resources and increasingly high demand for career services will need to decentralize the responsibility for the career support process. This decentralization needs to be done broadly and consistently, enlisting a combination of personnel and online tools to help students organize their steps to decision making, preparation, and implementation of plans.

Helping students along their journey to work–life fulfillment is a continuing and ongoing process with better tools and more evidence of the need today than we had in 1979.

Don’t let negativity hijack your focus: It’s all about students

When I was growing up, I was taught never to use the word “HATE.” It was the four-letter word that was taboo in our family. Whenever I would use the word, it was usually about some chore that I didn’t want to do. If my grandmother was within earshot of my profanity, she would say, “Honey, we don’t use that word in this family. Find another word.” Growing up this way makes the word “HATE” especially heinous and destructive to me.

Imagine how I must have felt when, as Dean of Student Development, I was told by four different administrators in the course of one week that a top-level administrator who was my boss’ boss “HATED” me. Naturally, I ruminated about what I had been told. Realizing that running these negative messages over and over in my mind was crippling me emotionally, I had to find a way to get back to what I had been focusing on before I received these messages.

The first thing I did to get out of the rumination rut was to reflect on what may have caused this person to express hatred toward me to other people. Thinking as objectively as possible about my last interactions with the person, I could understand why this person might not be happy with me. I had dared, in a meeting of several administrators, to strenuously disagree about an impending decision regarding student activities funds. Despite the fact that I thought I was in the right position on the matter, upon reflection, I could imagine that this person, by dent of the position held, would be extremely angry with me. For my part, I concluded that there were more effective ways with fewer negative consequences that I should consider when reacting to positions in opposition to my own. Nonetheless, for the administrator to express hatred toward me seemed over the top.

I then considered how I might put this situation in perspective because the backlash of my own behavior had distracted me from my goal of being the most effective administrator I could be. I didn’t think an apology would be accepted, and I couldn’t reveal how I knew that the administrator was angry beyond the pale. I thought my best way forward was to refocus on the expectations and responsibilities of my job.

When I look back at what I accomplished during this period of serious distraction, I might have intuitively known that I needed to shine brightly in bringing value to the college through my efforts to support students. I was realistic enough to know that I might be fired if I did not bring the kind of value that was over and above expectations. Receiving evaluations of “exceeds expectations” in the stated responsibilities of the positions would have been fine for most people, but I knew that I needed to bring more to the table.

I was already working as hard as I could, having accepted the added responsibility of being one of the academic deans in addition to being the Dean of Student Development. Having two entirely different staffs and two separate offices, working hard not to drop the ball in either area of responsibility, was hard and exhilarating. Having responsibility for some of the faculty, as well as the counselors and advisers in Student Development, put me in the best position possible to do what we all wanted in regards to supporting students.

I threw myself into trying the impossible, such as bringing faculty and counseling advisers together for student academic advising. The gods looked upon us with favor when a popular faculty member and an influential counselor coordinated the joint advising effort in a space dedicated for this collaboration. Despite the fact that this effort was fraught for a number of reasons, we were all passionately committed to how the collaboration would benefit all students.

During this same period, I initiated something else that kept me from being distracted by the negative messages I was receiving. I approached the director of the county schools’ program for gifted and talented students to pitch the idea of a Middlestart Program. The county schools’ director and I brought the idea to our respective institutions and the program was embraced by faculty, staff, and administrators from the college and from the county schools. It was not long before 50 junior high school students were taking summer courses taught by our college faculty. In addition to the courses, students were receiving an excellent orientation to college and would hopefully consider our college in the future.

I have reason to believe that anyone who is a member of an academic community, whether on college and university campuses or in association work, may find themselves distracted by negative interpersonal issues that block creativity and enthusiasm for one’s work. Knowing that I was contributing to larger goals in significant ways worked for me. Focusing on initiatives and being exhilarated by the challenge of doing two full-time jobs boosted my confidence and sense of safety despite functioning in an environment that was anything but nurturing. Though my focus might have been hijacked momentarily, remembering that my raison d’etrewas all about students removed all traces of the distractions resulting from messages about my being hated.

Awakening to notions of who one is and what one believes

On Saturday, January 18, I went to “Awaken 2020” at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. Kanye West and his Sunday Service Choir performed for just about an hour of the 12-hour event. To describe what Kanye and the choir did as a performance does not nearly capture the impact they had on the thousands of people in the stadium.

Awaken 2020 in Tempe Arizona

Awaken 2020 in Tempe, Arizona,
from Awaken 2020 Facebook page

What struck me most was how the music of the Sunday Service Choir seemed to have the power to compel thousands of people to lose themselves in a common trance. On the jumbo video screens, we saw close-ups of the faces of individual choir members as the setting sun shone brightly on their uplifted faces; we heard the hypnotic and mesmerizing drum beats in the music that insisted that bodies move in sync; we responded to energetic invitations of the choir director to sing along; we stretched our arms to raise our right hands in unity.

There were other great gospel choirs before I arrived and, throughout the event, various people famous in particular arenas spoke their thoughts about Jesus, God, and the Bible, and gave testimonies of personal experiences of depths and heights.

As a participant observer, I was impressed not only by the power of the music spectacle to invoke ecstatic feelings among people as diverse as the universe, but also by how it caused me to reflect on the critical role a trusted mentor might play in helping one to discern messages.

What if someone were severely criticized by family and friends for attending Awaken 2020 because they did not trust the veracity of Kanye’s conversion? Having experienced such good feelings only to be admonished later by those closest could cause doubts and questions about who and what to believe.

I’m using Awaken 2020 and a possible subsequent experience to point out the benefits of college beyond exposure to facts and critical thinking based on a preordained curriculum. On college and university campuses, mentors are found, more often than not, in student affairs and among the faculty, administrators, and staff. Whether or not they see themselves formally in such a role, these “mentors” offer students of all ages the opportunity to share who they are beyond the traditions and often admonitions of family and long-time friends.

Stepping out beyond one’s inner circle is a way to learn the essential skills for a well-lived life. Being in a community of learners provides opportunities to constantly weigh opinions of others against personal beliefs. The act of daily living among people who are not one’s natural protectors gives students opportunities to self-determine what is important to their own well-being and their image of themselves as citizens in community with others. Whether on campus or online, college provides the context and laboratory to experiment with notions of who one is and what one believes in light of others’ opinions and perceptions.

I understand that a college education is not necessarily for everyone and no longer the defining asset for a financially successful life. But for those who elect and are fortunate enough to attend a college or university, what is learned in dialogue with others or when someone just listens helps one look inside oneself for the personal integrity necessary to glean the rightness of a situation or belief. These “aha” moments can also bring the wonder and awe of a religious experience.

What kinds of challenges will Student Affairs professionals address in the next five years?

It goes without saying that what is occurring in the larger environment will have an impact on the attitudes, beliefs, and motivations students bring to their college life. Regardless of the inevitable challenges to be addressed, I see a positive vision for the work of student affairs remaining committed to promoting learning and development of the whole student.

Change_coverTwo of the pillars on which my optimism is based are the flexibility and adaptability of student affairs in meeting the needs of all students and, upon reflection on years as a student affairs professional, what I have discovered about the nature of perennial challenges to be addressed. In my article for the 50th Anniversary edition of Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, I describe how many of these challenges appear to be predictable and finite in number, falling into the following categories:

  • Demographic change
  • Student activism
  • Resource constraints
  • Government intervention
  • Catastrophic events

When asked why they are so passionate about their work, student affairs professionals generally reflect on the opportunity to change students’ lives. In order to continue in this critical work, it is instructive to heed the lessons of the past in anticipating future challenges facing higher education.

We must realize the importance of external and internal environments and the likely reactions of colleges and universities to these stimuli. Student affairs – with prior awareness of these categories of challenges – has an opportunity to proactively and  innovatively create ways to blunt possible negative impacts and use the challenges as vehicles to address needed change or transformation.



Following are excerpts from an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis Group in 
Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning in 2018, available online: http://www.tandfonline.com/10.1080/00091383.2018.1509600.

Students and Student Affairs: Facing Perennial Challenges in Ever-changing Contexts

In reflecting on student affairs as an organizational entity within higher education, I am keenly aware of the impact of the environmental context on the strategic directions and responsibilities of professionals who do student affairs work. In this essay, I offer observations on how the environment has, over time, had an impact on the tenor and content of the work of student affairs.

A significant strength of student affairs has been its ability to adjust education and support strategies as students and the context in which they are learning change. Professional development and the diversity of backgrounds, skills, and routes into student affairs enable student affairs professionals to be flexible and adaptable in effective ways.

While those of us in student affairs and higher education often speak about “change” and “transformation,” we typically pivot and adjust when nudged. In fact, many of the challenges that bring about shifts and adjustments appear to be predictable and relatively few in number:

  • Demographic change is a constant;
  • Student activism ebbs and flows;
  • Resource constraints arise at unpredictable intervals;
  • Government intervention in higher education is as predictable as clockwork; and
  • Catastrophic events and crises demand concerted reactions.

The best hope for student affairs is that in responding to this perennial set of challenges we are innovative and generative in building on strengths. We must preserve best practices, learn about new perspectives, and create ways to more effectively and efficiently meet the needs of all students, all while promoting the overall mission of our particular institution.

Defining Student Affairs: Student Affairs through the Decades…

The Sixties and Seventies – Demographic Change and Student Activism

…As a result of the important roles student affairs played during the height of student activism and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as in the implementation of new government guidelines for student equity, student affairs could no longer be narrowly defined. Instead, student affairs administrators began to be seen as campus leaders who had their finger on the pulse of what students needed. They were indispensable to helping institutions address students’ demands and remain committed to the ideals of higher education and institutional mission. …

Another significant and unanticipated change was how student affairs professionals viewed their roles. …They emphasized the congruence between what was occurring in their programmatic interventions and theories on human development. These professionals claimed their roles as specialists who supported both academic success and personal development of students. …

The 1980s – Resource Constraints

Near the end of two turbulent decades marked by demographic change and student activism, the nation’s attention turned toward constraints on resources in the midst of a recession in the early 1980s. Additionally, fewer high school graduates threatened a decrease in college and university enrollment and, consequently, a reduction in revenues.

… some administrators were concerned that critical functions of student affairs might be in jeopardy if those making decisions about restructuring or eliminating programs did not understand how student affairs contributed to the mission of the institution.

In response, a group of leaders in what was then the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) reexamined the 1937 Student Personnel Point of View. Fifty years after publication of this original philosophical statement that underpins the profession, this group of leaders reaffirmed in A Perspective on Student Affairs (1987) that the academic mission of the institution was preeminent, and the role of student affairs was to support this mission, as well as to address the affective and cognitive growth of students.

The 1990s – Student Affairs Educators and Expanding Diversity

With continuing changes in the demographics of students, the overarching goal of many colleges and universities during the 1990s was to reduce the achievement gap between newer populations of students and those who had traditionally had access to higher education.

Diversity – defined broadly to include LGBT students – was a priority for a critical mass of students in the 1990s.  Marginalized students advocated for their own spaces on campus, often housed in the student union or student center under the umbrella of student affairs. Student affairs and faculty worked closely together to facilitate intercultural dialogues. …

Approaching the Millennium – Constraints, Catastrophes, Crises

… the late 1990s were lean years for higher education. Resources were once again constrained. Following previous patterns, higher education took its cues from business: re-engineering, re-structuring, re-forming, and re-imagining organizational structures.…

During the last decade of the twentieth century and through the millennium, student affairs and higher education were influenced by national events that either threatened to be catastrophic (e.g., the Y2K scare) or were catastrophic. Campus communities felt the impact of the unthinkable tragedy that disrupted the entire nation on September 11, 2001 and shared in the nation’s collective grief. …

Adding to the anxiety students felt about the outside world, a mass shooting by a student at Virginia Tech in 2007 disrupted the apparent safety and security of colleges and universities. When this was followed shortly by another attack at Northern Illinois University, campus safety and security aspects of student affairs became more prominent. The challenge of creating preventive measures to keep students safe from attacks was more than a nudge.

The Twenty-first Century – The Old is New Again

…Calls for accountability required higher education to show evidence of effectiveness through data instead of anecdotes. Although assessment plans were being developed, it was difficult for student affairs to measure the effectiveness of interventions beyond head count and student reports of satisfaction…

While student affairs divisions were adjusting to new demands and needs of students in an atmosphere of external calls for accountability, …I convened a group of higher education graduate faculty, student affairs administrators and practitioners from both generalist student affairs associations, NASPA and ACPA, [which resulted in] the publication of Learning Reconsidered: A College-wide Focus on the Student Experience (2004). …

Student affairs professionals’ enthusiasm for the concepts and suggestions in Learning Reconsidered could not mask the reality of the 2008 recession. Student affairs made adjustments and shifts in order to accommodate new demands and resource constraints.  During this period student affairs professionals demonstrated their selflessness and commitment to students and their institutions. They shared ideas about how to use innovative approaches to do more with less, guided by the precepts of Learning Reconsidered.

Future Visions of Student Affairs

In the future, student affairs will be defined largely by advances in technology and by students themselves. …

Student demographics, especially the increasing age of college students, will have significant influence on how student affairs will provide educational support programs….

The second half of the twentieth century demonstrated how student activism ebbed and flowed. … Student affairs will continue to play a critical role in helping students acquire the tools and skills necessary to sustain the movement they have begun.

Conclusion

With institutional mission as a foundation, and educating the whole student as a basic principle, student affairs has had a key role in addressing the perennial challenges facing higher education. However, anticipating the same challenges is like looking to the past to predict the future. A strength of student affairs is learning about new perspectives. Dropping assumptions about students based on status such as the first in their family to attend college; what groups have been marginalized and privileged in the past; and the belief that education is the equalizer will enhance the ability of student affairs to be innovative and generative in building on strengths.

Finding new ways to integrate co-curricular experiences into academic course work will be the way to educate the whole student whose focus is on life after college. Listening intently and continuously to students and helping them find a way to help create the learning environment that is most congruent with their needs will help student affairs address perennial challenges and create opportunities to more effectively meet students where they are in order to help them reach their potential.