Category Archives: Higher Education

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.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: We’re All in the Same Business

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. Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing some of the wisdom gleaned from David’s experience in student affairs across these varied institutions.

“And, by the way, guys, you do student affairs, too, you know.”

A good faculty member is an aid to retention and to recruitment because other people hear about them. But anyone on campus—whether working there, studying there, or just visiting—can be an aid to recruitment and retention as well.

Some parents come to campus trying to decide whether they want their children to go there or not. They don’t arrive on campus and ask, “Where is the Dean of Students Office?” or “Where is the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs?”

They’re walking along; they see a grounds person planting something. They talk to them briefly, notice if they seem proud of their work. The parents walk on, there’s a campus police officer, they talk to the officer. They meet a professor, students. Everywhere they go, they’re imbibing a message about the campus.

So, what you want to do is get the same message across to everyone: “We really are all in the same business and we all sink or float by doing it well.”

I spent an awful, awful lot of time on my job networking, and I would say to anyone who wants to move up in the field of Student Affairs, you need to realize that everybody in your college or university is ultimately in the same business, and you can find a way to communicate that to them. You need to make connections.

A Pie in the Face

Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too.

Other times, you get a pie in the face when you think that you can tell your boss and colleagues that you’re ready to seek other employment.

Things start to happen…sort of like eating pie outside at a picnic table. Like a fly buzzing your pie, you fan away the rumors you hear about why you’re really looking for another job.

Then there are a few more flies, but you think you can still swat them away because your boss has just given you an evaluation so flattering about your accomplishments that you’re embarrassed.

Because of the increasing number of flies, you cover your pie carefully and put it in a safe place.

You tell your boss that you are a finalist in your search for a new position. You are asked to withdraw your application and stay one more year because you are needed. Your boss – who said that they would help in your search – tells you that the higher-ups are questioning your commitment to the institution.

You forget about the pie completely.

You make an appointment with the higher-ups. When you enter the office to attest to your commitment – WHAM! The pie you forgot about smacks you right in the face.

87

To Be Young, Gifted, and Black

As I attended to the beautiful voices and faces of four Black Student Government presidents representing The Ohio State University, University of Minnesota, Harvard University, Purdue University, and MIT, the song, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, came to mind.

The young leaders who were presenters on the Chronicle of Higher Education webinar, “Race, Class and Student Voices,” are the embodiment and manifestation of the second line in the song: “Oh what a lovely precious dream.”

In 1970, when we first heard Nina Simone sing this song, we, as young people, already knew that we were the realization of the dream of so many who had come before us. Now, our dream was to live during a time when the reality of that dream would be recognized as ordinary for all Black people and not extraordinary for a precious few. 

Thinking of ourselves and our children as gifted and Black made us proud and unapologetic about all the ways that our Blackness set us apart. We used the power of the words “gifted and Black” to destroy the stereotypes of our intellectual inferiority, to push back against behavior that demeaned us, and to lift up the truth of our value. Hearing the finality and emphasis Miss Simone put on the word “Black” in the refrain of the song was our inoculation against the disease of racism and all its side effects.

Accepting that we were the agents of our future, we put our faith in ourselves. It was the kind of faith that propelled us to expand our imagination to include our own success as well as the happiness and success of our gifted Black children for generations to come. Hearing Miss Simone sing this song assured us that we had potential as individuals and, as a collective, we would internalize our right to be free and liberated because we were “young, gifted, and Black.”

The increase in the numbers of Black Student Government leaders throughout higher education is a continuation of the reality of that precious dream.

Affirming Educational Opportunity

In 1965, I—a descendant of enslaved persons—was the first in my family to graduate from college with a four-year degree. One can see this as a significant advancement over the course of several generations and/or see with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why [after 100 years] We Can’t Wait” to be able to exercise our full rights and take advantage of the opportunities afforded in this “land of plenty.”

It was around the time that I graduated from a state university that the policy of Affirmative Action began to gain traction in regard to hiring in federal jobs and awarding federal contracts to minority-owned businesses. Following the federal government’s lead in mandating hiring without regard to race, colleges and universities began the practice of acting affirmatively to increase the number of Black students admitted. This proactive behavior on the part of higher education, particularly among elite colleges and universities, began trending in the late 1960s.

The backlash against Affirmative Action in college admissions was swift and endures today. After 30 years of a national controversy, the California Board of Regents voted in 1995 to no longer consider race and gender in hiring and admissions decisions. This decision was the impetus for opponents of Affirmative Action in college admissions to increase the pressure to abolish the practice across the country.

In the meantime, Black students and professors were singled out as part of the problem and became victims of White backlash. For those who have not walked in these shoes down this same path, Ron Susskind gives a stunning biographical portrait of what student life was like for some “Affirmative Action” students. He records the following conversation overheard by Cedric, a Black student on one of his first days at an Ivy League university:

Cedric, settling at a table inside [the café], orders a ginger ale and trains his ears to a table immediately to his right. Two professors, both white, are leaning in…. ‘Are we doing a service to young people to boost them above their academic level and then not offer the services they need? Asks the squat one with flying gray hair. ‘Because who really can? Who can offer that sort of enrichment? You can hardly blame the university. It would take years, and money, and a whole different educational track to bring some affirmative action students to a level where they could compete. There’s no choice but laissez-faire, sink or swim. They should be going to middle-rung universities. There’s no right, as far as I can see, to go to an Ivy League institution. If they work hard, their kids can come here. Hell, it’s what everyone else had to do.’…

It’s all Cedric can do not to respond…. He imagines telling them about his long journey, that his struggle has built in him a kind of strength—a conviction about his ability to overcome obstacles—that other kids don’t have.  But of course, that strength is hard to measure, and lately he’s become uncertain if it will be enough to get him where he needs to be….

The professors, meanwhile, have moved on to the companion controversy about hiring minority faculty members. ‘It’s a mockery,’ said the other professor, a tall distinguished-looking guy, spits, ticking off the names of a few minority professors around campus. ‘A lot of them are good teachers, sure.  But they’re unpublished, not respected, not scholars. What do they bring? Their passion, oh-so personal ‘perspective.’ Nothing special about that. Jesus, everyone’s got one of those.’…

Throughout the day, the overheard conversations at lunch echo in Cedric’s head. More than specifics, he recalls the intensity of the dialogues. At this point, affirmative action is the last thing he wants to hear or think about…. So, he got in. If he fails, he fails; if he makes it, he makes it. Why does everyone have to draw conclusions about an entire race from that, or take sides. He wanted a chance, he got one (A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League, 191-193).

Unlike our ancestors who were given a hoe and forced to chop cotton, Cedric, myself, and many other Black students and Black professors were given a ladder of opportunity through higher education. The ladder, however, was covered with grease. It was slippery, and we were on the bottom rung.

Affirmative Action, to some extent and in some places, replaced the slippery ladder with real steps upon which new-to-college Black students could begin, but there were no handrails, and the steps were narrow and winding. There was no recognition and subsequent adjustment for the fact that preparation for college was often inadequate and the psychological toll of being “the only one” was more than just distracting. This combination of obstacles knocked many aspiring Black students off the steps.

Now, after 50 years of Affirmative Action being a “thing,” it is still being challenged with the subtext that indigenous and other disenfranchised students are not deserving, don’t belong, and are receiving an unfair advantage. The upside is that during these many years, some colleges and universities have realized that students who are the first in their family to attend college need not only steps but steps with handrails for support.

Progress is slow. One step forward and two steps backward is the norm. Hopefully, it will not take another 100 years for descendants of Black enslaved persons to realize true equal opportunity, full civil rights, and nondiscrimination in admissions to colleges and universities.

The Prime Need of the Hour

Mary McLeod Bethune

In promoting the importance of education, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)—educator, activist, African American hero, and founder of Bethune-Cookman University, among many other notable accomplishments—said, “Knowledge is the prime need of the hour.”

Whether in the 19th, 20th, or 21st century, knowledge continues to be the prime need of the hour. Considering the dark hours we have seen recently, it is particularly alarming to read that “Degree-seeking enrollments in U.S. higher education have been down for 10 consecutive years” (Brandon Busteed, “21 stats for 2021 That All Higher Ed Leaders Should Know,” Forbes, Jan 4, 2021).

Notwithstanding this ominous trend, and despite the criticism about how both K-12 and higher education are failing Black students, “almost half of Black high school students reported that they were ‘very sure’ they’d go to college to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Among students in the lowest income quintile, Black high school students were the most likely to express that certainty” (Sara Weissman, “ACE Supplementary Report Paints a “Stark Picture” of Higher Education’s Racial Inequities,” Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Nov 19, 2020).

Reading about Black students who, against all odds, have a desire for pursuing higher education should be the impetus for a shift in the dominant way of thinking about low-income Black students. If a student wants to learn and makes it to a campus, it must be the duty of higher education to create the conditions for the student to achieve. Of course, we must not ignore the barriers students encounter along the way, but we can, perhaps, take a moment to be encouraged and take a break from obsessing about statistics that focus only on achievement gaps and noncompletion rates of low-income Black students.  

U.S. Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona

U.S. Education Secretary Nominee Miguel Cardona echoed these thoughts in his nomination acceptance speech, saying, “For far too long, we’ve let college become inaccessible to too many Americans for reasons that have nothing to do with their aptitude or their aspirations and everything to do with cost burdens, and, unfortunately, an internalized culture of low expectations.”

Abandoning perpetual psychological pessimism and encouraging hope at this hour are dimensions of a new reality for Black students and higher education.