Category Archives: initiative

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: Making Alliances to Enhance Services

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 fourth 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.

There was a concern on our campus with the time it took students to register. We were just going into online registration but as helpful as it was in speeding the process up, it didn’t solve everything. When people have problems, they want to talk to people, not a machine interface.

I made an alliance with the manager of the business office, Becka P., and the associate VP for facilities and planning, Carl C., both great people. “Look,”  I said, “The President’s on our butts about the length of time people stand in line on registration days. We have to do something about it. Now.”  Every registration day, I was out in the halls outside the registrar’s and financial aid offices. When the lines started backing up, which they always eventually did, I would go inside and ask the supervisor, “Who do you have who’s not working a window? Get them up there so students don’t have to wait.”

My goal was no wait longer than ten minutes. We didn’t always make it but everyone knew I’d be a pain in the neck if they hadn’t tried. I mean, students are in high stress at that time. We’ve all been there. We know what it’s like, so why wish it on the students who are our responsibility?

But there was resistance to changing things. The offices and staffs worked in silos –one for registration, another for financial aid, a third to pay or receive money. And the offices reported to different supervisors in different supervisory lines. So if we wanted to change things, we had a lot of persuading and to do because people tend to fear what’s new. Carl, the buildings man, and Becka, the business office one, and I talked through a plan to coordinate offices, at least as far as front-end services went.  Then we did a dog-and-pony show—actually, I did most of the talking in it—with selected audiences on campus, showing what we hoped to achieve.

First off was the President’s Executive Council. Second was to the Admissions and Records, Financial Aid and Business Office people. Third was a general presentation to the campus, aimed primarily at faculty and staff in other offices.  One of our concerns was staff burn-out. Front desk jobs are high stress jobs and the people who did them had limited opportunities to move up or over to new jobs when they grew tired of what they were doing. So, we worked out a plan where all of the people in admissions and records and financial aid were cross-trained. Then we redesigned the whole area so there was much more front area and many more windows to go to.

At the same time, we enhanced the computer backup. And then what we did was, during peak periods, almost all of the workers in those offices worked in front for half of the day and then in the back for the other half. That meant the people in those offices now had two career paths open to them instead of one: they could move out of admissions and records to financial aid and back again, even over to the business office. It also meant that students were dealing with people who weren’t burnt out by a week or two of eight hours a day straight answering the same questions and dealing with the same issues. 

But by the time we got around to actually implementing these changes, we had gone through three rounds of explaining what we wanted to do to different groups of people and levels of staff to convince them it was the right thing to do. And we listened to them and incorporated their ideas in the final design. It was worth the effort.

That’s what you do as a senior student affairs officer. I never thought I‘d be a salesman but that’s what I was for that project. Because good sales is informing, explaining, listening. We’re in the persuasion  business. We have to communicate a vision to the people who work for us so they in turn can communicate it to the people it affects. We definitely have to communicate to our peers as senior administrators because in the end, when the pot gets divided up, they’re the ones who vote on it.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Recognizing Your Best Human Assets

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 third 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.

At Stan State, we had a fairly small dorm complex. It started after I got there. When I first got there, all we had was a rundown motel across the street from the campus, and it was a hellhole hotel. Slowly, it had to be slowly because residence halls are self-financed, we built dorms and by the time I left, in 2001, we had started construction on a third set of suites. By then, we were housing, feeding and tending to the needs of between 600 and 750 students there. (I don’t remember the exact number any more.) That’s not a huge number but for those 600+, the campus was their community.

A lot of them spoke Spanish. Their parents were Chicana, mostly from Mexico. Many had parents who had worked in the fields. Many were the first in their families to go to college. That was an experience I’d shared myself long before them and I remember how disorienting it was at first.  The transition to university living isn’t automatic for anyone and especially not for first generation college goers from a “minority” culture. (God, I hate that word “minority”!)  

It was up to us to make them see our campus as their village and everybody on campus as their neighbors. I know that sounds glorified, idealistic, but it isn’t. You need to start with that mindset and work toward it in every interaction you have with these new, strong but still fragile, young people of hope.

Our best asset in the dorms was a Chicana cleaner. We made a point of honoring her for that, letting her know how much we valued her input. She worked hard but she always found time to listen to them—especially the female students—and if they wanted help or advice, she gave it. If not, still her sympathy. And from the female students, we learned about the male students, and so on. She was a great help.

On the recruitment side, one of our biggest assets was the building and grounds crew. They were always out and about campus and morale was high among them. And if a worker was friendly when a visitor or a student came up to ask a question, instead of acting like, you know, I’m a union person and I don’t have to do anything outside my contract, it painted a whole different picture of the campus. I spent time with them, regularly and often. Nothing formal. I just stopped and talked with them, listened a lot.

I walked the campus every day on every campus I was ever on. Now, remember, they were human-sized campuses so I could do that. But I walked. I talked to everybody I met. Well, I didn’t talk to everybody I met, but I talked pretty openly, and people gradually forgot I was a Suit.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Getting Out and Talking Face-to-Face

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 second 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 walked around a lot. I mean a lot, like daily. Unless I was off campus on business or forced into meetings I couldn’t escape all day long, I walked at least a part of my campus every day. And I walked it to talk to people and to be seen walking around.

Now remember, the campuses I worked on were all small to middle-sized. I liked that. I like campuses I can put my arms around.

When students arrive on campus for the first time, you should have people there to help them—show them how to get from one office or building to another, help them move into the dorms, just be there to smile at them.

You’ve got to have places where you can step outside your official role just be another person to them, find ways to rub shoulders with no formal purpose or intent. Students have the same comfort issues all of us have. You’ve got to find a way to get through the nonacquaintance barrier, and the best way to do that is through informal—not always planned and rationed—contact. Be around students. Listen. Be a person, not a Suit.

I was a fairly benevolent boss, but I was hell-on-wheels on my people getting out and making contact. You don’t have to sit on a phone; you don’t have to use your computer —TALK.

Find out where the students, faculty, other staff hang out and go there. (For me, it was a morning coffee run to the campus coffee shop.) People relate best face-to-face.

If Only She Had Someone To Talk To…

Work and paperwork brought home from the office meant she didn’t get to bed until around midnight most nights. Reeling from exhaustion, she would fall into bed only to have her sleep disturbed by strange dreams. There were only a handful of days in a month that she didn’t wake up with a headache, nausea, backache, and/or stomach pain. Yet, she pushed through the sick feelings to do what was expected at home and at work. During an entire year, she missed only one day of work because of sickness, and she used this as an “opportunity” to catch up on paperwork. If only she had someone to talk to.

She drove herself to do more than required on her job and in her volunteer work. She was like a robot doing what she was programmed to do. But she was not a robot, and her body kept telling her that. If only she had someone to talk to.

Why the struggle? She was a mid-level administrator. From her perspective, being mid-level in the hierarchy of administrators explained the purgatory in which she lived. If only she had someone to talk to.

Though she could see the positive results of her efforts, she was denied a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction because, before the good feelings could register, someone would do or say something that would cause her to push back in anger or retreat into a lonely shell of self-doubt. If only she had someone to talk to.

She could not understand why people resisted doing their jobs. Her attention to this would bring on accusations that she was micromanaging, and that she was managing rather than leading. If only she had someone to talk to.

Whatever staff needed for resources, she fought to get. If they had ideas about how to improve support to students, she was all in. She encouraged innovations and saw more than a few of them become successful. No one could give more to the job than she did. If only she had someone to talk to.

When particularly antagonistic staff began to misquote her and tell her that she had said things that she had not said or—even more mystifying—that they, themselves, had said, she felt incensed. If only she had someone to talk to.

When her mind seemed to be becoming a mess of tangled ends, she began to ruminate on the Joseph Heller quote from Catch 22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” She thought, if only I had someone to talk to, someone who could see in me what I can’t see for myself.

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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.

Jordan Dungy

by Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy

Jordan

The last time I was in Chicago in the Willis Tower (previously the Sears Tower), there were murals on the wall of famous people affiliated with Chicago. The information attached to Michael Jordan’s likeness declared that MJ was the greatest basketball player of all time. When Jordan was in his heyday, Magic Johnson was quoted as saying, “There is Michael Jordan and then there’s the rest of us.” Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics said MJ was “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

Michael Jordan

Dungy

Coach Tony Dungy is famous for his record as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and later of the Indianapolis Colts. He pulled the Buccaneers from a history of defeat to being poised to win the Super Bowl. In 2007, Dungy became the first (of still only two) African American head coach to win the Super Bowl when the Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears. It is said that Dungy is the winningest coach in franchise history.

Tony Dungy

These men—Jordan and Dungy—left indelible legacies in the world of sports and beyond. Through their astonishing achievements, they have become role models for countless people all over the world. When we think of them as role models, we may tend to think that they have achieved because of a clarity of purpose that allowed them to sacrifice all else to attain greatness in their respective endeavors.

However, no number of interviews or biographies will reveal the mystery and miracle of their uncommon competitiveness. Perhaps it is as simple and as complex as the actor Charlie Sheen was famous for saying in 2011—“WINNING.”

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.”