Category Archives: Leadership

All My Sisters and Me

In March 1992, my Black sisters and I were in San Antonio attending the annual conference of a professional women’s organization. Historically, the organization’s membership had been virtually all White, except for a couple of notable Black women who were the best in their field. By 1992, our coterie of Black sisters had increased to a small minority with some status.

During a free afternoon, five of my sisters and I decided to shop for pottery and jewelry while enjoying the sights along the River Walk. 

Not too far from the hotel, we encountered an Asian American colleague who was usually in solidarity with us because the same issues and concerns Black members raised also plagued other nonmajority members. The number of Asian American and Pacific Islander women in this organization could be counted on one hand.

My sisters and I greeted our colleague warmly and we embraced all around. A fellow member of the program committee, I asked if she knew what time the meeting was that evening. Expressing dismay that I didn’t get the notice, she let me know it was to be at 7:30 p.m. After more hugs, she moved on. 

Now knowing the time of the committee meeting, I suggested to my sisters that we get something to eat while we were out during the afternoon so I could eat with them.

We continued to meander down the River Walk, stopping to look in shops along the way. In one of the shops, “Diva” expresses great admiration and interest in a lovely bracelet. I encouraged her to buy it, going so far as to ask the clerk if he would give her a discount because she really liked the bracelet. He agreed to give the discount and she bought the bracelet. I felt happy for her, and I’m sure I beamed with satisfaction.

As we continued our shopping, it seemed that Diva was determined that I also buy something, no matter what it was. Eventually, I became annoyed. My motive in encouraging her to buy came from a good place. I did not feel that her motive was the same.   

Sometime after I had suggested that we eat while we were out, a couple of my sisters began making comments such as, “Gwen is hungry, so we better get something to eat.” I was accustomed to the teasing, so their comments didn’t bother me.

We chose a Thai restaurant. During the latter part of what was an amiable dinner, Diva, who was new in the organization, apparently feeling comfortable with us, said that she felt unwelcome when she first joined, feeling that the organization was “cliquish.”

“Elegant “responded in a friendly tone, “I was friendly with you.” I followed up her comment with, “I also befriended you. Do you remember that I invited you to lunch?”

Diva responded in a less than friendly tone, “Yeah, but that was business.”

Taken aback, I mused, “I thought I was being friendly; how did you get the idea that it was business?”

Two of my sisters said nothing and just stared as “Admiral” and Elegant tried to convince Diva that things were not as she perceived them. When I sensed that Diva felt strongly about her initial feelings and seemed to want to be able to express them and be heard, I wanted us to empathize with her and give her experience the respect it deserved.

Sage that I must have thought I was, I said, “You know, Diva, you really might have felt a chilliness toward you because it’s not uncommon for people as strikingly attractive as you are to cause some people, perhaps unconsciously, to wait and see before they extend a welcome and acceptance.”

Diva’s lips turned down and her eyes seemed to float out of their sockets as she responded, “Yes! I’ve experienced this before, and I think people who put themselves up as important and as ‘sisters’ are just hypocrites because they usually do this kind of thing.”

I had apparently touched a nerve. I tried to close this box of snakes that I had opened, saying, “People are human, and this can be a natural and unconscious reaction….,” but Admiral cut me off, declaring, “This is not true in this group. Maybe when males are in the group, the competition is there but not in this group of women professionals.”

The mood definitely changed, and I could smell the stink of anger in the air. 

When we are outside the restaurant, Admiral got in my face, saying, “Gwen, I can’t believe you said that!” “How can you think that?” I’m a part of this organization and I know this is not true.”

I felt apologetic and tried to explain that I was just trying to make Diva feel better. Admiral cut her eyes away from me and walked ahead with Elegant. From their postures and movements, I gathered that they were talking about me and rejecting me for my comment.

In the meantime, Diva fell in step with me, saying, “I believe what you said, and I want to talk with you further about this.” Not wanting to keep this line of conversation going, I escaped from Diva and began walking in step with the silent sisters. Diva kept talking with anyone who came near her. My other four sisters got very interested in the pottery we passed along the way, ignoring what Diva was saying.

I deliberately walked next to Admiral and said, “I know you want to kill me for making that comment, but when you think about human behavior, what I said could be a possible motive for the chilliness that Diva felt. Jealousy and envy are real.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” responded Admiral, “but you have so much going for you—you have this nice little shape, shapely legs…. You don’t have any reason to feel as you do.”

“I’m not feeling that way!” I protested. “I’m speaking generally!”

Admiral ignored my comment and told me that I wouldn’t be late for my meeting because we’re only a couple of blocks away. I had no idea how to get back, and told her so, but she only said, “It’s easy,” and turned away. 

No one said goodbye to me. With a sigh of exasperation, I began my search for the right direction to return to the hotel for the 7:30 p.m. program committee meeting.

After September 11, 2001

After September 11, 2001, everyone had a story about where they were, the efforts they made to get home, and what they did to connect with loved ones upon hearing the devastating news about the attacks made on American soil by foreign terrorists. The senseless tragedy was almost beyond comprehension.

After September 11, 2001, I witnessed a NASPA staff that was shaken but not defeated. Although there were a multitude of anxieties, such as fear of being in Washington, DC, doing work on Capitol Hill, taking the Metro to and from work, flying on behalf of NASPA, and even opening mail because of anthrax, staff members adapted and redoubled their efforts in support of student affairs professionals who were needed more than ever on their campuses.

After September 11, 2001, student affairs professionals served as navigators and provided safe harbors for all members of their campus communities. Using their skills of empathy, understanding, and knowledge of crisis intervention, they were the first responders for students, faculty, and staff. They did what they were trained to do and shared strategies with colleagues across the nation on how best to respond to these unprecedented times, and the increased needs of the student and campus community amidst fear, uncertainty, and a range of reactions, including the bizarre and self-destructive.

After September 11, 2001, NASPA leaders looked beyond the tragedies of the day and sought ways, where possible, to reduce risk on campuses and, unfortunately, to prepare for the aftermath of future senseless tragedies.

After September 11, 2001, what did NOT—and never should—go unnoticed is the commitment of student affairs professionals to working with campus communities to create a climate that promotes learning and a sense of security and belonging in the face of adversity.  

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: 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.

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.

Amazing Grace

Patricia Telles-Irving

Dr. Patricia Telles-Irvin assumed her position as vice president for student affairs at Northwestern University in 2011—the same year that she began her term as president of the NASPA Board of Directors. As executive director of NASPA, I was aware of the difficult decisions that she had to make and the many responsibilities that she carried ever-so-thoughtfully and gracefully in both of her leadership positions.

When I think of the year that I spent close to her as a colleague, friend, and confidant, I realize even more in retrospect that she was the epitome of love, kindness, and compassion. She was amazing grace, a gift to the world. I am privileged and honored to have known her and to call her friend.

RIP PTI 2019