John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

A Day with Student Affairs Leaders

February 13, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

Recently I spent a day with about 40 senior student affairs officers of the great City University of New York system. It was a great day for me, surely more so for me than for them. I was reminded of all I don’t know about students and how much professors like me need to spend time with our student affairs colleagues.

The day also recalled for me the beginnings of my own journey of transformation as a faculty member. That began in 1972 when my President at the University of South Carolina invited me and 16 other faculty members to spend 45 hours over three weeks in workshop sessions with 8 student affairs officers. We had come together to design the University 101 course and to transform the beginning university experience: to do that we had to transform ourselves.

Prior to this workshop (when I was 28 years old and had been teaching in the academy for almost 6 years) I had never worked with student affairs professionals. I didn’t know who they were, what they did, how they became a member of their profession. I had gone to a small liberal arts college in the 60’s and that genre didn’t have student affairs professionals then. Thank goodness it does now (and I am in touch with those folks now at my alma mater).

So 40 years later, déjà vu, I got to spend a day with a group of contemporary student affairs officers. Unlike my original period of introduction to them, they aren’t under the radar any longer. They have been discovered and found to be incredibly important to our overall goals of increasing student success. But in that respect, they have also become victims of their own success. Now that they have been discovered many academics like me no longer understand or support the rationale of having student affairs professionals bureaucratically separated from academic affairs folks. Hence all over the country I am seeing these distinctions blur, become ambiguous and realigned, and I welcome this overdo direction because it bodes well for greater concentration on support for the preeminent institutional mission: academic success.

As I listened to these professionals who live and work in one of the most dynamic, high pressure, diverse, adversarial, confrontational cultures in the world, I marveled at how deeply and respectfully they understand their students and advocate for them. I listened to them talking about student conditions involving: courage, shame, struggles, homelessness, hunger, violence, ambition, hopes, dreams, fears, accomplishments and frustrations. I don’t know when I had mentally run such a gamut in such a short period of time. I couldn’t help but think that far more faculty needed to be in that room and in rooms like it. It is not that we don’t know our students. We do. And many of us do engage their lives outside the classrooms. But the academic world has changed. Now the distinction between learning inside and outside the classroom has been reduced to very little difference. We can only arbitrarily separate the two, and to promote student success we must not.

I offered these professional champions for student needs a number of strategies to enhance student affairs/academic affairs collaborations. I believe they are needed more than ever. This is because the overall goal of the student success movement, social justice, is more challenged than ever by the stratification system in America which produces greater and greater inequality rather than equality. What this means is that student success has become harder and harder to achieve. We have to achieve this together.

I hope more of my faculty colleagues will be able to spend time, even a limited amount, in rooms like I found myself in, just listening for insights and inspiration, as our student affairs colleagues talk with us about the students’ worlds as they see this in 2012.

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